Update 2012: The oldest 2 Nelson children went on to earn athletic scholarlships to play college sports.
Jeff & Ann Nelson & family
Published March 28, 2007, in the Times-Journal's Annual Special Edition - "Progress Report"
By Lew Gilliland, Sports Writer
Fort Payne Times-Journal
Two of J.T. Nelson’s best friends are former Fort Payne High School basketball standouts Stewart and Ryan Mashburn. Like the Mashburn brothers, Nelson enjoys basketball. The 18-year-old Fort Payne student has played the sport for almost a decade in youth leagues at the Wills Valley Recreation Center. At 5-feet-9-inches tall, he usually played point guard or shooting guard.
Asked how he would fare one-on-one against either of the Mashburns, Nelson replied, “I can hang with them.”
Nelson is a former homeschooled student who hoped to show off his skills with the Fort Payne varsity this winter. His parents, Ann and Jeff Nelson, are advocates for a bill that would allow homeschoolers to participate in public school athletics.
When the bill failed to get out of committee a year ago, Nelson enrolled at Fort Payne so he could play during the 2006-07 season.
However, because he lives outside the city school zone, Nelson must sit out a year before suiting up for the Cats. Because he’s a senior, that means his dream of playing at Fort Payne will remain just that, a dream.
“It is disappointing,” Nelson said. “My best friends were pretty dominate players on Fort Payne’s teams, and I always hoped I would be able to follow in their footsteps.”
If Nelson’s parents and others get their wish, his younger siblings will receive the chance he never had, and they won’t have to enroll in public school to do it.
Backers of the Tim Tebow Bill plan to re-submit it to the Alabama Legislature this spring. Tebow is a University of Florida quarterback who, as a homeschooled student, led Nease (Fla.) High School to a state championship in 2005 and became one of the nation’s most sought after prep athletes. The bill that bears Tebow’s name would allow homeschooled students in Alabama to participate in public school athletics and band.
It would also allow for the possibility of participation in other extracurricular activities, giving decision-making power on that issue to the individual school systems.
If the bill passes, it will be too late to help Nelson, but he’s still for it.
“If there’s anything I can do to help this bill pass quicker, I would do it,” he said. “I’m sure there are more people out there who have the passion to play sports I do, and if there’s anything I can do, I would love to do that.”
One of those who shares Nelson’s passion is his younger sister, Katherine.
The 16-year-old also enrolled at Fort Payne last fall and will eligible to play basketball and soccer in 2007-08. She also wants to see the Tebow Bill become law.
“It will give a lot of homeschooled students here in Alabama the chance to show off their talents,” she said. “My parents are taxpayers, too.
It’s not really fair [that homeschoolers can’t play].”
Jeff and Ann Nelson and their 10 children live at Ponderosa Bible Camp in Mentone. Jeff went to work there in 1998, serving as director.
Besides J.T. and Katherine, the family includes Josh, 14; Jordan, 12; Kristin, 11; Faith, 8; Jon David, 6; Kelly, 4; Allison, 2; and Jake, 1.
Sports are a big part of family life for the Nelsons. Jeff has coached in youth leagues for years, and most of their children participate.
For Jeff and Ann, religion played a big part in their decision to homeschool.
“We feel that according to the Bible, it is our responsibility to teach our children character, and we feel we can do a better job working on that and developing that at home,” Jeff Nelson said. “Another advantage is I’m able to work with them. They can come to work with me, and I can teach them practical life skills.”
Ann Nelson has seen other benefits to homeschooling, including the opportunity to avoid the drawbacks that come with children being gone eight hours a day.
“I feel like it’s strengthened our family bond and strengthened the relationship between us and our children and [the relationship] among the siblings themselves,” she said.
Parents who decide to homeschool do so for a variety of reasons.
Tim and Marcia Guyse of Decatur homeschool their sons — Zachary, a senior, and Jeremy, a freshman. Zachary plays soccer and has dabbled in baseball. Jeremy plays both sports.
Marcia Guyse is a former teacher.
“We got into homeschool when our children were young because we felt it was the best choice for our children’s education,” she said. “We’re still seeking what is best for our children today. If that means homeschooling, we’d like to continue, but we would hate to deny our children the chance to play the sports they love.”
A bill is born:
The push to allow homeschooled children access to Alabama public school athletics can be traced to Gina Brown of Gadsden. Brown and her husband, Vann, homeschool their three children — Austin, 13; Mason, 10; and Blaire, 5.
“I want my children to be part of public school athletics,” Gina Brown said. “My husband and I both attended Glencoe for 12 years. We’re friends with a lot of families at Glencoe. We feel like we’re part of the community in every way except we don’t go to school there. Our children are friends with a lot of students there, and that’s who we want them to play sports with.”
