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Homeschooled students take unorthodox route to become top college candidates

Monday, May 01, 2000

By Pamela R. Winnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Today is the deadline for about 2.5 million high school seniors to make the most important decision of their young lives: where they will go to college.

    Online graphic:

PA homeschoolers score well on 1999 SATs


One of them, Molly Richman, 16, is a high school senior whose standardized tests would at first blush make her seem ideally poised in the race for college admission.

Her combined Scholastic Aptitude Test score was 1,560 out of a possible 1,600. She'd received the highest score -- five -- in advanced placement exams: U.S. history, literature, psychology, French and English language, a writing course.

But she was missing one thing: a high school transcript.

Like nearly 22,000 students throughout the state, Molly was schooled at home. Her mother, Susan Richman, 48, taught her and her three siblings at their farmhouse in Armstrong County near Kittanning. There, the four Richman children learned the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic and, as they progressed, were able to supplement their home education with outside courses, including advanced placement courses, college classes and study abroad.

Once the domain of Christian fundamentalists, homeschooling now includes a broad range of other pupils, including gay couples who don't want their children ridiculed in the public schools, parents of children with disabilities, and those who are simply dissatisfied with their school districts.

Back in the early days, homeschooled students were often admitted to Bible colleges. But as homeschooling has entered the mainstream of education, more and more homeschoolers began seeking entry to secular institutions of higher education, including state universities and Ivy League colleges.

Faced with this new applicant pool, college admissions officers must grapple with the dilemma of comparing this new breed of student to those who are the products of typical education, those who present themselves replete with official transcripts, teacher recommendations, and a vast assortment of extracurricular activities.

Homeschoolers seem to be carrying off the transition into the mainstream well, with many getting into schools of their choice despite their unorthodox backgrounds.

Homeschooling began to flourish in 1988 when the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 169, setting procedures for those who wish to have their children schooled at home. Under that law, parents who wish to teach their child at home must file an affidavit with the superintendent of the school district in which the student resides, certifying that the child will be taught certain subjects. In addition, samples of the child's work are evaluated each year by a qualified educator, often a certified teacher. The evaluator's report is then sent to the superintendent of the school district in which the student resides.

Since homeschooling became regulated in Pennsylvania, the practice has grown rapidly. In the 1989-1990 school year, 3,541 children were homeschooled, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. By the 1998-1999 school year, that number increased nearly sixfold, to nearly 22,000.

With 2,123 students schooled at home, Lancaster County leads the state in homeschooling, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Next comes Allegheny County, where 1, 218 children are homeschooled. Within Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh School District has the most homeschooled children: 297.

Interviews with college admissions officers suggest that many homeschooled students fare well in the race for college admissions. College admissions officers across the country have created new ways of determining whether a home-schooled student is eligible for admission.

Molly Richman had no problem gaining admission to her first and only choice: the University of Pittsburgh. Indeed, she was admitted to its Honors College and received a Chancellor's Scholarship, an award that provides her with tuition, room and board.

Her elder siblings likewise had little problem gaining entry to the colleges of their choice.

In 1995, the oldest Richman child, Jesse, 22, received the same scholarship as Molly at the University of Pittsburgh and is now a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. Jacob, 19, is a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon and worked last summer at Microsoft in Seattle. Hannah, 12, is now in the equivalent of seventh grade.

The Richmans' decision to homeschool their children was driven in large part by what they see as a lack of resources in Armstrong School District, where their children would otherwise be schooled.

"One of the reasons we chose homeschooling is that we live in a rural school district which doesn't have many options for gifted kids," Susan Richman said.

"The difficulty for these kids is that they can't provide a college with a traditional high school transcript," said Jeffrey Penn, spokesman for the College Board, a not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors the SATs and otherwise helps high school students in their quest for college admission.

"But there are other ways of translating a homeschooled student's performance into grades," he said.

The College Board recommends that homeschooled students keep records and portfolios of their academic work, including writing samples, lists of books they've read, and subjects they've studied.

