From the time he was in grade school, Kolohe Andino was a surfing prodigy. By age 15, Andino won a record nine National Scholastic Surfing Association titles, including the prestigious Open Men's division, traditionally a springboard to the professional ranks. With a slew of sponsors, including Red Bull, Nike 6.0, Target and Oakley, and a budding career, Andino has followed a path favored by many of his teenage surfing peers: Two years ago, he said goodbye to his public school and enrolled in a homeschool program that permits him to travel the world chasing waves. Last week, as his former classmates sat through science and Spanish instruction at San Clemente (Calif.) High School, Andino, 16, surfed in Bali at the Oakley World Pro Junior, where he was eliminated in the fourth round by eventual event champion Jack Freestone.
"At the start of ninth grade it got way too hectic and I had to move into a yearlong homeschooling program," says Andino, who estimates he spends about one-third of the year traveling. "I wanted to get a really good education and still be able to focus on my goals with surfing."
With action sports now an estimated $20 billion global business, and sponsors providing substantial salaries to young talent in an effort to lock up the next generation of stars, a growing number of athletes in surfing, skateboarding, BMX, motocross and snowboarding have discovered that their career aspirations conflict with school. For those who don't drop out altogether, homeschool has become an increasingly handy option.
Says Andino: "Pretty much every single high-level surfer at my age I know, believe it or not, is doing some sort of homeschooling program."
According to the latest data from the United States Department of Education, 1.5 million students were homeschooled in 2007 (about 3 percent of the school-age population) which represents a 75 percent increase from eight years earlier. But the trend -- which differs from state to state and household to household -- has not been universally embraced. The National Education Association, a teachers' association, makes the statement in their current official resolutions that "homeschooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience."
Homeschool students are not required to take standardized tests under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Therefore, direct comparisons between student performance at traditional schooling versus homeschool are difficult to make. But in action sports, the rise of homeschooling has critics who say it reflects a broader attitude that does not place a priority on education, leaving many athletes shortchanged once their careers end.
In our sport, way too many parents are jumping the gun.
-- Peter Townend
"It's way different than traditional sports where kids are encouraged to go to college," says Mitch Varnes, a Florida-based agent who represents professional surfers, including Clay Marzo. "[Sponsors] encourage kids to drop out of school or be homeschooled at 14, 15, 16 by paying them. I think it's a fantasy land. It's bull. The industry chews them up and spits them out and they wind up laying bricks or waiting tables or something."
Peter Townend, a world surfing champion in 1976 and coach of the USA Surf Team at the World Junior Surfing Championships from 2004-2007, has watched with dismay at the rise of homeschooling. "In our sport, way too many parents are jumping the gun," he says.
In snowboarding, aspiring professionals often enroll in accredited ski and snowboard academies. Scotty Lago, the bronze medalist in halfpipe at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, took a different path. When officials at his school in Seabrook, N.H., complained about mounting absences due to snowboarding, Lago enrolled in a homeschool program for eighth and ninth grades. With both of his parents working full-time, Lago often studied without supervision. "It wasn't a good situation," he says.
After two years, Lago stopped doing the work altogether. "I just kind of slowly faded away from it," he says.
By age 16, Lago turned professional as a snowboarder with a full slate of sponsors. Today, at 22, he has no regrets. "Snowboarding was my life," he says. "School and every part of my life was second string to snowboarding."
Lago never earned his GED, but his Olympic success has ensured him a healthy career, at least in the short term. Few action sports athletes, however, will experience Lago's success.
Varnes and Townend cite the competitive side of surfing, in which only the top 32 in the world qualify to compete on the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour, the sport's elite level. Of those, perhaps a dozen will enjoy long, prosperous careers, they say.
