Haywood County home-schooler Celeste Riddle has a few reasons to be excited about her decision to take two classes at Pisgah High School this year.
For one thing, she’s never attended a public school and is looking forward to experiencing a new learning environment. And she figures she will make some new friends.
But mostly, the sophomore admits, her decision was fueled by her desire to put on the black-and-red uniform of the Pisgah Bears come basketball season.
“I’ll be able to play sports for school, and I’m very excited about it,” she says.
For the first time this year, Haywood County Schools will allow home-schoolers such as Celeste to participate in middle and high school athletics, provided they take at least two classes in person. Buncombe County Schools and Asheville City Schools adopted similar policies after the N.C. High School Athletic Association allowed dual-enrolled home-schoolers in 2019. Students can dual-enroll in the schools in the districts in which they live. In other words, they can’t choose which high school to attend, nor can schools recruit student-athletes from other schools.
Buncombe County schools have two dually enrolled home-school students participating in athletics this school year.
A surge in home-schoolers and a decline in enrollment following the COVID-19 pandemic was part of the reason Haywood County Board of Education decided to allow home-schooled students to play for Pisgah, Tuscola and other schools. The number of home-schooled students in the county increased 20% from 2019-20 (676) to 2022-23 (810). During the same period, district enrollment dropped from 7,101 students to 6,499, a 8.5% decrease.
“It was the hope of the board that by allowing home-school students to participate in school-sponsored athletics, the school system could potentially see an increase in its overall [average daily membership] while also strengthening the sense of community in Haywood County,” says Assistant Superintendent Graham Haynes.
(State funding is based on attendance numbers, so dual-enrolled students increase revenue.)
Celeste’s father, Jeremy Riddle, says that sense of community is one reason he lobbied school officials to allow his children and other home-schoolers to compete for Pisgah. His middle school son, Cade, is a wrestler and football player who hopes to one day participate in the storied Pisgah-Tuscola rivalry. And he wants Celeste to have the experience of playing in front of exuberant basketball crowds.
“There are some intangibles that are in the public schools,” he says. “If they want to be a part of that, we want to make sure that doors open for them.”
But not everyone in the home-school community chooses to participate in public school athletics, opting instead for Christian schools or the Western Carolina Athletic Association, commonly known as the Asheville Trailblazers. The Christian nonprofit offers competitive sports programs for home-schoolers in Buncombe and five surrounding counties.
Trailblazers President David VanWyck says that while the program has lost some of its best athletes to Buncombe and other districts since 2019, hundreds have stuck with it. For one thing, he says, some home-school parents simply aren’t comfortable having their children attend any public school classes. The Buncombe and Asheville districts require home-schoolers to take at least one class in person and one virtually.
“This is a good option if they’re interested in a safe place for their kids to just have fun and learn a sport,” says VanWyck, who also coaches the boys soccer team. “It’s a very competitive atmosphere that we have, but it protects them from some of that stuff that does happen in public schools.”
For Celeste and other home-schooled students who choose to participate in public school athletics, a key factor is the opportunity to play against better competition. Last season, she played for Haywood Christian Academy, a small Waynesville school that allows home-schoolers to play on its teams.
“I just know that the schools that we [Pisgah] play will be more competitive, and the schools will be bigger,” she says. “There’ll be better ballplayers than I have been playing against for the Christian school.”
Playing at a higher level is particularly important for home-schooled athletes who have aspirations of college athletic scholarships.
Riddle says home-schoolers are at a disadvantage when it comes to college recruiting and often need the visibility that comes from competing at a program like Pisgah.
“My son is a national champion wrestler, and he is going to be wrestling for Canton Middle School this year,” says Riddle, a JROTC instructor at Pisgah. “He’s going to be on pace to be a Division 1 recruit as of right now. He will need to wrestle in high school.” Division 1 comprises the largest universities with the top athletic programs.
Dyllan Barnwell, who played basketball and football for North Buncombe High as a dual-enrolled home-schooler from 2019-21, transferred to Asheville Christian Academy and earned a basketball scholarship to Montreat College. He credits playing for the North Buncombe Black Hawks for setting him on the road to athletic success.
“It made me get better as an athlete going forward,” he says. “You want to be playing against the best competition you can.”
Barnwell was among the first students to take advantage of the district’s new policy in 2019, says his father, Vollie Barnwell. Since home-schooling families pay the same property taxes as anyone else, Vollie Barnwell says he appreciated the opportunity his son had to benefit from the school’s athletic programs.
“He grew up playing in North Buncombe youth leagues, and I remember he said, ‘One day, Dad, I’m going to run out on that field [at North Buncombe High],” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘No, you won’t because we’re home schooling.’ So when he got that opportunity, that was just really cool.”
He credits North Buncombe High administrators and teachers for making the transition smooth for his son.
The Trailblazers’ VanWyck understands why some parents opt to have their kids play at public schools.
“We can’t compete with A.C. Reynolds or T.C. Roberson and some of those programs because they have much more money and they have a lot more opportunity to offer some of these kids,” he admits. “And you do need to do a little bit more work to get noticed as a home-school athlete.”
But he says that is not necessarily the case in every sport. In soccer, for instance, players often get recruited at identification camps hosted by colleges or youth soccer organizations at which college coaches scout talented high school players.
“We’ve had plenty of athletes go on to play in college,” he says.
Michael Audet‘s two oldest daughters participated in soccer and track at Henderson County middle schools before he and his wife, Christina, decided to go back to home-schooling in 2021. They signed up for Trailblazers and have had a positive experience, he says.
“They have a different mission to what they’re doing, and that’s to encourage students in their walk with Christ, but also to create a safe place for them to compete and have fun,” says Audet, who lives in the Horse Shoe area. “It was competitive, but it wasn’t over-the-top competitive.”
Henderson County schools allow dual-enrollment students to participate in school athletics, but the Audets have not considered that option for their daughters.
“The people that are going to do that are going to be the ones that are extremely competitive and are looking to play against the best of the best,” he says. “I don’t have kids that are trying to go to college on some big scholarship.”
The Trailblazers, which began in 2007, field teams in 11 sports, including basketball, tennis, cross-country, swimming, baseball and tennis. The nonprofit competes in the North Carolinians for Home Education Athletic Commission and plays regular-season games against teams from areas like Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem, VanWyck says. Postseason tournament games are played against teams as far away as Wilmington.
Additionally, teams play nonconference games against Christian and charter schools and even public high schools like Pisgah and Hendersonville.
VanWyck says it is not uncommon for home-school families to try public school sports before returning to the Trailblazers.
“There’s not the meanness that you find elsewhere because we’ve really stressed being a family,” he says. “I hear over and over that their kids had such a great time versus other places they played because they were allowed to grow. They were allowed to maybe not be the best player but not be picked on for it.”