Molly Richman did exactly that and more when she applied to the University of Pittsburgh.

"I knew that as a home-scholar, they needed more standards of accountability from me because I'm an unknown quantity," she said.

Although not required to do so, she set up an interview with the dean of the Honors College, taking in published writing samples, copies of her evaluator's reports from ninth grade and on, and a 3-inch blue loose-leaf notebook that contained samples of her work and course descriptions.

Although the university did not require recommendations, her application for the Chancellor's Scholarship did. One of her two recommendations came from a professor of French civilization at Pitt, where Molly had taken a course the previous fall and received an A.

As college admissions officers confirm, a student of Molly's caliber could well have been accepted into an elite institution. Although she briefly considered Swarthmore College, she ultimately decided against it, preferring to remain near to her family.

Of course, another measure used by college admissions officers are SAT scores. Here, home-schoolers in Pennsylvania appear to have an edge over those who have had traditional educations.

In 1999, according to the College Board, the average score for home-schoolers was 602 verbal and 550 math. For those traditionally schooled in Pennsylvania, the average was 498 verbal and 495 math.

Their SAT scores aside, home-schoolers appear to have other advantages in the college admissions process.

"Many high schools don't emphasize intellectual maturity," said Jon Reider, senior associate director of admission at Stanford University, which accepted nine home-schoolers for the 2000-01 academic year.

"Homeschoolers can be very impressive because they've taken responsibility for their education," he said.

"We find that homeschoolers do extremely well here," said Tom Schaefer, dean of admissions at Duquesne University. "Many receive scholarships."

"They're some of our strongest candidates," said Mike Steidel, director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon, which accepts five to 10 homeschooled students a year.

Many admissions officers contacted for this article said that although they receive relatively few applications from homeschoolers, the acceptance rate of those who do apply is high.

Out of the 35 homeschoolers who applied to Stanford for the 2000-01 academic year, nine were accepted, Reider said, an acceptance rate nearly twice that of the university's regular applicant pool.

Last year, Penn State University's campus at State College accepted 18 homeschoolers, said Moradeyo Olorunnisola, admissions counselor. This year, it accepted 30. She did not have records of how many had applied.

Of course, not all homeschooled children are in the position to gain entry to large or high-profile universities.

Other homeschooled students have good, but not outstanding records. Yet, many of them, too, find their way to the college of their choice.

Mark Tisdale, 18, of Shaler, will join Molly Richman this fall at Pitt. Unlike Molly, he took no AP courses, though he has strong writing skills and was chosen to be editor of Excelsior!, a magazine for home-schooled children. His combined SAT score was 1,140 -- a score that puts him in the upper fourth of Pennsylvania students but did not qualify him for the Chancellor's Scholarship that Molly will receive.

Although the academic success of many homeschoolers seems irrefutable, many in the education community question the practice. The basic objection to homeschooling, critics say, is that it fails to teach a child how to interact with others.

"The advantage of school is stimulation and interaction with peers," said Helen Meigs, facilitator for gifted students at the Centers for Advanced Study, a program in the Pittsburgh School District.

"Parents can provide the learning," she said, "but they can't provide the stimulation of other students."

"Frankly I think that home-schooling is not a good thing for kids," said Albert Fondy, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers.

"School is an overall experience," he said. "There's a social component to education that a kid doesn't get from homeschooling.

"And I think they must have a heck of a time dealing with college when they've never had to deal with other kids."

But the Richmans, along with 22,000 families in Pennsylvania, clearly disagree.

Susan and her husband, Howard, Richman have devoted their lives to homeschooling, not only for their own children, but for the cause in general. Together, they serve on the board of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency, a nonprofit organization that helps homeschooling families comply with Pennsylvania law. They also run a for-profit business known as Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, which publishes and sells newsletters and materials to homeschooling families.

They are convinced that home-schooling was the right decision for all four of their children.

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