Between high school, homework, tennis practice and competitions, Micaela Hein was exhausted, and struggled to keep up with classmates. So during her freshman year, the aspiring Mission Viejo tennis star decided to quit. School, that is.
Hein abandoned San Clemente High School and a prized spot on its tennis team in early 2004 in favor of home schooling and rigorous daily training at an Irvine tennis academy and tournaments that take her nationwide.
“When I was going to regular school, I would get home and be so tired, and I’d still have more homework and practice,” said the 16-year-old, who will be a junior this fall. “Now, I wake up and I play tennis. It’s a lot better.”
Home schooling has long been a refuge for parents unhappy with public schools. Now, a growing number of athletes, musicians and actors are abandoning traditional classrooms so they can focus on their talent, educators say.
For these students, home schooling provides the flexibility to weave academics around training, practices or Hollywood auditions. Students are free of the structure of traditional school and can do their schoolwork where and when they choose. And though rules vary greatly among home-schooling methods, students are under no requirement to log the same number of hours they would have spent in a classroom.
“You need to devote a lot of time if you’re going to shine in those [creative] fields,” said Ian M. Slatter, spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Assn. in Virginia. “It’s very difficult within the constraints of private or public school.”
But some experts worry that a solid education can suffer if a student is too focused on honing an athletic or artistic gift.
“It can be done -- a lot of these kids are pretty self-motivated,” said Darrell Burnett, a Laguna Niguel psychologist who specializes in youth sports. But for other kids, “the message is that school is less important than the sport.”
Home schooling, once common, largely died with the rise of the public school system. In the 1960s, some parents who recoiled against a perceived one-size-fits-all approach in public schools began home schooling their children. The following decade, many other parents wanting to inject religion into their children’s education began to do so at home.
By 1980, about 20,000 families had pulled children from traditional schools, according to the Home School Legal Defense Assn.
Since then, home schooling has seen exponential growth. Laws have eased, society more easily accepts home schooling, and an industry has emerged that offers online support and teaching materials to parents.
Today, 1.1 million of the nation’s 55 million school-age children are home-schooled, according to the federal government. Home-schooled children consistently score as well or better than their public school counterparts.
Experts agree that most families who home school do so for religious reasons or out of disdain for public schools, for reasons ranging from safety to poor academics. But county and state education officials, home-school advocates, entertainment industry regulators and sports coaches say they’re seeing a small but growing number of children who are home-schooled to allow them to focus on honing an athletic talent or artistic passion.
“It is becoming more and more common,” said Barbara Colton, who works on home-schooling issues for the California Department of Education. “More and more parents are willing to support their kids in intensive preparation in arts or sports ... so what they’re doing is trying to find an educational program that accommodates that.”
Shane Haboucha, 14, an Irvine actor who recently finished filming the Stephen King miniseries “Desperation,” began home schooling last year. He had attended a private school and was falling seriously behind because he regularly left class at noon to attend auditions in Los Angeles.
“I’d be missing so many classes, and my teachers didn’t really understand what was going on,” he said. “They didn’t understand the significance of what I was doing and how important it was to me. It was awful for me to go to school. I dreaded it, because I couldn’t take the pressure of knowing how behind I was.”
Haboucha’s family opted for an online home-school program augmented by paid tutors at home and on the set when Shane worked.
“As long as I have my computer and my books with me, I’m able to do it anywhere, which is great,” said Haboucha, who has also had roles on the shows “Monk,” “Everwood” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” “It works out perfectly.”
The California Department of Industrial Relations has seen such a rise in applications for entertainment work permits by home-schooled actors that agency officials are concerned that they’re ill-equipped to verify that students are meeting state attendance and scholastic requirements. School districts typically do such verification for students attending regular classes.
“We’re left without knowing whether or not the child truly meets the requirements,” said Dean Fryer, spokesman for the department, which is awaiting a ruling from the state Department of Education on how to proceed.
Critics also worry that children with athletic or artistic talents are robbed of a well-rounded experience by choosing home schooling.
“It’s as if your career is established by the time of age 3....School becomes secondary. That’s worrisome,” said Michael W. Apple, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied home schooling for a decade. “School is not simply about getting the facts right .... It’s also about ... citizenship, learning how to be with others and thinking for yourself across the whole curriculum area.”
But Katharine McDonough doesn’t think she’s missing out on anything. The Dana Point girl, 15, who aspires to sing and dance on Broadway, said home schooling allows her to spend hours taking musical-theater classes at the California Conservatory of the Arts in San Juan Capistrano.
“I know a lot of times people don’t want to home school because of the social aspect: ‘I won’t have friends’ or ‘I won’t get the full high school experience,’ ” McDonough said. But “my social life is the conservatory.”
Burnett, the child psychologist, said increased home schooling of gifted athletes is part of the trend of parents doing whatever it takes to give their children an advantage -- from training with expensive coaches to holding students back a year for a physical edge on competitors.
Sheri Nogaki of Orange started home schooling daughters, Katy, 11, and Kristen, 8, this last school year after Katy started having stomach aches from the anxiety of trying to mix gymnastics and schoolwork. The girls now train about 20 hours a week at a Costa Mesa gym and won statewide medals this year.
“They both thrived in gymnastics once we started home school,” Nogaki said. “It allows them less stress, getting more sleep, all the factors that are really difficult for an athlete that’s putting in a lot of hours.”
Katy raised the idea of home schooling with her mother after hearing about it at her gym.
“My coaches ... said if I home-schooled, I could come to the gym early and I could get really far in gymnastics,” Katy said. “It’s very challenging and fun. When I was in regular school, I wasn’t as good, but when I was home-schooled, I got state champion.”
The experience is not for everyone. After three years of home schooling, four-hour-a-day tennis practices and traveling to tournaments worldwide, Dianne Matias longed for what she had given up: the life of a typical teenager.
Home schooling “was OK -- I had more time to travel,” she said. But, “I didn’t really get to do social stuff.”
Matias, now a junior at USC on a tennis scholarship, chose to return to Carson High School for her senior year. The routine of daily classes and playing on the school’s tennis team prepared her for her experience at USC.
“I decided that if I was going to end up going to college and not turn pro, I might as well go back to regular high school and at least have that experience,” she said. “I got to be really good friends with a lot of girls there. We went to the movies, we went to the beach -- just like regular stuff.”