Just as Heisman Trophy Winner and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow made headlines as a homeschooled student playing public high school football more than a decade ago, Erika Swanson recently made history for homeschoolers at the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) State Championship.
Placing in the top 20 percent of the 175 competitors at the finish line late last year wasn’t the homeschooler’s biggest feat — it was becoming the first athlete to represent a homeschool team in the state championships.
Many homeschoolers and aspiring homeschoolers don’t know that homeschooling their children doesn’t preclude them from participating in public school sports. In fact, America can expect more Tim Tebows to come onto the scene, as his Tim Tebow Bill website — dedicated to give homeschool kids equal public school access to sports and the arts — indicates that Minnesota is just one of 31 other states that allow equal access by law or by permission from state athletic associations.
Many homeschoolers like Erika are now grateful for the opportunity to flourish in areas that were previously closed to them.
“I wasn’t expecting to actually qualify, so I was really excited,” Erika commented after her success at the event. “The state championship was one of my favorite meets of the whole season. There were so many racers up front that it was hard to move up, but I was able to pass more people in the second mile. It was a great privilege to run with my homeschool friends all season and then represent the team at state, and I liked being the first girl to do it.”
Still running into challenges
But homeschool athletes in 19 other states and those who live in school districts that make it difficult for them to compete in competitions like Erika are still faced with challenges.
“For many students, participating in organized sports is an important part of their high school experience,” the Home School Legal Defense Association reports. “However, the idea of homeschool students having access to public school sports and classes is somewhat controversial, and not all states provide such access as a matter of law.”
In fact, the climate can often be hostile to homeschoolers looking for an equal playing field when it comes to competing in team and individual sports at the public school level.
“Even in states where the law provides for access, the landscape can be complex, as the various state high school activities associations try to fit homeschoolers into their rules designed to deal with public school issues,” HSLDA Staff Attorney Michael Donnelly informed. “They don’t always get the law right or favor homeschoolers’ participation.”
For those homeschoolers who prefer to remain in control of their children’s education and development when it comes to sports — instead of handing it over to the public schools — Donnelly says that parents can now exercise more options.
“And, while Minnesota law provides access for homeschooled students, some homeschool families do not wish to participate in their local high school sports team,” Donnelly added. “It was from this perspective that Erika’s parents, Kirk and Jennifer Swanson, thought, ‘If we can teach our children academics, why can’t we coach them in sports?’”
Having met on their own college track team, Erika’s parents were more than qualified to coach their daughter.
“[The Swansons] had passed along their love of track and cross country to their children, as well as to a number of other students whom they coached over the years,” HSLDA attorneys shared. “Recent MSHSL policy changes allowed the Swansons to organize a homeschool sports team as a member of the association and thus compete with other public and private school teams.”
But Erika’s mom said the road wasn’t easy for her and her husband to form her daughter’s homeschool athletic team.
“It took months of conversations with league representatives to work out the process for a group of homeschools to form a stand-alone team,” the homeschool mom explained. “But once we worked it out and were accepted into membership, we were given all the respect and privileges of a traditional school team. Most everyone is out there simply to promote the sport and foster the students as athletes.”
Many homeschoolers are riding on the coattails of the Swanson’s pioneering effort to bring new opportunities for homeschoolers beyond academics.
“With their membership official, the Northwest Nighthawks began their cross country season, bringing exciting new opportunities to their 17 cross country runners,” Donnelly said. “Others have followed along in the entrepreneurial footsteps of the Swansons — the RAACHE Jaguars are another homeschool team competing in the league. Coaches and athletes from both teams enjoyed the camaraderie arising from their shared homeschooling and cross country interests.”
Jaguars Head Coach Wayne Dickie witnessed how encouraged homeschoolers were by the new experience.
“The runners were excited to be able to have the opportunity to compete in the advancement tournaments for the first time,” Dickie expressed.
One of Dickie’s homeschool athletes, Josiah Eide, was another qualifier for the state championship event. He placed 28th in a field of 176 other top runners from public schools across the state.
“Our team is as hardworking and ambitious as anyone else,” Eide said. “Being recognized and allowed to compete on a higher level gave us the chance to find out where we ranked among the teams in our section. It fired us up to train harder, and we almost qualified for state as a team. I was happy with my individual race at sections, though, and was proud to run at state and be the first male athlete from a homeschool team to compete in the MSHSL representing my team and other homeschoolers.”
Athletics wasn’t the only discipline upon which the Nighthawks and Jaguars excelled.
“Both homeschool teams also earned academic recognition, receiving the gold level academic excellence award from the Minnesota High School Coaches Association,” HSLDA noted. “Two Jaguars qualified for all-state academic honors by maintaining a GPA of 3.75 or higher and placing in the top 15 at their section meet.”
Kirk Swanson was thrilled that his daughter’s first experience running in a competitive public high school setting started with a bang — one that exceeded his expectations.
“The season was a positive experience for everyone,” the homeschool dad expressed. “The kids worked together, witnessed great displays of sportsmanship, and pushed themselves and their teammates to their best efforts. Competing with other schools at the section meet was a highlight for everyone, and taking an individual to state was something we had hoped for some day, but didn’t really expect it our first year. It was an exciting surprise.”