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Home Schooling’s Profile Rising at More Universities

Times Staff Writer

Alyssa Schechter seems ready for a bright college career. The San Diego County teenager has already aced a couple of university courses and displays a maturity level beyond her 17 years.

But Alyssa lacks a common requirement for applying to universities: She never attended high school.

For reasons that vary from religious convictions to a distrust of public schools, millions of parents nationwide school their children at home.

But the freedom that home schooling presents can provide a challenge when students apply to colleges and universities that usually expect transcripts, standard curricula and teachers’ recommendations.

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“By the time you start looking at [college applications], you’ve already shot yourself in the foot,” said Alyssa’s mother, Rona Schechter, who’s also home-schooling her 15-year-old, Katrina, at their Imperial Beach house.

With a growing number of home-schooled children such as the Schechters -- estimates range from 1 million to 2 million of the 55 million school-age children in the country -- colleges and universities are being forced to find ways to evaluate these students.

UC Riverside recently unveiled a pilot program to recruit home-schooled students who might otherwise not qualify for the UC system and offer them a separate admissions track. It is the first public university in the state to do so.

Frank Vahid, a computer science professor at UC Riverside who helped put the program together, said UC’s general admissions criteria, which cull the top students from the state’s high schools, can overlook skilled applicants with nontraditional academic backgrounds.

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“The problem was, for these students there wasn’t a straightforward way for them to apply for a UC school,” said Vahid, who home-schools his three children.

UC Riverside admissions officials are reviewing their first batch of applications for the fall 2006 freshman class and hope to admit 30 to 70 students. Home-schoolers will be evaluated through portfolios that detail their academic work and other achievements. Previously, the only way most home-schoolers could qualify for the UC system was by scoring high on standardized college entrance exams.

Although the vast majority of the 50,000 or so freshmen the UC system accepts each year are eligible by class ranking or test scores, each campus is allowed to reserve up to 6% of its enrollment for students who don’t meet the criteria but display potential. At Riverside, home-schoolers will be evaluated by a separate committee made up of faculty and administrators familiar with the nontraditional education, Vahid said.

For UC Riverside, the least selective of UC’s eight major campuses, accepting about 20% of nearly 20,000 freshman applicants a year, home-schooled students will provide another source of qualified candidates to fill its classrooms. It also puts the campus in the forefront of a growing movement.

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Private universities generally have been better equipped to deal with home-schooled students than public schools, education experts say. They are not encumbered by laws and policies that seek to standardize admissions for a general student population.

But the increasing number of home-schooled students, growing by 10% a year by some estimates, is forcing public universities to respond. The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2003 prohibiting state universities from requiring higher standardized test scores from home-schooled students.

“We don’t have a problem with high standards. We have a problem with double standards,” said Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition.

The growing recognition of home schooling by public universities such as UC Riverside also underscores how a movement once associated with the counterculture and religious conservatives is becoming more accepted. However, without such traditional markers as transcripts and grade-point averages from accredited high schools, home-schooled college applicants often must justify their secondary education.

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“We had to bend into the system,” said Penny Ross, a Hawthorne mother who home-schooled her three children.

Before they applied for college, Ross said, she created official-looking transcripts for each, assigning high school units to home lessons, even if it seemed impossible at times to break down into semesters her children’s learning. Even then, universities may put more emphasis on standardized test scores because “they don’t trust our GPA,” she said.

Her eldest, Joe, attended community college for two years before transferring to Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. The move was mainly to save money, but also to create a paper trail of official transcripts, Ross said.

Attending community college is a common path for home-schooled students because it provides them with legitimacy in the eyes of four-year schools.

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Alyssa Schechter, the Imperial Beach home-schooler, already has started on a similar track. Last year, she aced online courses in health and creative writing from Brigham Young University. She also has been taking English, acting and math classes at Grossmont College, a two-year school near her home.

She recently had to read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and take a quiz. She said the test seemed more focused on making sure she had read the book than what the story was about.

“He was on a journey,” Alyssa said, making the point that she understood more than what the quiz was asking. “He was old, yes. But he had a goal. And he was not going to be defeated. And he wasn’t going to give up. No matter what happened to him.”


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