Home schooling for child athletes raises questions large and small


From left to right, Hannah Joyner, 10, Annie Gruner, 8, Brooke Johnson, 11, Maggie Musselman, 11, Noelle Decesare, 12, Katie Ours, 9, Macey Baldwin, 10, and Hannah Munelly, 10 photographed at Win Win Gymnastics in Odenton, Md., August 5. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)
Lenny Bernstein
Blogger August 9, 2011

When the bell rings on the first day of school at Oak Hill Elementary in Severna Park, 9-year-old Katie Ours will already be here, in a large warehouse that has been converted to a modern gymnastics facility in nearby Odenton.

As her former classmates settle behind their desks Aug. 23, bubbling with the excitement and anxiety of a new school year, the tiny fourth-grader will be stretching and bending, leaping and flipping — a top student embarking on a very different kind of educational journey.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports. View Archive

Along with seven other girls about the same age, youngsters who more or less have become her extended family, Katie will be here at Win-Win Gymnastics until 2:30 p.m. every day, five days a week, pursuing her dream of athletic glory. Then she and the others will go to school, at their homes.

These eight families have decided to pull their children from public school systems this fall and home-school them to give the talented young gymnasts intensive coaching and streamlined lives stretched and twisted by the demands of gymnastics at the near-elite level.

“There is no rule book with parenting, and I just weighed the choices,” says Katie’s mother, Arlene Ours. “I don’t want the woulda, coulda, shouldas. ‘Mom, I could’ve done that. I could’ve been great.’ ”


From left, Brooke Johnson, 11, Maggie Musselman, 11, Hannah Munelly, 10, Hannah Joyner, 10, Annie Gruner, 8, Katie Ours, 9, Noelle Decesare, 12, and Macey Baldwin, 10, at Win-Win Gymnastics in Odenton. The girls are home-schooled so they can devote time to gymnastics (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The road to athletic fame and fortune is littered with the wrecks of children who swerve into the fast lane too young, only to blow an engine so spectacularly that we cannot look away from the carnage. Some are, sadly, household names: Jennifer Capriati in tennis. Todd Marinovich in football.

This is not a column about kids like them. First, I would not presume to judge another parent’s child-rearing decisions after a few short conversations. I will leave that to you and the experts, who have long debated the pros and cons of home schooling, overspecialization and hothousing for youngsters.

“The preponderance of the available evidence clearly indicates that home schoolers do at least as well as their publicly educated peers on standard academic measures,” says Mitchell Stevens, a Stanford University education professor and expert on home schooling.

Second, this seemingly radical move actually will make these children’s lives easier in some ways, and certainly will benefit their parents and siblings. Currently, the girls go to school all day and then hit the gym from 4 or 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Monday to Thursday, as well as one day each weekend. Then they go home to eat, study and get some sleep. That kind of schedule requires the children and their families to bend like Nastia Liukin. There are no weeknight dinners with Mom, Pop, brother and sister. One mother drives her daughter 90 minutes each way to the gym. Some of the girls do their homework in the car.

“She’s always missing something. She’s missing birthday parties. She’s missing play dates,” says Ours, whose daughter has won a national competition on the uneven parallel bars at her skill level. “It’s always for the same excuse. She has a practice. She has a meet.”

Under the new system, the girls will spend about 30 hours a week in the gym, from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. Then they will go home and, in effect, be tutored by their mothers, one on one. With few other children sharing the gym, they will receive the kind of time and attention from coaches that will allow them to determine how far they might go in gymnastics. And without classmates, these driven children will finish their lessons in a few hours, their parents believe.

I’d never heard of such an arrangement before a friend told me about it — didn’t even know it was legal. But according to Leslie King, vice president of communications at USA Gymnastics, schools across the United States offer a variety of programs to athletes who show promise that might one day win them a college scholarship or more.

Some set up flexible school days. Others allow kids who must miss school for meets and practices to take work with them. Other sports that demand a start at an early age, such as tennis, have set up academies where kids live, train and go to school full time. In recent years, home schooling has emerged as an increasingly attractive option.

Of course, depending on the child’s goal, the odds are awfully daunting. There are 4 million to 5 million kids taking gymnastics classes in the United States and perhaps 90,000 to 100,000 on the Junior Olympic track like the girls at Win-Win, King says. Eighty percent are girls. The U.S. national team has only 21 women, and just five will represent the nation at the London Olympics next year.

Rules vary by county, but Anne Arundel has no flexible scheduling program for athletes (or child actors and dancers, for that matter), so the parents took matters into their own hands. They were surprised to learn that beyond some administrative requirements and demonstrating that their children are taking tests and passing required courses, they were pretty much on their own.

“There are no educating police who are going to come and say, ‘You haven’t taught your kid anything,’ ” Ours says. Many have purchased prepackaged programs that guide parents through teaching their children. They are relatively inexpensive, compared with the thousands of dollars the families are spending on coaching, traveling and competing.

Of course, the nuts and bolts of setting up this arrangement represent the small issues. Each family has wrestled with much larger questions: Will my child’s education suffer? Am I putting too much pressure on her? What about the socialization value of traditional schooling?

The parents have answered those questions in their own ways. Some see this as a one-year experiment, to be evaluated next June. But in general, they all told me variations of the same theme: Their children are top students, extraordinarily driven, supremely organized, superb time managers. They begged for more time in the gym. For most, their friends are the other gymnasts.

“She’s always had a different drive,” said Kathy Musselman, whose 11-year-old, Maggie, has won a national all-around title at her level. “She loves being here. . . . For another child, that might not work.”

Stevens says the “extended tutoring relationship” of home schooling and the personal attention the children get at home is “exactly what parents want when they send their children to expensive private colleges. But they provide the labor themselves.”

The team bonding is a priceless experience, the parents say, and the discipline and independence their children are developing will serve them in all their endeavors, athletic and otherwise.

“If it doesn’t work out,” Ours says, she’s “still Katie, and we’re still very proud of her. [She’s] not Katie the gymnast. [She’s] just Katie.”

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