An honor society for home-schoolers; Shut out of campus chapters, N. Texans may get own version soon

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 15A

Hey, kid, think you’re pretty smart?

Want to join the National Honor Society – a prestigious bunch that does good work and looks awfully nice on your college applications?

Well, if you’re a home-schooler, you’re out of luck. NHS won’t take you.

That’s why a group of Houston-area parents have started an honor society just for home-schoolers. They’re about to launch nationwide.

“I’m always amazed at some of the success stories in home-schooling,” said Joanne Juren, founder of Eta Sigma Alpha. “This is a way for those successes to be recognized by the outside world.”

Home-schooling parents say it’s another example of how they have to work a little harder to get recognition for their children.

The National Honor Society was founded in 1921 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Its members are chosen by faculty members on the basis of academic abilities, leadership skills and character. Once admitted, society members typically do community service.

But because the selection process typically involves seven or more faculty members, home-schoolers aren’t eligible.

“If our structure allowed it, we’d be happy to accept them, but it’s a school-based organization,” said David Cordts, the group’s associate director.

That didn’t sit well with Ms. Juren, a former public school teacher and assistant principal. She thought home-schooled kids should have an equivalent honor to show college admissions offices.

First came the name. Eta and sigma are the Greek letters for “h” and “s,” and alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The intended meaning: Eta Sigma Alpha is home-schooling’s first honor society.

To give the group validity, Ms. Juren set high entrance requirements for students. The National Honor Society requires a 3.0 grade-point average, although individual chapters can set higher bars.

To get into Eta Sigma Alpha, a student must have a 3.5 grade-point average – plus a high score on a standardized test. That could be a 1200 on the SAT, a 26 on the ACT, or a ranking in the 90th percentile on any of a number of other tests.

The testing requirement is meant to battle against one of the criticisms home-schoolers face – it’s tough to know how legitimate a grade-point average is when the student’s parent is doing the grading.

“I know my daughter does excellent work, but I know that in the future, people aren’t going to be able to judge her in the same way I do,” said Connie Brzowski, whose daughter Jenny is president of the Houston ESA chapter. “They’re going to need something to validate what I already know.”

Since the first chapter opened in 1999, nine other chapters have started, as far away as Oregon. There are no chapters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area – yet. In the last few weeks, at least five North Texas parents have contacted Ms. Juren about starting chapters.

“People need to know there are home-school children out there who are able to meet an exceptional challenge, who have a thirst for learning,” said Feyi Obamehinti, a Cedar Hill home-schooling parent who plans to launch a local chapter.

The group was recently featured in a prominent home-schooling national magazine, and a national home-schooling association is about to start promoting it to its members. “The national interest is really increasing,” Ms. Juren said.

The first chapter, in Houston, remains the largest chapter, with more than a dozen active members. They’ve spent time assembling DNA testing kits to give to parents worried about child abductions and are doing other community service activities. A day working at a local food bank is coming up.

“It’s an opportunity to be involved with other home-schoolers and meet some interesting people,” said Jenny Brzowski, the owner of a 1460 SAT score.

While she enjoys meeting her peers and doing good work, she’s also aware of perhaps ESA’s greatest benefit: “It’s an excellent thing to put on your transcript.”

“For a lot of kids in Eta Sigma Alpha, it opens doors into honors programs, scholarships, colleges,” Ms. Juren said. “Before, when they saw that National Honor Society line on another child’s record and our child had nothing, that gave the other child a plus. This has given us that same leg up.”

The National Honor Society doesn’t appear to be put upon by their new, smaller rival. “It’s separate turf,” Mr. Cordts said. “We’ve never said NHS should be the only method of recognizing students.”

In fact, he said he’s happy to know about Eta Sigma Alpha. Now he’ll have somewhere to direct the home-school parents who call his office, asking if their children can join NHS. He said he gets those calls several times a month.