By Colleen Diskin, The Record (Hackensack N.J.)
Their classroom is on the balcony overlooking a sprawling gymnastics training floor.
There are no partition walls so the eight students have learned to tune out the echoing giggles from the toddlers in an afternoon tumbling class.
At times they must tune one another out as well. They are in different grades, working at their own pace, so while one of them is quietly reading poetry, another is trying to concentrate on a grammar exercise while a third is going over math problems with the teacher in a hushed voice.
One day last month, the three eighth-graders in this makeshift classroom at North Stars Gymnastics Academy in Boonton, N.J., needed to conduct a science experiment to help them understand the densities of solids and liquids. With no laboratory at their disposal, they set up their scale and graduated cylinder on the most suitable flat surface they could find the top row of the bleachers where the toddlers’ mothers sat watching a trampoline routine.
Technically, these eight gymnasts are being home-schooled, just not in the mold most of us likely envision.
At 8 a.m., when the school day begins for most other kids, they head to the balance beam or the vault to perfect their routines.
After four hours of training and a half-hour lunch break, their “school day” starts at 12:30 p.m., when they spend the next 2 ½ hours working on the assignments their parents have mapped out for them. If they need help, they turn to the tutor their parents have hired to supervise this unusual group home-school arrangement.
Doing it together
“Some of the girls call it gym-schooling,” says Karley Walek, a former college gymnast who is in her second year of serving as surrogate teacher to these elite-level gymnasts, who range from 10 to 13 years old.
“It’s fun because we’re all doing it together,” says Erika Muhaw, 13, as she and two other eighth-graders debated how to proceed with the science experiment.
Parents who choose homeschooling usually do so for religious reasons or because they perceive the public schools in their communities as being inferior or unsafe. But that wasn’t the motivation for most of these parents, whose daughters had attended public or private schools in towns such as Wyckoff, Ringwood and Montville.
It wasn’t a philosophical or political conflict, just a scheduling one.
“To compete at the high level that these girls do, they need to train 30 hours a week,” says Christine Foss, mother of 11-year-old Ashley, who is in her second year in the school program. “It was very hard for them to do that around a traditional school schedule.”
Home schooling has long been an option sought out by child actors, professional ballerinas and youth athletes who are at the highest levels of sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, tennis, golf and snowboarding.
What’s different about these girls is that, although some of them are already skilled enough to have been selected for a national training program that’s considered a precursor to Olympics training, their parents and their coaches do not necessarily see them as shoo-ins for a gold medal.
“All of the girls, if you asked them, would tell you they want to get to the Olympics,” says Foss of Montville, N.J., who is head of the gym’s parents association. “But the parents are realistic about it. We know that very few gymnasts make it that far.”
Their coach and gym owner Tony Gehman says the eight girls — plus a ninth who trains with them but is schooled separately by her mother — are almost certain candidates for college scholarships at schools with some of the best gymnastic programs. That’s assuming they stay healthy in this high-injury-rate sport.
Those unfamiliar with the training demands on an elite gymnast might be baffled at the decision to pull grade-school-age athletes out of traditional school settings.
“Most people can’t understand it, and I can understand why that is,” says Marina Klopfer, mother of 11-year-old Alonza.
The Boonton mother admits that it was a little bit “frightening” at first to think about letting her daughter spend her days almost exclusively in the gym. She was worried she was limiting her daughter’s world too much. But she is confident and comfortable with their coaches and with the parents, who have teamed up to pay not only for Walek to serve as teacher but also for supplemental art and creative writing courses that are also held at the gym.
The way they see it, the parents have found a way to blend the flexibility of home schooling with the social benefits of a school-like setting.
“It’s a healthy social environment for them,” Foss says. “They are not isolated.”
The parents actually say the arrangement makes their daughters’ lives more manageable. Most days the girls are able to train for six hours while their schoolwork can be compressed into four to five hours, some of it supervised by Walek and the rest by their parents.
Before the parents formed this home-schooling pact a year ago, Deborah LaCorte says, her daughter, Kelsi, had to rush to the gym after school, train from 4 to 8 p.m. and then come home for dinner and hours of homework. “She used to be up until 11 or midnight some nights, and we never ate dinner together,” the Ringwood mother says.
