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May 2, 2010

Ill. school district says no home-school athletes

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Tim Tebow is the poster child for how a home-schooled student also can excel in high school athletics.

The former Rivals.com five-star high school quarterback was taught at home by his mother but was a do-everything player on the football field for Ponte Verdra Beach (Fla.) Nease.

So, it's a good thing the star quarterback didn't grow up in Minooka, Ill.

Tebow, selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Denver Broncos last month, would not have been eligible to play football there.

The Minooka High School Board recently rejected a proposal to make home-school students eligible to play high school sports, saying the district's lack of oversight over their education makes it impossible to hold them to same standards students in the district have to meet.

This is not, however, a story of controversy.

There is not a protest in the district with each side digging in and preparing for a legal showdown; in fact, the national Home School Legal Defense Association says it's neutral when it comes to participation in high school sports.

But it does bring to light the inconsistent and seemingly random rulings pertaining to home-school students playing high school sports - a number many feel is on the rise. What's acceptable in one state is not in another. Even more, what is the rule in one school district may be different than the one in the district it borders.

The next Tim Tebow? Some recall that Tebow is actually the next Jason Taylor, the current Jets player who went from being a home-school athlete in high school to the NFL's defensive player of the year.

Where will these kids get the playing time they need?

"It's going to be up to every school district on how they want to run their district," Illinois Christian Homeschool Educators board member Steve Grutzius said. "I don't think this is an issue we need to fight for at all ... it's not a battle we're fighting."

Minooka superintendent David Middleton said the issue is merely accountability.

In Illinois, students are required to take at least four classes, maintain a 1.5 GPA and be in school during a game day to be able to play. How, Middleton asks, can the district determine if a home-school student is meeting that standard?

"The eligibility would be determined by the parent," Middleton said.

But ultimately, the responsibility lies with the school - as it must ensure all of its athletes are meeting the standard or the team ultimately could be ruled ineligible.

"How can the school be accountable for something that they don't have the right to question?" Middleton said. "Public schools can not tell someone who is home-schooled what they can or can't do."

That's the reason Grutzius' group is OK with the decision. It does not want the local school board to have any oversight of home-schooled students.

"Usually with rights come other obligations as well," he said. "If you want to use (the district) program, they may want to oversee something we do."

Middleton is not looking for a fight on the issue. In fact, he welcomes home-school students into classrooms. Many, he says, take a few courses and are considered part-time students by the district. They also participate in extra-curricular activities such as art, drama or music.

But what's an athlete to do? What if the next Tim Tebow lives in Minooka?

Home-schooled student Jenny Warning told the Herald News she doesn't want to win a Heisman Trophy - she just wants to play in high school.

"We are not looking for special privileges, just equal opportunities," she told the paper.

Grutzius said that there are other options - one of which is finding a district with different rules toward home-schooled students.

"There are many districts that do include home-school students," he said. "I would say more include than do not."

But if they don't: "There are plenty of sports groups outside of public schools," Grutzius said.

Football, however, may be the hardest sport to play at a club level. You need a lot more than a field, a ball and a coach.

Perhaps that's why some home-schooled student-athletes take matters into their own hands. There are roughly four dozen football teams made up of home-schooled athletes, including the Jaguars in Tulsa, Okla.

A story in RivalsHigh last fall detailed how a group of home-school students there formed this football team - complete with home-schooled girls serving as cheerleaders - as part of their relationship with the Northeast Oklahoma Association of Homeschools (N.O.A.H.).

Star player Caleb Gastelum - who will attempt to play at the University of Oklahoma - told RivalsHigh it was all he needed.

"We get up and do school work, then go to practice and then come home - just like everyone else," he said. "The only difference is we don't have to actually go to school."

Whether teams such as N.O.A.H. become the norm remains to be seen. The possibilities are unclear, but one thing is certain: If there is another Tim Tebow out there - his first school project will be figuring out where he can play.

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