Aug 1, 2006
Home-schooled victors raise concerns. Critics say students have unfair advantage over other pupils.
WASHINGTON — When home-schooled Rebecca Sealfon won the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in 1997, she launched a trend.
Since Sealfon spelled her way to triumph, two other students who have been home-schooled for all or part of their academic careers have followed her to victory.
In 2000, the final three finishers — winner George Thampy of Maryland Heights, Mo., runner-up Sean Conley of Shakopee, Minn., and third-place finisher Alison Miller of Niskayuna, N.Y., were home-schooled. Conley — who attended a Minnesota school the next year — won the bee in 2001.
This year’s National Spelling Bee is set for May 29-30 in Washington, D.C.
But with the trend of home-schooled champs — Thampy was a runner-up in the National Geographic Bee, sponsored by the National Geographic Society — has come muted criticisms from those who say home-schooled students have the advantage because they can spend more time studying spelling during their school days.
Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that in some instances, home-schooling parents emphasize memorization more than schools do — another reason home-schoolers have found success in the bee.
Houston said that having a few home-schooled bee champs does not necessarily show the superiority of home-schooling. Saying one child’s triumph is evidence of the success of home-schooling, he said, is like saying all North Carolina colleges are good because basketball champion Michael Jordan attended one.
“I think home-schoolers have a lot of things they can point to as successes that are far more important than whether they do well in the spelling bee,” he said.
According to Scripps Howard bee rules, students must not eschew normal school activity in favor of preparation for spelling bees. Bee director Paige Kimble admits it’s a hard rule to enforce, but “we have never had any single thought or occasion to believe home-schoolers or their parents were being irresponsible about their education.”
“You’re just talking about the nature of the beast,” she said. “Of course that rankles those parents who send their kids off to public and private school. But what’s the answer — it’s gross, blatant discrimination to say no home-schooled kids at all.”
Kimble said that home-schooled children do have an advantage “in that their time and how it is structured is entirely up to them.”
Mona Goldstein knows both sides of the debate. She has four children and three have participated in the National Spelling Bee. The youngest, Amanda, is not old enough to compete.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the kid,” she said.
Her oldest child, Amy, who attended a private school, used to refer to studying her spelling as “playing.” Her third child, JJ, who will compete at the national bee this year, is more interested in practicing diving. She is home-schooled.
“I don’t think she has necessarily studied any more because she’s home-schooled,” Goldstein said, adding that most parents of bee participants are very involved in their children’s education, whether the child attends home school, private school or public school.
About 2 million students across the nation are home-schooled today, and the rate is growing by 15 percent to 20 percent a year, according to Rob Ziegler, a spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va. Home-schoolers have been involved in spelling bees for 20 years.
“Home-schooling works because of the great teacher-student ratio, the personal attention, the flexible schedule — those things can help in any academic area, including spelling,” he said, citing triumphs in the geography bee as another example of academic strengths. “It’s pretty clear across the board that academically, it works.”
Vonnie Crumpton, of the Big Country Home Educators of Abilene, Texas, said the schedule flexibility is one reason home-schooled kids succeed academically. Her son was interested in classical music, and his home-school education allotted him plenty of time to practice.
“Yes, we get math and English and grammar and everything, every day,” she said, “but we had more time to dedicate to the talents that God has given him … that’s the beauty of home-schooling. You can spend more time where they have interests.”