Children darted across the grass carrying small balloons and then plopped to the ground trying to pop them. The relay runners came back and slapped the hands of the next children, as the games progressed for the springtime ritual known as Field Day.
The group of Harford County home-school families was using a Churchville park and simple props such as small orange cones, balloons, rubber balls and hula hoops for the event. Cathy Rodriguez, president of the Home School Association of Harford and Surrounding Areas, said she had spent $200 for athletic equipment for Field Day.
Home-school children don't have the benefits of an athletic department, she said, but rely instead on recreational centers to play soccer or basketball and participate in physical education cooperatives taught by parents.
Rodriguez said these students are often overlooked, and that's why their parents were not happy when a restaurant's essay contest, offering $5,000 in sports equipment as the grand prize, shut out home-school children.
"We could've used that $5,000 in equipment," Rodriguez said. "A child could've donated that to the recreational center for everyone to enjoy."
When the Subway sandwich chain's essay contest excluded students taught at home, thousands of parents flooded the restaurants' customer service line to complain. Subway restaurant officials quickly apologized for excluding home-school children from their "Every Sandwich Tells a Story" writing contest, which awards the winner's school the sporting equipment.
Subway officials promised to hold a similar competition in the future that would be open to students taught at home.
While the issue was resolved quickly, the Subway essay contest struck a nerve with some parents who teach their children at home. Many of these parents say it's an example of a wider problem in which their children are excluded from contests, scholarships and activities because they don't attend traditional institutions. The parents say the exclusion is not done out of malice or willful discrimination: The children are simply being overlooked.
"There have been other times with private competitions - sometimes home-school students are excluded," said Ian Slatter, director of media relations for the national Home School Legal Defense Association. "The exclusion occurs periodically from smaller competitions or contests."
But when a national chain like Subway prohibited home-school students from the competition, it caught parents' attention.
"I was annoyed, but it happens a lot where the prize isn't for home-schoolers," said Tonya Reynolds, a mother from Aberdeen who home-schools her children. "Some of these places don't realize how many home-school kids there are. They don't mean to exclude home-schoolers. It's disappointing, but it happens all the time."
When her two daughters, ages 12 and 15, hear about contests in which the winner gets to see the Cheetah Girls, the Jonas Brothers or a Miley Cyrus concert at their school, they ask her, "They won't come to our house, will they?"
Subway got into the pickle over the wording in their writing contest, in which children are given the first sentence of a story about a sandwich and encouraged to "cook up a story that is as delicious to read as a Subway sandwich" for sports equipment for their school, the publication of the winning essay, a Scholastic gift basket and a Subway gift certificate.
The wording on the contest explicitly read: "No home schools will be accepted," which triggered a swift reaction from parents when word spread throughout e-mail listservs.
Some parents called for a boycott of Subway; the Home School Legal Defense Association sent a letter to Subway calling the rules of the contest "extremely disappointing."
The next day, the sandwich chain issued an apology: "Our intention was to provide an opportunity for traditional schools, many of which we know have trouble affording athletic equipment, to win equipment. Our intent was certainly not to exclude home-schooled children from the opportunity to win prizes and benefit from better access to fitness equipment."
Mack Bridenbaker, spokesman for Subway, said the Connecticut-based company cannot change the rules of the contest, which began in February, but it will hold another contest that will be open to home-schooled children.
"We didn't mean to leave anybody out, but we did," he said. "We inadvertently excluded them, so we're doing what we can to make up for that."
The details of the next contest are being worked out, he said.
Slatter said the Home School Legal Defense Association's beef with Subway is done, for now.
The outcome of the mea culpa seemed palatable for most parents, including Jennifer Merkel, a Havre de Grace mother of five who home-schools her children.
"I was very happy, because it's one of the places we eat," she said. "We don't go to McDonald's. We go to Subway. There are only so many healthy places we can go."
Several years ago, there was a flap with a national pizza chain about the inclusion of home-school students in another contest. And in 2006, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey's high school writing contest about Elie Wiesel's book Night was open only to public- or private-school students. Winfrey's company said it was an oversight, but could not change the rules of the contest after it began.
"It's an oversight, where they didn't really think how to include home-schoolers," Slatter said. "That was Subway's problem as well." Government competitions include home-school students, he said, but often private contests and competitions "are written on autopilot - they don't make that next mental step."
When qualifications such as a grade point average are required, home-school students cannot participate.
"That's not a matter of discrimination," said Manfred Smith, president of the Maryland Home Education Association. "Not a lot of home-school students have a GPA. That sort of excludes them, but that's called life. That's one of the consequences of the ability to go through home schooling."
Home-schooling parents in Harford County have created a close-knit community, linked by listservs and associations where the families bond and create the same activities children enjoy at public and private schools, from football teams and cheerleading squads to robotics clubs.
"If you home-school, you lose some privileges," said Reynolds. "But I'd rather lose some of those privileges than to have my kids in public school."
2 million home-school students in the U.S.
33,000 home-school students in Maryland
72.4 percent of home-school students are from urban areas, 27.6 percent from rural areas
25.8 percent of home-school students come from a household in which income is $25,000 or less, 21.7 percent of home school students from $74,001 or more
Sources: National Center for Education Statistics, Home School Legal Defense Association, Maryland Home Education Association
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