So, she began asking questions. She talked with a board member of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, which governs the state’s public school athletics. The AHSAA requires all those who participate in sports it sanctions be fully enrolled in a member school.
Brown talked next with a member of the state board of education, who advised her to contact her local legislator. That led her to state Rep.
Blaine Galliher, who directed her to a bill analyst. That analyst helped draw up the bill that was presented to the Legislature last year.
Seventeen states currently allow homeschooled students access to public school athletics. Florida is the only Southeastern state among the 17.
Four other states, including Tennessee, allow partial access.
If Tebow Bill opponents have their way, Alabama won’t be joining either group.
The House and Senate education committees held hearings on the original version of the bill last year. The bill failed to get out of either.
Jeff Nelson testified before the House committee and said some panel members seemed determined to oppose the bill before the hearing even began.
“There were some who were open-minded and wanted to learn about it, but many had their minds made up,” he said. “Some of the people on that committee made me feel like we were wasting time their time.”
Marcia Guyse got a similar vibe. Her son, Zachary, testified before the Senate committee, and she said there was a problem getting enough senators into the room for a quorum.
Brown said the bill seemed to stir the emotions of some who oppose it.
“Literally, there were people who were angry that we were trying to do what we were doing,” she said. “If people would just look outside the box a little and consider what’s best for each individual child … why not allow it to be an option.”
The other side:
Why keep homeschoolers out?
AHSAA executive director Dan Washburn said his member schools feel in order to insure everyone competes on a level playing field, all students should be subject to the rigors of the school day, and all should be subject to the same academic regulations, under the same teachers and same disciplines.
He said extracurricular activities are a privilege, not a right.
“Those activities are earned and can be taken away,” he said.
Washburn also cited concerns with academic accountability.
“What’s to keep a coach from telling a student who can’t make it [academically] at school to go on home and let your mother teach you and get eligible that way,” he said, The Alabama Education Association also opposed the bill, and for many of the same reasons.
“As far as I know, participating in extracurricular activities is a product of being in good standing at the school,” said AEA public relations manager David Stout. “Those things that are extracurricular are earned.
“The second thing is that public schools are held to the highest accountability of any entity in the state or even the nation. They have standards they have to meet that private organization don’t.”
Stout said AEA was also concerned about children who are fully enrolled in school getting bumped off teams by homeschoolers.
Another issue raised by opponents, according to Jeff and Ann Nelson, was the possibility of a lot of students leaving the public schools.
They said cost and liability concerns were also raised.
Advocates of the Tebow Bill had it rewritten in an attempt to address issues raised by its opponents.
In Alabama, all homeschooling must be done under the direction of a tutor with a teaching degree or a church school. Under the rewritten bill, for a homeschooled student to be eligible for a public school extracurricular activity, the tutor or church school official must present documentation to the public school showing the student is meeting the same academic standards as those students who are fully enrolled.
The bill also requires homeschooled students to pay the same participation fees required of fully-enrolled students and also requires homeschoolers to adhere “to the same standards of behavior, responsibility, performance, and code of conduct as other participants of the team or activity.”
Additionally, the bill places restrictions on students who leave the public schools while they are academically ineligible to participate in extracurricular activities.
“A student of a public school or private school who has been unable to maintain academic eligibility for participation in extracurricular activities is ineligible to participate in such activities as a student instructed by a private tutor until the student has successfully satisfied standards to regain eligibility that are equivalent to those standards imposed on other students at the same grade level,” the bill states.
There is a similar passage that governs homeschoolers overseen by a church school.
The rewrite also requires that “any insurance provided by a district school board for participants in extracurricular activities shall cover a participating student instructed by private tutor and a participating student instructed at home enrolled in a church school. If there is an additional premium for such coverage, such participating student shall pay the premium.”
As for concerns homeschoolers will knock fully-enrolled students off team rosters, the Nelsons said public school teams aren’t likely to be overrun by homeschoolers if the Tebow Bill passes.
According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, in states that allow homeschoolers access to public school services, only 3 to 5 percent use them.
One argument Tebow Bill advocates make is they pay taxes that go to public schools, so their children should be allowed to play for public school teams.
“We pay taxes to the local school system, and we don’t benefit from any of that,” Marcia Guyse said.
Stout said it’s an issue of choice, not taxes.
“Some people choose not to go to the public park. Instead, they go to the private country club,” he said. “The issue is a choice that a parent makes regarding a system they want to use to educate their children. What right does someone who doe not participate in the system have to come in and take part in activities?”
The rewritten version of the Tebow Bill will be resubmitted to the Legislature this spring.
“We haven’t read the bill yet,” Stout said when discussing the AEA’s position. “We advocate for public schools. Given that mission, I would assume, right now, knowing what we know, we would be against it.”
Advocates of the bill are optimistic.
“We realize we may be in for a few years [of fighting], and we’re prepared to stick it out,” Ann Nelson said.
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