New policy bars homeschool students from athletics, field trips

New policy bars homeschool students from athletics, field trips

Tammy Cahill, right, pictured with her husband Robert, left, and son TJ, center, at a Woonsocket High School baseball game in 2017. A new policy that bars home school students from playing sports for the city’s public school teams has some parents concerned.

WOONSOCKET – A new policy adopted by the School Committee last week would create significant changes for homeschool families in the city, including barring students from participating in athletic and other extracurricular activities run by Woonsocket public schools.

The policy, which requires a second vote by committee members before going into effect, is the result of several months of meetings and drafts. Last Wednesday, March 11, members voted unanimously in favor of the new policy during a meeting attended by current and former home-school parents.

While the policy contains several changes from the current one, parents at the meeting said they were especially surprised by measures excluding home school students from participating in athletics and field trips, which were not included on an earlier draft.

Under the current policy, students who home school may play for sports teams associated with the city’s public schools and participate in some other extracurricular activities.

“I just don’t know why you would want to take that away,” said Tammy Cahill, a former home-school parent and one of the parents in attendance.

According to School Committee Chairman Paul Bourget, the committee chose to eliminate athletics from the new policy in order to make it consistent with the rest of the home-school policy. Committee members, he said, preferred an “all-in” or “all-out” policy where students either attended public schools or did not participate in any of their activities.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You’re either in our school system, or you’re not,” he said.

In the case of athletics, he said, participation by home-school students raises concerns about safety and liability because the students are not enrolled in the schools. He also expressed concern that homeschool students could take spots on teams that would otherwise be filled by enrolled students, though he acknowledged that out of 113 home school students in the district, only three currently participate in school-sponsored athletics.

Supt. Patrick McGee echoed the concerns about safety and said that in the past, policies around extracurricular activities outside of athletics have been unclear.

“It became challenging because they’re technically not on our attendance roll, so in terms of the student being in the building, if something happened with the student, they’re technically not our student,” he said.

For some parents, the opportunity to participate in athletics is an essential part of home schooling. Though she no longer home schools, Cahill said that both her son and daughter were active in athletic and other extracurricular activities at Woonsocket Middle and High Schools during the years she home schooled them. Her husband also served as a volunteer coach for the middle school boys’ and girls’ basketball teams while her children were participating as homeschooled students.

For her son, TJ, this participation proved more than just a way to pass the time. As a home-schooled student, he played for the Woonsocket High School cross country, baseball and basketball teams, serving as a captain of all three. Following his graduation in 2017, he went on to study applied exercise science at Springfield College, an interest she said he might not have discovered if he hadn’t played sports in high school.

“That was crucial to who he is today,” she said.

In addition to the athletics policy, parents at last week’s meeting raised concerns about several other changes, including a requirement that families planning to home school provide the number of hours of instruction per day and days of instruction per year and make them “substantially equal” to those required in Rhode Island public schools.

In a letter to the School Committee, Peter Kamakawiwoole Jr., an attorney representing the Home School Legal Defense Association, argued the requirement impedes a parent’s flexibility to educate their child as they see fit and goes beyond what is required by state law.

“The proposed revisions would cast doubt on that flexibility and introduce a new daily instructional requirement that is not found in the statute,” he said.

The letter also raises concerns about language that allows the School Committee to take into account “the competency of the instructor” when approving home-school plans, arguing it could impose on parents’ free speech or religious rights.

School Committee members defended the changes, saying they had consulted with their attorney and the changes fell within the bounds of state law and the policies of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League. Lynn Kapiskas, who chairs the committee’s policy subcommittee, pointed out the group went through several drafts and took into account the feedback of homeschool parents who attended the meetings.

According to McGee, the review process began earlier this school year when several home-school parents approached him with concerns about the old policy’s requirement that parents submit a detailed list of the curricula they plan to use before homeschooling. That requirement is not included in the new policy.