Regina Moerikofer has been homeschooling her eleven-year-old daughter at the middle school level in New Paltz. Under the district’s 2009 policies, homeschooled children are allowed to participate in extracurricular clubs and activities held at the school when classes are over for the day. Last year, Moerikofer’s daughter, Kristie Benel, joined the drama club and participated as a member of the ensemble in the middle school’s production of The Little Mermaid. But after Kristie auditioned for the ensemble in the school’s current production of The Lion King, she was told during callbacks that she is no longer welcome because she is a homeschooler. The family was informed that because this year’s production is so complicated, it will require rehearsal for the ensemble during school hours when Kristie is not allowed to be on campus. But Moerikofer says that since the school is holding some of the ensemble rehearsals after school, and the district could make accommodations for the homeschooled kids if they wanted to, she believes their response has been one of discrimination and exclusion.
Seventh grader Kristie Benel stood before the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education at their regular meeting on Wednesday, January 4 to plead her case in a calm and composed manner. Her mother later said that Benel wrote her own remarks.
“I am a seventh-grade home schooler, but I’m still part of the school district,” she told the board. “I also take part in many afterschool extracurricular activities. Last year I was in the drama club. I was in the ensemble of the middle school production of The Little Mermaid. It was a great experience. It gave me the chance to be with my friends, and I also made some new ones. I love seeing the smiling faces of the crowd after each performance, and it made me feel like I was part of the school community. I was really excited to be part of this year’s Lion King, and I went to the auditions, just like last year, and when it was time for callbacks, I got a phone call that I was not allowed to be part of the play because I’m a homeschooler. This made me extremely sad, because there were no real reasons given. I just wanted to be in the ensemble. My friends who are in it again this year told me that the ensemble [rehearsals] take place after school, which is when I’m allowed to be there. I don’t understand why homeschoolers like myself are not allowed to be part of the ensemble. So I’m asking you if you could do anything to make it possible for homeschoolers like myself to be able to be part of the ensemble of the middle school’s drama club. Thank you for your time and your consideration.”
Asked to comment on the matter, schools Superintendent Maria Rice said last week that Benel had been “inadvertently allowed to participate” last year, and was the only homeschooled child to have been in the production. “The reason this child was in the play last year was by an error, because there were so many children, her name got included. I just found that out today. But it worked out, because they didn’t do any daytime practices last year. So it was kind of okay with the board’s policy.”
While parents in the U.S. have the Constitutional right to educate their children at home, equal access to extracurricular activities at the public school is a state-granted privilege for homeschooled children. In New York State, the rules of access are left up to the individual school district’s board of education, each of which determines its own policy. A homeschooler seeking to participate in a particular activity must contact his or her local school superintendent to ask for the privilege or make a presentation before the local school board for either a waiver or the adoption of an equal access policy.
The New Paltz Board of Education considered granting a waiver to Benel to allow her to participate, said Rice, but decided against it.
Rice said she was told that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 students in the play’s ensemble, a number large enough to require breaking the students into groups and holding lunchtime rehearsals that Benel is unable to attend. “The board took this very seriously, and talked about it and went back and forth, but with this many students involved and being halfway through the rehearsal schedule at this point, they felt opening it to one homeschooled student was opening it to many, and felt it was too late in the process.”
No other accommodations could be made, Rice added, because there are only two teachers directing the production and they are “stretched too thin.”
Will the district consider altering its policy for the next school year? “No,” said Rice. “The board wants to stick with their policy and they’re going to review it to make sure it’s perfectly clear. If it isn’t, they’re going to clarify it so that no other child gets their hopes up.”
Homeschooled students, said Rice, “are very welcome to any extracurricular club that meets after school. Of course by law they’re not allowed to participate in any interscholastic activities. But one way the homeschooled student could be part of the play is by joining the art club. They’re making props, scenery and costumes right now and that’s their way of participating in the play. And that’s what the district has offered. It’s already been offered to this child, and I’ve asked Dr. Wiesenthal [the middle school principal] to call the parent and remind her that this is going on now and she can participate this way.”
