Giving Proper Credit To Home-Schooled

At a ceremony in Annapolis, home-schooled teens Jessica Ellen Meltzer, left, Victoria Maisey, Callum Bix Lewandrowski and Elisabeth Ariane Jonas listen to fellow graduates' addresses. At the alternative graduation for more than two dozen people, each graduate gave a speech.
At a ceremony in Annapolis, home-schooled teens Jessica Ellen Meltzer, left, Victoria Maisey, Callum Bix Lewandrowski and Elisabeth Ariane Jonas listen to fellow graduates' addresses. At the alternative graduation for more than two dozen people, each graduate gave a speech. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By  Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007

In the pursuit of a homemade high school education, Jay Voris played drums in Guinea, Colin Roof restored a 134-year-old sailboat in Ireland, and Rebecca Goldstein wrote a 600-page fantasy novel and took calculus at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The independent-minded Maryland students and two dozen others gathered at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Annapolis one afternoon this month for an alternative graduation ceremony that is becoming more common across the country as home schooling expands. Now the movement is gaining ground in a crucial arena: college admissions.

Goldstein, 18, of Ellicott City will be a full-time student at UMBC in the fall. Alan Goldstein said his daughter's idiosyncratic education distinguished her from "cookie cutter" applicants from conventional schools and helped her gain entrance into honors programs and win a full scholarship. Others at the June 2 commencement are bound for St. John's College, Hampshire College, the University of Rochester and other liberal arts schools.

Admissions officers accustomed to evaluating class rankings, transcripts and recommendations from professional teachers have long faced challenges in evaluating home-schooled applicants. How much weight should be given to student performance in a class of one or two? Or credits assigned for horseback riding or hiking the Appalachian Trail? Or glowing recommendations from Mom?

"Granted, everybody's kids are great," said Earl Granger, associate provost for enrollment at the College of William and Mary. "But it's great when we can get an external source to really comment on a student's progress."

Colleges are finding ways to adapt to the growing market. Eighty-three percent had formal policies for evaluating the home-schooled in 2004, up from 52 percent in 2000, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Many rely on standardized tests.

At William and Mary, home-school applications have increased from 49 to 67 in the past two years. The college has a designated home-school admissions counselor, who advises applicants to supplement the regular SAT reasoning test with SAT subject tests. The counselor also encourages having a nonrelative write a recommendation.

Former Stanford University admissions counselor Jon Reider, one of the first to draft an admissions policy for home-schoolers, said such applicants often stood out for their maturity.

"There were things these home-schoolers had," Reider said. "A certain amount of responsibility. They were in charge of their learning process. They were impatient with normal assignments and reading lists."

When Reider left Stanford seven years ago, he said there were 36 home-school applications. This year, the university counted 104.

Reider said the rising number of home-schoolers means they will have to work harder to set themselves apart. "A lot of people in America are doing this," he said.

Twenty-five years ago, it was illegal in many states for parents without teaching licenses to educate their children at home. But the number has grown as state regulations have eased. More than a million students -- about 2 percent of the school-age population -- were home-schooled in 2003, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Education Department. U.S. Census data show there were 350,000 home-schooled students in 1994 and nearly 800,000 in 1999.

Parents who were once forced to scour catalogs for textbooks are now backed by a nearly $1 billion-a-year curriculum industry that offers classrooms-in-a-box and virtual high school courses. Home-school networks also have proliferated, offering group classes, organized sports, debate clubs and social activities. All of that is helpful to college recruiters, who want to see extracurricular activities and high marks from online courses or community colleges to validate parent-designated 4.0 GPAs.

Goldstein's transcript was loaded with A's from Howard Community College, UMBC and her mother. To fulfill state requirements, she also had a consultant from a private school, the Learning Community International, review her progress and grades at home. Most states do not require such oversight.

Her college application pointed out some unusual classes, including one she developed about Lord Nelson and British maritime history during the Napoleonic War as well as a logic and problem-solving course that she liked to take while "eating Hershey's chocolate and listening to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata," she said at graduation.

Since the 1980s, home schooling has gained widespread popularity among evangelical Christians. Patrick Henry College in Loudoun County, founded by a prominent home-school advocate, targets such students.

In Richmond this past weekend, a Home Educators Association of Virginia convention was expected to draw thousands of parents and students, with about 200 students receiving diplomas in a group graduation ceremony. At the convention, recruiters from Christian universities set up booths alongside vendors selling books on how to teach subjects from a biblical perspective.

Cynthia Hay of Fredericksburg, a home-schooling mother of two, was among many people attending a panel discussion on college admissions Friday. Hay said she recently took her daughter Katie, a rising senior, on an East Coast college tour and found a warm reception almost everywhere. Katie is planning to apply to William and Mary, but her first choice is Princeton University. She has good test scores and grades and is involved in a church band and Girl Scouts. This year, she started taking community college classes.

Hay said she will savor her last year as Katie's teacher. "The saddest thing about her graduation is that I wish I could do it again," she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company