Thanks to a provision in this year’s state budget, Ohio’s homeschooled and private-school students can now participate in sports and extracurricular activities at public schools in their local districts without restriction. Before this year, most, if not all districts required students to be enrolled in classes at the school. As StateImpact Ohio’s Amy Hansen reports, the change hasn’t been entirely seamless.
Seventeen-year-old Sophia Dean's first season on the Fairbanks High School soccer team ended last month.
Now she has to settle for getting her daily soccer fix by practicing her footwork around her front yard and finds herself thinking of the electric atmosphere of her first playoff game.
"There was a lot of cheering," Sophia Dean said, giggling. "There was cowbells, and a lot of 'We Will Rock You' theme going on."
Playing on a varsity team used to be just a dream for Dean.
Being home-schooled, she had to be enrolled in five classes to join the team, a requirement Sophia's mom, Julie Dean, found absurd.
"Five out of seven, you're not homeschooling anymore," Julie Dean said. "You're a full time student."
The district later dropped its guideline down to two classes - each could set its own under the old rule. But the family didn't change their minds.
Then, last summer, the state legislature swept away those requirements as part of the state budget.
Now, Ohio's more than 23-thousand homeschooled students can participate in any activity that's offered at their home school district without being enrolled in any classes.
Roxanne Price, Assistant Commissioner for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, thinks this change has been a long time coming.
"We believe that the arm of the homeschooled individuals that are supporting homeschooling have just been very, very, very, very vocal, and have been pushing and pushing," Price explained. "This has probably been a push for more than a decade, and finally it's come to fruition."
But with the change comes some apprehension. Price said she frequently gets emails from school administrators with questions about how to navigate this new chapter of school athletics.
"How does your students' code of conduct apply, how does your insurance apply to these students," Price said of the questions she has received.
"And people just philosophically saying 'sports is an extracurricular activity that engages students in the curriculum and now you have students who have the opportunity to participate who aren't engaged in the curriculum, who don't walk our halls, who don't have that same sense of community or engagement," she added.
Bob Humble, superintendent of Fairbanks High School, understands that last point.
He estimated about 10 percent of the more than 1,000 students in his rural district are homeschooled, and Dean is the only one on a high school team this season.
He hasn't heard of Dean having a difficult time, but he does think it's a pretty big issue that homeschooled kids aren't in classes every day with their new teammates.
"I just know it's hard to develop relationships with kids that you only see at practices or games," Humble said. "When you don't see them in the hallways, you didn't grow up with them, you haven't built any relationship with them. The kids have a tendency to hang with the kids that they know."
Sophia Dean said that a handful of her teammates did give her the cold shoulder at the beginning of the year.
"Some of the girls were just like 'well, I don't know you very well, so I'm not going to talk to you,'" she said.
But, she said, in time the team became more accepting.
Fairbanks' season ended last month after they lost that playoff game, and soccer is still on her mind.
In her family's kitchen, she eyes the team photo. All of the other players have theirs on their school lockers, she said, so she put hers on the refrigerator at home.
It shows about twenty girls, smiling in their red-and-white soccer uniforms, arms slung happily over each other's shoulders.
She thinks she'll be back next season, even though all of the buzz around homeschoolers playing sports leaves her shaking her head.
"Just let me play the sport," Dean said. "I'm not hurting anything."