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For Home Students, Chance to Join the Club in Public School

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

Say you're a home-schooled student, but you want to learn about photography, and think the best way to learn, barring lessons on dad's bulky Polaroid, is working on the high school yearbook.

Impossible, right? Home-schoolers in high school clubs?

Beginning in the fall, the Prince William County school system will be the first among major school districts in Northern Virginia to allow students in private or home schools to enroll in extracurricular activities such as clubs, although not competitive sports teams. The Prince William School Board, which approved the measure last week, could not extend the access to sports teams because their competitions are governed by the Virginia High School League, which prohibits anyone not fully enrolled in the school system from playing, school officials said.

Prince William's decision reflects an increasing willingness among school officials to open their doors to home-schoolers, a group with whom they have traditionally clashed. In recent years, Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun have begun allowing non-public-school students to enroll in up to two courses in their respective school systems. Prince William also recently eliminated a rule -- viewed by the home-school community as overly annoying -- that made parents wait three days after notifying the school system before withdrawing their children to home-school them.

One of the reasons school systems might be embracing this new era of openness is that not many home-schoolers take advantage of the rules. In Prince William, for instance, only 18 students signed up for partial enrollment in the past year. And, advocates argue, home-schooled students are not causing major disruptions during class time.

"I think what's happening is that home school has been around for longer and we've got a good track record," said Yvonne Bunn, a director for the Home Educators Association of Virginia.

Still, advocates said that even though they like the new policy, they are not sure how many people will enroll their kids in clubs.

"I think it's great for the families that may want to take advantage of it, but it's not something we'll do," said Melissa Carter, a former Prince William teacher who home-schools her three children, ages 12, 7 and 5. "I'm not really interested in being part of the public school culture."

School board members in other parts of Northern Virginia have debated whether to approve a policy that is similar to Prince William's, but they have not resolved debates about whether giving home-schoolers such a right is fair. Jane K. Strauss, a Fairfax County School Board member representing Dranesville, said the issue has come up in conversation among her counterparts across the region, but no significant consensus seems to emerge.

"Let's say you've got a handful of kids who have been talented in drama and they've worked real hard, and you only put on one musical whose lead positions are coveted," Strauss said. "What would happen if a home-school kid displaced other kids who in good faith had worked their way up the ranks?"

Strauss said she would wait to see how Prince William's new policy works before considering whether such a policy should be considered in Fairfax. In Prince William, school officials said they are trying to hammer out a detailed policy, to be distributed by the fall, that would give examples of approved clubs or activities for non-public-school students. Pamela Gauch, the school system's associate superintendent for instruction, said many cases could be tricky.

"Let's say they wanted to be in the drama club and school play, that would be fine," Gauch said. "But if the play was going to enter into competition that could be regulated by the Virginia High School League, then that person wouldn't be eligible."

Donald P. Richardson, a Prince William School Board member representing the Gainesville area, initiated the proposal this year after he said a home-schooling parent asked him whether it would be possible to have her child play on a school's soccer team.

"I said, 'That's the one piece I can't do for you,' but then I thought that perhaps this was the time to finish what we started," Richardson said.


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