SPOTLIGHT: Home-schooled students adapt at college

By Rhys Saunders

The (Springfield) State Journal-Register

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 4:50 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Jan. 26, 2012, Melissa Sanchez studies after class in her townhouse on the campus of the University of Illinois Springfield. Sanchez was home schooled from kindergarten through twelfth grade and is currently a junior at UIS.

The State Journal-Register, Jason Johnson, Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Going away to college after being taught at home wasn't as big of a deal for Melissa Sanchez and Moira Lawless as they thought it would be.

Then again, not every home-schooled child has a certified teacher for a mom. That might explain why Sanchez, 21, and Lawless, 26, learned just as easily in the living room as they did in the college lecture hall.

Sanchez, who hails from the Chicago suburbs, is a student at the University of Illinois-Springfield; Lawless, of Springfield, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California.

The transition isn't always easy for home-schooled, college-bound students who are not used to "traditional" classroom settings.

But home-school students don't seem to have a problem settling in at UIS, which is among colleges that actively recruit them, according to Judy Shipp, director of UIS's counseling center.

"If someone has any kind of transition issues, regardless of the background they've come from, we can help them with those kinds of things," Shipp said. "I can't say that we have something specifically set up for people who have been home-schooled, and I can't say that we've seen those kinds of issues."

UIS does not track the number of home-school students who attend the college, said Leigh Brannan, an admissions counselor.

Similarly, the State Board of Education doesn't have a number for home-school students because they're not required to register with the state, said Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Brannan said UIS saw an opportunity in trying to attract home-schooled students.

"Within the past couple of years we've started an initiative to reach out to those students," she said.

That includes recruiting at the Chicago Homeschool Expo, which gives home-schoolers a chance to meet up with educational vendors and admissions counselors for three days each August.

"There are also quite a few post-secondary institutions that are there to try to pull in some of the high-school age students whose parents might be there to get information," Brannan said.

Another way to connect with students is through the social networking site Homeschool Nation, according to Brannan. It's essentially like Facebook for students who are taught at home.

"Students can get on there, talk to other students who are in the same boat as they are, looking at schools, trying to figure out what their options are," Brannan said. "I actually get on and post general information for students — what to include in a personal statement, what kind of high school courses they need to be taking in order to prepare for college.

"I've also personally reached out to a few students who have expressed interest in UIS and kind of kept in contact with them."

Both Sanchez and Lawless grew up in Catholic families, though their parents didn't teach them at home for religious reasons.

Sanchez was home-schooled in the Chicago suburbs along with her eight siblings because her mother, a former professor, didn't like that the oldest child was being taught sex education in a private school. He was only 12 at the time, Sanchez said.

"My mom said, 'They're too young for that,'" Sanchez said. "She's the type of person who believes that parents should be the ones to teach sexual education."

Lawless' mother taught her six children at home in Springfield after graduating college with a degree in education.

"She really enjoyed kids and thought that she would really enjoy teaching her own," Lawless said.

And for both women, they say the transition from home-schooled life to college was a smooth one.

"I wasn't fazed at all," said Sanchez, who is studying political science at UIS in hopes of a career in law.

Lawless, too, says it wasn't tough moving from her parents' house on Glenwood Avenue to Thomas Aquinas College, a small liberal arts school in California.

"Having a roommate was not a big deal," she said. "I would say that it was simply . more people, a bigger contingent, which was exciting."

Sanchez grew up in Streamwood, a northwest suburb of Chicago, before moving to Lake in the Hills when she was 16.

"I was the first in my family to go from K to 12, home-schooled," she said.

"It was pretty normal, that's what I thought. I would get up in the morning at about 7, and from 7 until 1 or 2 . I would do all of the standardized subjects that they teach you in public school."

But others didn't always see it that way, especially adults who would walk past Sanchez with her mother in public on school days.

"I can't tell you how many times I was lectured as a 7-year-old, you know, 'Are you sure your parents are teaching you? Do you need help? Is it weird?'" she said.

Both women agree that what helped them become well-rounded was involvement in group activities as children.

"My parents did a really good job of having us involved in other activities, so my brothers did baseball, the girls did Irish dance and piano, and one of my brothers took bagpipe lessons for a while," Lawless said. "Then we were involved with the youth group at church."

Sanchez's family also was part of a large home-school group that collectively took field trips, had trips to the gym and picnics.

"With us, my family individually, we were in different sports and art classes within the park district," Sanchez said. "I was definitely not anti-social or kept apart from everyone."

In Illinois, home-schooled students aren't required to take standardized tests, but they do have to take classes in language arts, mathematics, biological and physical sciences, social sciences, fine art and physical development and health, according to the State Board of Education.

At college, that all changes. Students often learn in lecture halls and have required reading lists, midterms and finals.

Lawless went small in picking Thomas Aquinas College, which enrolls about 360 students every year and offers a single, integrated program in the liberal arts, which means all students get the same degree.

"Finals was a new experience, but I enjoyed it," she said.

Sanchez said she attended Elgin Community College for two years before coming to UIS.

"A lot of us actually go to community colleges first, for our first year before college, just kind of transition into it," Sanchez said. "When I went to Elgin Community College, it wasn't hard. That was my first experience with it, having so many people and cultures and backgrounds."

Learning at home made Sanchez a more self-reliant learner, which helps at college, she added.

"Because I was so used to studying on my own . I'm surprised how some people have to have someone there to study with," she said. "They're not used to going at it on their own. I'm perfectly fine with that."

Home-schooled and public school students don't abide by the same rules in Illinois.

There are no requirements for the number of hours per day or days of instruction per year for private school students, which include home-schoolers, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

They also aren't required to take standardized tests or register with the state, an issue that gained attention last year when state Sen. Edward Maloney, D-Chicago, introduced a bill that would have required registration of all students in non-public schools.

After an outcry of protest from home-school proponents, Maloney eventually tabled the bill and said he had no intention of reintroducing any measure requiring home-school registration.

Students taught at home are required by the state board to take classes in language arts, mathematics, biological and physical sciences, social sciences, fine art and physical development and health.

Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com

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