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No Play Like Home for Some Athletes

High school tennis players, in particular, are opting for educational choices that offer them a higher level of flexibility.

June 15, 2004|Elia Powers | Times Staff Writer

Gary Sacks' coronation as the Southern Section singles champion last June seemed, at the time, nothing more than a notable moment marking the halfway point of an illustrious high school tennis career.

Turns out it was the last chapter.

The title set into motion a whirlwind summer of national junior tournaments for the confident 17-year-old.

Sacks returned to Calabasas in September, but the tennis trips didn't cease. One weekend in New York turned into another in Hawaii, followed by a 2 1/2-week mid-March invitation to Brazil for an international tournament.

The level of competition improved for Sacks, and so did he. But back at Calabasas, the homework piled up along with missed school days.

On the road, many of his opponents seemed completely at ease with their work loads. Once Sacks found out why, he knew a change was in order.

By late fall, Sacks dropped out as a full-time student, thus ending his repeat title run before it started.

Sacks didn't turn pro. He turned home. In January, he began an independent-study program that afforded him the ability to compete at a high level in tennis and complete his schoolwork without daily deadlines.

"Everyone was doing it and they were improving in tennis," said Sacks, who ended last season ranked No. 1 in the U.S. Tennis Assn.'s Boys' 16 age group. "I would have preferred to stay in school but that wasn't really a choice."

An increasing number of high school athletes have joined Sacks in opting for a home-based education. A sizable contingent continue to participate in California Interscholastic Federation sports, though some of the more gifted players move on to other endeavors.

Two of this season's top basketball talents, junior Erika Arriaran of Norco and Tennessee-bound Sade Wiley-Gatewood of Lynwood, have had home-based educations at one point during high school. One of the top young water polo players, El Segundo freshman Coral Kemp, enrolled in an independent-study program from sixth through eighth grade.

According to the National Home Education Research Institute, the number of national high school students who are being home-schooled is growing at a rate of between 7% and 15% a year, now totaling more than 2% of the student population.

Research showed that during the 2000-2001 school year, anywhere from 1.5 million to 1.9 million children in the United States (grades K through 12) were home-educated.

Athletic commitments are one of several forces that pull students away from full-time enrollment. Parents, unhappy with a school's environment, curriculum or core values, may choose to provide their children a home-based education. Families also use this option for children with exceptional gifts -- academic, artistic or athletic -- as well as those with particular learning needs or disabilities.

The home-based education trend is especially notable in tennis, where demands on players continually increase. Some feel they've outgrown high school competition. Others want the freedom to concentrate on training to turn pro while still maintaining the option to qualify for college.

"Everyone has a dream to play pro at a young age," said Brad Dancer, Fresno State men's tennis coach. "They are willing to sacrifice a normal high school experience."

The exact percentage of Southland tennis players who have a home-based education is debatable. Sacks estimates that of the top 200 junior players nationally, about half aren't enrolled full-time at their high schools.

Seena Hamilton, founder and promoter of the USTA's Easter Bowl National Championship and one of the more influential voices in junior tennis, calculated that at her April 2003 tournament, 18% of the players -- and about half of the ranked players -- didn't attend high school on a full-time basis.

"With what's demanded of top players these days, they can't keep up with school," Hamilton said. "Kids love high school tennis, but it gets sacrificed as they get more competitive."

Dominating the local tennis circuit is no longer enough. Hamilton said the USTA, in determining individual rankings, uses a point system that puts an emphasis on quantity of tournaments as well as overseas competition, which practically compels players to miss extensive periods of time during the academic year.

This spring, Seena Hamilton & Associates conducted another preliminary survey of Easter Bowl entrants. The results showed that 82% of those polled said the USTA's point system forced them to miss more school. An average player missed 22 days a year, with the most extreme cases reaching 70 days -- largely because of tennis obligations.

Of the 17% who said they are not missing more school, about one-fourth noted the flexibility of home-schooling as the reason.

Parents have emerged as the most passionate opponents of the USTA's new system.

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