“This is news to me,” said Regina Moerikofer. “That’s the first I’ve heard of that. And it strikes me as a little rude to say ‘You’re not allowed to be on stage, but you can come and help decorate the stage,’ when the thing Kristie really wants is to be part of the ensemble, and have the whole experience of being on stage, with the singing and music and all that.”
Moerikofer said she understands that her daughter is not allowed on school property until after school hours, but she believes accommodations for homeschooled children could be made so they could attend afterschool rehearsals. According to students who are friends of her daughter, she said, the school is holding rehearsals for the ensemble after school as well as midday. “And I saw it myself at the school today,” she added. “Kristie is a member of the Reflections Club [the kids produce a literary magazine of poetry and observations] after school, and we saw the ensemble rehearsing.”
Moerikofer said she was told by Principal Wiesenthal that students can’t have three unexcused absences from rehearsals and continue to participate in the play, so with the daytime rehearsals, Kristie would miss too much if only participating after school. “But even if she missed one rehearsal,” Moerikofer said, “I don’t think it would be such an issue; the other kids would help her catch up. I told him, ‘this isn’t a Broadway show.’”
At least four or five other homeschooling parents that she knows of, said Moerikofer, have expressed interest in their children joining the drama club. “It’s not just our family. And if the school was really open to letting homeschoolers in, it’s easy enough to organize it so that the homeschoolers rehearse after school. Take the ones at lunchtime that are at the school, and let the homeschoolers come after school.”
As to how her daughter was able to participate in the drama production last year, Moerikofer said that she was told by Principal Wiesenthal at that time that the drama club was open to her daughter. “I specifically asked him, ‘what can she be a part of,’ and he said ‘the drama club.’ That’s why she was in it, and there was not a problem. Miss Holmes [Mary Holmes, a teacher at the school who directs the annual production] found out at one point that Kristie was a homeschooler and said to me, ‘she can’t be in this,’ but I told her, ‘Richard Wiesenthal said she can,’ and Miss Holmes got real quiet. And Kristie stayed.”
A request for comment to Dr. Wiesenthal went unanswered.
There were nearly 100 students in last year’s ensemble of The Little Mermaid, according to Mary Holmes. The students were divided into three groups, each rehearsing in a different location in the school under supervision of two teachers and a parent.
Holmes told this reporter then that “all of the students who auditioned for the play are eligible for the ensemble, as long as they commit to the rehearsal schedule.” And with almost one-third of the school’s students involved in the production in one way or another, she added, the annual play draws more student participation across the boundaries of sixth through eighth grade than does any other school activity. “And it’s really nice seeing them work together, seeing the eighth graders interacting with sixth graders. Between the cast and all the stage crew, it’s a real community-building opportunity.”
Moerikofer says she believes the school district does not really want homeschooled children to be part of that community. “What really bugs me,” she said, “is that we are a part of the New Paltz School District. We are paying taxes — a lot of taxes — and it’s not like we’re some independent group; we are a part of this school district. We have to file reports, quarterly reports and year-end, they’re checking those reports, and it’s not like we’re not doing our jobs.”
Moerikofer said she doesn’t understand how a school district that takes pride in inclusivity can exclude the homeschooled kids from an activity that so many children want to take part in. “This district is always talking about bullying and inclusivity, but they should think how it makes these kids feel when they’re kicked out like this. You go into the schools and everywhere you look there are signs reminding kids to think before they act, and to be an example to others. Then they treat these kids like they don’t care.”
Moerikofer said she stands by her view that the exclusion is being done deliberately to keep homeschooled children apart from the school. “I think it’s being done on purpose. I don’t know if it’s a matter of pride — if they’re so proud of that school play they want it to be only for the kids in school, and think, ‘why should kids from outside be on that stage’ — and that’s just my feeling, but that’s what I believe.
“They say they want to be so open and inclusive, and they even make bathrooms for transgender students; and that’s fine, but why one group and not the other? They want to be so sure that nobody is hurt, but they know the homeschoolers are interested in this and I think it would be such an easy fix. I think they found a little way to shut homeschoolers out, and that’s why I think it’s discrimination.”
She’s proud of her daughter for the way she stood up and spoke to the Board of Education, Moerikofer said, citing it as a good experience for her daughter and a learning experience. “Although I don’t know if the lesson she got was a good one.” ++