SLCSD opens all plays to homeschoolers

SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Central School District Board of Education on Wednesday approved a policy change that will allow homeschooled students to participate in theatrical programs that the schools put on, with some caveats intended to ensure that publicly enrolled students can get parts and are prioritized for lead roles.

The district has always allowed homeschoolers to participate in most extracurriculars, with the exception of sports and “theatrical programs.” The fall play was not considered a “theatrical program” but the spring musical was. Last year, two homeschoolers — including Saranac Lake resident Sunita Halasz’s son, Galen — were cast in the spring musical.

In the process, she said the district told her that her son was not supposed to be in the musical, so in June, Halasz approached the school board and asked them to change that.

She thought it was going to be an easy “no-brainer” change, but it ended up taking seven months and a lot of discussion. She said it was a valuable experience for her, though.

Interim board President Mark Farmer felt Halasz was “cordial, polite, patient and understanding” and represented her position well. He also felt the process made for a good partnership. Farmer said they created a merged document with a “pretty good compromise.” But the nature of compromise is that nobody gets exactly what they want, he added.

Board members were split on what to do. Some felt if the state prohibits homeschool students from school sports, they should be barred from all extracurricular activities and considered changing the policy to take those away. Others felt it was “not a big deal.”

It was scary to see her advocacy might have opposite effect that she had wanted, Halasz said, and she was surprised to hear people still have “backwards ideas about homeschoolers.” But she said she always gets excited about sharing information about homeschooling. In the end, she felt it was a good bridge-building experience between public and home schools. Halasz said she enjoyed working with school board members and she found them hardworking and thoughtful.

She gathered comments from students and parents at the public school, who asked the board to open it up.

Eventually, they found a “middleground” — a policy opening up theatrical productions to homeschoolers with clauses stating that “such participation shall not impede, prohibit or otherwise prevent a matriculated student from taking part” and “in no case shall a matriculated public-school student be disadvantaged by the participation of home schooled students.”

Essentially, homeschoolers should not be cast if that means a public school student can’t get a role — this is rarely to be the case, Halasz said — and homeschoolers should not have lead roles over public schoolers.

“We always want to provide access when we can, but we also want to make sure we had a way to protect the enrolled students as well,” Farmer said. “The board has a duty to protect enrolled students” while also doing the best for the rest of community, he added.

Halasz said she plans to continue to work on the policy with the board. Schools are a community, she said, even for homeschoolers.

“It’s definitely biased in that way, but it’s an incremental step in the right direction of greater inclusivity of homeschooled children in the community,” she said.

But she’s already seen an immediate result of this incremental change. Galen, a senior now, along with another homeschool student, are part of the school’s upcoming spring production of “Damn Yankees.” Auditions were in December and rehearsals are underway, she said. Galen is cast as Henry, a baseball player for the Washington Senators.

“They are having the best time. They love being with their public schooled friends,” Halasz said.

These are friends he’s had since he was young.

Without this policy change, they couldn’t have been able to be part of the production.

Galen has been homeschooled since second grade and now, with graduation on the horizon, he wants to be a music major in college, continue theater, playing guitar and singing at St. Lawrence University, where he was recently admitted. Halasz said Galen has learned a lot from SLHS Choral Director Drew Benware.

To participate in school-based extracurriculars, homeschooled students are required to be compliant with state vaccine requirements, sign the code of conduct and must be in good academic standing.

“I think the school board is able more now to see that homeschoolers aren’t weird, unsocialized backwoods people,” Halasz said.

She said New York is “behind” on opening the door to homeschoolers.

All of the surrounding states either allow homeschoolers to be fully involved in schools — academically and athletically — or leave it up to individual districts, without a state directive banning it.

Massachusetts even allows homeschool students to take individual classes at public schools, she pointed out.

“I think that the public school system benefits from that extra body sitting in that seat,” Halasz said.

And it’s good for homeschoolers, who get to see that public schooling is not so different. She felt the students are the same and have same motivations.

“We’re all doing the same thing,” she said. She feels they have the same goal with different paths to get there.

New York is one of 10 U.S. states left without a homeschool sports bill. Most of the country has already had these conversations, she said.

Homeschool New York/LEAH: Loving Education at Home has advocated for years for a homeschool sports bill proposed in Albany to make allowing homeschool students into public school sports a district decision, not a state directive.

Currently, she said, if a district does that, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association can take away districts’ standings in conference and get districts into trouble.

Saranac Lake, she said, can always benefit from more athletes.

For now, she’s excited her son can play ball in the production of “Damn Yankees.”


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