Several of the girls also compete in out-of-town competitions, or attend occasional out-of-state training camps, which meant missing a lot of days of school.
“The parents used to have to do a lot of finagling with school officials,” Gehman says. “This home-schooling schedule actually allows them to have a much more normal life.”
Officially, the girls’ parents have assumed responsibility for their education, but the lesson plans are designed by K-12, one of the thousands of companies that offer online or ready-made curriculums for home-schooled or other non-traditionally educated children.
The eight girls do much of their work online and take a standardized test at the end of the year so their parents can be sure they have mastered the material.
Depending on their child’s grade and what course materials they select, parents pay between $3,000 and $5,000 for the online curriculum programs, Gehman estimates. They also each pay $200 a month for Walek’s services.
“It’s a lot cheaper than the private school I’d been sending her to,” LaCorte says.
The growth of companies that sell such online or printed curriculums has helped make home schooling an option for more parents who wouldn’t otherwise consider themselves able to take over the job of educating their children, says Ian Slatter, spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national advocacy group.
“Parents of children gifted and talented in a sport or an activity have always home-schooled in reasonably high numbers,” Slatter says. “But the availability of these ready-made curriculums has certainly made a lot of parents less hesitant to go that route.”
Home schooling is becoming more common among elite gymnasts, Gehman says. He knows of gyms in South Jersey and Pennsylvania that have begun offering programs similar to his.
Gymnastics is of course not the only sport with a training schedule that doesn’t blend well with school schedules. About 10 percent of the high-level figure skaters who train at the Ice House in Hackensack are home-schooled, largely because they find it hard to get ice time during non-school hours, says Craig Maurizi, director of figure skating at the rink.
Five years ago, parents of about eight or nine skaters had formed a similar home-schooling pact, hiring a tutor to work with their kids in the Ice House’s birthday party room. The arrangement fell apart when the tutor moved out of the area. “Now the parents just do it on their own,” Maurizi says.
Centercourt Athletic Club, a tennis academy in Chatham, this year began offering morning and early afternoon training sessions for two high-level youth players whose parents decided to home-school them, says director Phil Stevenson. The tennis club, which expects more players to join those sessions, provides a room with computers for students who want to do schoolwork on-site but does not plan to offer a tutor or group home-schooling program.
Although the trend in home-schooling youth athletes still appears to be nascent, its potential growth concerns John McCarthy, founder of the Institute for Coaching and Center for Sports Parenting in Montclair.
“It’s very hard to tell parents what they should or shouldn’t do with their children,” McCarthy says. “But the question I would have is, ‘What happens if they get injured or drop out of the sport when they are teenagers?’ ”
Year by year
Parents should consider the long-term impact of limiting their children’s social worlds to only that of their fellow athletes, McCarthy says. “For a lot of kids involved in a very competitive sport, school is their only outlet away from that world.”
Several of the parents at North Stars say they have considered that potential downside and strive to keep their daughters in touch with their non-gymnast friends. Foss says the group is undecided whether to continue the program into the high school years.
“A lot of us feel the same way, that we would like them to have a high school experience,” Foss says. “We’re just taking this year by year.”
Like their parents, a lot of the girls are conflicted about what they potentially miss not being at school like their peers versus what heights they might not reach in their sport if they don’t make this commitment to their training.
“I didn’t have a problem being in school,” says Juliana Belar, an eighth-grader who trains with the eight other girls but is homeschooled in a private office at the gym by her mother rather than joining in the group tutoring session.
“I used to always love school,” Belar says. “But I’m so in love with gymnastics that I couldn’t say no to this opportunity. I want to be an elite gymnast.”
- A 2007 survey estimated 1.5 million students across the country are home-schooled, up from 850,000 in 1999, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Homeschooling advocates believe the number may now be more than 2 million.
- The top three reasons parents list for home schooling in that 2007 survey were concern about the school environment, dissatisfaction with the academic instruction and desire to provide religious instruction. Training for a sport or activity was not listed as one of the top reasons.
- There are thousands of companies that sell curriculum packages or lesson plans to home-schooling parents, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association.