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On the day of a big swim meet held midweek, Austin Avery doesn't have to go to school.
As a 17-year-old home-schooled senior at American Christian Academy, a private school based out of Anderson that offers independent study, Avery has the flexibility in his schedule to pursue what he wants, when he wants.
Swimming for ACA has offered him an outlet between in-home studies and taking classes at Shasta College as well as competing against public school athletes.
"Every day is different," Avery said. "The responsibility and the workload is the same as public school, but the time and place are different."
Avery, who has been home-schooled since third grade, is one of 1.7 million home-school students in the U.S., a number that has exponentially grown since home schooling became legal in all 50 states in 1993.
And he's one of the few in the North State who participate in team sports. While more states are passing legislation to allow home-schooled athletes to participate in public-school athletics through equal access laws, California is not one of them.
For California home-school students to participate, they must follow a curriculum of a public school or be a member of a school that belongs to the California Interscholastic Federation, CIF media relations officer Rebecca Brutlag said.
In Avery's case, ACA is a member of the CIF, and one of four such schools in CIF's Northern Section out of 72. Other area students can join high school teams if enrolled in independent study programs through conventional school districts.
"We realize home school and home study is growing and we have no problem with home-school students participating with athletics as long as they are taking the curriculum (similar to a public school)," Brutlag said.
ACA swim coach Greg Rasmussen made the decision to home-school all six of his children through American Christian Academy to take advantage of the growing opportunities available to home-schoolers.
"We primarily did it for the Christian faith and we wanted to be able to direct our children's education in all aspects," Rasmussen said. "The option for them to participate in social activities and sports was an important part of that because they also teach you about life."
ROLE OF SPORTS
Avery is one of about 70 students at American Christian Academy. He says home schooling offers familiarity with people who share the same goals of completing academics while competing in athletics.
"It's allowed me to form relationships with kids that share my beliefs with the way I live my life," Avery said. "I've never had to go through anything alone. There are kids and parents all around who chose this way of life together and it allows each one of us to grow."
Avery has developed the understanding of teamwork through swimming for ACA. Although swimming can be viewed as an individual sport, Avery picked up on teamwork from the start. It allowed him to be a part of two championship relay teams.
"We can communicate and that is a key to success in anything you do," Avery said. "We find out what makes each other tick so we can perform to the best of our abilities."
Home schooled students compete for scholarships and roster spots on collegiate sports teams like any high school student-athlete.
Rasmussen coached daughters Bethany, who ran cross country for Chico State, and Stephanie, who runs cross country for Sacramento State. He believes sports is a way to prepare athletes for life.
"Sports enhance character building and it's important to strive to excel at everything," Rasmussen said. "That standard of excellence is instilled from my wife and I, and sports bring that out. It helps them as individuals to work through ups and downs in sports so they can do it in life."
Avery is similar to most teenagers. He plays video games, hangs out with friends and enjoys playing sports and mountain biking. But the freedom that comes from an alternative educational setting comes with added responsibility, he said, and it isn't the right fit for everybody.
"It takes a lot of self-motivation and self-determination to do the work," Avery said. "It's easy to have laziness come in and to have things that distract you. It's really helped me practice better time management."
In a 2012 study done by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics, the number of home-schooled students has increased to 1.7 million in the United States. The number has more than doubled since the first report in 1999. The reasons vary.
The two most common reasons in the study are families' concerns about school environments and their desire to provide moral instruction.
Kevin Petit, who has two home-schooled kids as well as another in a charter school, is a volunteer coach for ACA's girls basketball and baseball teams. He agrees with both of those reasons.
"There are things taught at public schools that are foundational teachings that we don't agree with as a family," Petit said. "Religion was one of those things and we don't believe in the evolution theory and that's all science is about.
"It's our responsibility as parents to teach them what we feel they should learn and what's right and wrong."
California is not one of the 28 states adopting equal access to public school sports for home-schooled students. One of the main home-schooling voices, the Home School Legal Defense Association, is neutral on the subject, but the trend is gradually increasing, HSLDA senior counsel member Scott Woodruff said.
"The public at large has been more accepting to home-schoolers and open to the argument," Woodruff said. "Home-school families pay for the taxes for the team then they should have a crack at playing."
Shasta Lake native Carlos Mancasola was home-schooled until he was 15. He started taking classes at Shasta College through Shasta Lake Alternative School so he could play basketball for Central Valley High, believing it offers more opportunities to succeed, he said.
"Whatever we were interested in, we were given as many resources to dial into it," Mancasola said. "It gave us more time in our day to pursue the things we wanted to learn about and in the fields we wanted to study in college. And outside of the education part, I was able to go to the gym every day."
Mancasola was eligible for public school athletics because his independent study program and classes at Shasta College matched the curriculum path of Gateway Unified School District, Brutlag said. Through his four years playing for Central Valley High School, Mancasola won two Northern Section CIF championships and earned a spot on UC Davis' men's basketball team, an NCAA Division I program.
"My dream was to play college athletics and I don't know if I would be quite the same player or even person I am today without the advantages of being a home-schooler and growing up in that type of educational system."
PATH PRESENTS HURDLES
Home-schooling sports programs such as American Christian Academy's has its disadvantages. American Christian Academy does not receive any public funding, limiting the opportunities to field sports teams consistently.
Coaches operate on a volunteer basis. The program depends on parental support, with families picking up the expenses of CIF dues, transportation costs and venue fees since American Christian Academy does not have a gym or field, ACA athletic director Greg Rust said.
"That's the challenge for us -- families not able to participate because of the costs," Rust said.
"Our whole philosophy is if we have enough students interested, someone willing to coach and can find a venue to facilitate it, then we'll try and make it happen."
In Rust's 19 years as athletic director, American Christian has put out a team for every sport except football. Basketball and swimming have been mainstays to keep programs afloat and the baseball team has been successful as the two-time defending Northern Section CIF Division VI champions.
The lack of funds and venue restricts American Christian from the start. There isn't a centrally located brick-and-mortar school, meaning students are spread out across the North State. It makes it harder to secure a gym or field and the school doesn't have the economic resources to let players practice as often against the public schools they are competing against.
"We have less time because we're using a rented facility," Rust said. "Sometimes we can only meet two or three times a week so those who want to excel have to be putting in addition effort beyond our practices."