Young gymnasts are flexible with schooling, too.
WASHINGTON When the bell rings on the first day of school, 9-year-old Katie Ours will already be here, in a large suburban warehouse that has been converted to a modern gymnastics facility.
As her former classmates settle behind their desks, bubbling with the excitement
and anxiety of a new school year, the tiny fourth-grader will be stretching and bending, leaping and flipping a top student embarking on a very different kind of educational journey.
Along with seven other girls who more or less have become her extended family, Katie will be here at Win-Win Gymnastics until 2:30 p.m.
every day, five days a week, pursuing her dream of athletic glory.
Then she and the others will go to school, at their homes.
These eight families decided to home-school them to give the talented young gymnasts intensive coaching and streamlined lives stretched and twisted by the demands of gymnastics at the near-elite level.
"There is no rule book with parenting, and I just weighed the choices," says Katie's mother, Arlene Ours.
"I don't want the woulda, coulda, shouldas.
'Mom, I could've done that.
I could've been great'."
The road to athletic fame and fortune is littered with the wrecks of children who swerve into the fast lane too young: Jennifer Capriati in tennis.
Todd Marinovich in football.
This is not a column about kids like them.
First, I would not presume to judge another parent's child-rearing decisions after a few short conversations.
I will leave that to you and the experts, who have long debated the pros and cons of home schooling, overspecialization and hothousing for youngsters.
"The preponderance of the available evidence clearly indicates that home schoolers do at least as well as their publicly educated peers on standard academic measures," says Mitchell Stevens, a Stanford University education professor and expert on home schooling.
Second, this seemingly radical move actually will make these children's lives easier in some ways, and certainly will benefit their parents and siblings.
Currently, the girls attend school all day, then hit the gym from 4 or 5 p.m.
to 9 p.m., Monday to Thursday, as well as one day each weekend.
Then they go home to eat, study and get some sleep.
That kind of schedule requires the children and their families to bend like Nastia Liukin.
There are no weeknight dinners with Mom, Pop, brother and sister.
One mother drives her daughter 90 minutes each way to the gym.
Some of the girls do their homework in the car.
"She's always missing something.
She's missing birthday parties.
She's missing play dates," says Ours, whose daughter has won a national competition on the uneven parallel bars at her skill level.
"It's always for the same excuse: She has a practice.
She has a meet."
Now the girls will spend about 30 hours a week in the gym, from 8 a.m.
to 2:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Then they will go home and, in effect, be tutored by their mothers.
With few other children sharing the gym in Odenton, Md., they will receive the kind of time and attention from coaches that will allow them to determine how far they might go in gymnastics.
And without classmates, these driven children will finish their lessons in a few hours, their parents believe.
I'd never heard of such an arrangement before a friend told me about it didn't even know it was legal.
But according to Leslie King, vice president of communications at USA Gymnastics, schools nationwide offer a variety of programs to athletes who show promise that might one day win them a college scholarship or more.
Some set up flexible school days.
Others allow kids who must miss school for meets and practices to take work with them.
Sports that demand a start at an early age, such as tennis, have set up academies where kids live, train and go to school full time.
In recent years, home schooling has emerged as an increasingly attractive option.
Of course, the odds are awfully daunting.
There are up to 5 million kids nationwide taking gymnastics classes, and perhaps 90,000 to 100,000 on the Junior Olympic track like the girls at Win-Win, King says.
Eighty percent are girls.
The US national team has only 21 women, and just five will represent the nation at the London Olympics next year.
Rules vary by jurisdiction.
The parents of these children in suburban Anne Arundel County, Md., took matters into their own hands and were surprised to learn that, beyond some administrative requirements and demonstrating that the children are taking tests and passing required courses, they were pretty much on their own.
"There are no educating police who are going to come and say, 'You haven't taught your kid anything'," Ours says.
Many bought prepackaged programs that guide parents through home schooling.
They are relatively inexpensive compared with the thousands of dollars the families are spending on coaching, traveling and competing.
Setting up this arrangement represents the small issues.
Each family has wrestled with much larger questions: Will my child's education suffer? Am I putting too much pressure on her? What about the socialization value of traditional schooling?
The parents have answered those questions in their own ways, some seeing this as a one-year experiment.
But all told me variations of the same theme: Their children are top students, extraordinarily driven, supremely organized, who begged for more time in the gym.
"She's always had a different drive," said Kathy Musselman, whose 11-year-old, Maggie, has won a national all-around title at her level.
"She loves being here.
For another child, that might not work."
Stevens says the "extended tutoring relationship" and personal attention of home schooling is "exactly what parents want when they send their children to expensive private colleges.
But they provide the labor themselves".
Team bonding is a priceless experience, the parents say, and the discipline and independence their children are developing will serve them in all their endeavors, athletic and otherwise.
"If it doesn't work out," Ours says, she's "still Katie, and we're still very proud of her.
(She's) not Katie the gymnast just Katie."
Washington Post photo
by Marvin Joseph
2011 Jordan Press & publishing Co. All rights reserved.
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