Still, Townend, of Huntington Beach, Calif., understands the powerful temptation a large payday places on action sports athletes and their parents. His son, Tosh, dropped out of school in 10th grade to become a professional skateboarder. "I did support the decision at the time," he says. "He was making more than the teachers. When you're making six figures as a 16-year-old "
Two years ago, Tosh Townend parted with his shoe and board sponsor, Element. Now 25, he's married with a daughter, still skating for sponsors, and working as a consultant to the skateboard industry. Peter Townend says Tosh has saved most of the money he earned during his career -- eventually enough to provide a comfortable retirement.
That wasn't the case with Frankie Hill. A pioneering street skater during the late 1980s and early 1990s for Powell-Peralta -- the leading brand in the sport at the time -- Hill was one of the first to turn professional based strictly on his performance in videos. Hill, of Santa Barbara, had a pro deck and was earning $5,000 per month by his senior year in high school. "I used to travel, go to Japan and make $500 a day signing autographs," he says.
Hill earned a high school diploma, but his skate career was short-lived. While on a photo shoot in 1991, he attempted to ollie over a wall and landed awkwardly, blowing out his left knee. By 1993, broke and broken, he moved in with his sister. He was 22.
"It was hard to concentrate after the life I had been through," Hill says. "I was depressed for two years."
His next job? Delivering brake parts. "My big goal was to work at a liquor store," says Hill, who five years later used a worker's compensation settlement from his skate injury to enroll in college and become a dental technician. "I had no plans."
Varnes has watched surfers face similar struggles. "These people have been somebody," he says. "They've been in magazines. They were surf stars. You think he's going to be a plumber?"
At 36, Shea Lopez has mostly concluded his days as a competitive surfer, 10 years of which were spent on the World Tour. Today, Lopez, who lives in Daytona Beach, Fla., with his wife and 4-year-old daughter, is hoping to make the transition to a career working for a company in the surf industry either in marketing or as a team manager.
"None of us could retire off of what we did," Lopez says about his fellow competitors on tour. "By 32, you're done being a pro surfer. The price to pay is, 'What do you do now with a limited education?'"
Lopez graduated from public high school in Florida but immediately began traveling the world to surf full-time, supported by a salary and travel budget from his main sponsor, Billabong.
"It's detrimental to your surf career to get an education," says Lopez. "I wish I would have had a chance to go to even two years of college. I wish that option was available at that time."
Still, Lopez sees the rise of homeschool as a positive development for surfers enrolled in the right type of program. He says many of his peers in public school either dropped out or earned a D-minus average by "slipping through the cracks."
Today, Lopez's 17-year-old brother, Matt, a top amateur, attends a homeschool program overseen by a former school teacher. Other up-and-coming Floridians are enrolled in the program, including Evan Geiselman, who with Andino is considered among the top teenage talents in the U.S.
"He's gotten much more knowledge out of a homeschool program than public school," Shea Lopez says about Matt.
In motocross, Mitch Covington has heard all about the stereotype of the homeschool student "that's not getting educated and he's as dumb as a rock, and he's going to get hurt."
Covington's 14-year-old son Thomas is a top amateur motocross racer for Kawasaki. "A lot of people homeschool for various reasons," Mitch Covington says. "Ours started out because we were required by contract to be at races spread out over the U.S. We couldn't do it and go to school."
And while Covington allows that not all homeschool is created equal, he insists Thomas has received a better education than what was offered in their rural district in Alabama, where his two older sons graduated from high school.
Terry Adams, a champion in flatland BMX, grew up in Hammond, La., where the public school did not provide a program to accommodate his dyslexia. He began homeschooling, in part, because of his learning disabilities. "The main reason," he acknowledges, "was to ride and be a professional rider. I knew my best chance was to be out of school."
Still, Adams feels homeschool "made things quite a bit easier." With instruction from his mother, and a private tutor, Adams graduated from high school early and enrolled at Southeastern Louisiana University at age 15. He dropped out of college after a semester and began a career as a pro flatland BMX rider at 16.
"Maybe the work ethic, working from home, maybe it helped me succeed," says Adams, 27.
It's a fantasy land. The industry chews them up and spits them out and they wind up laying bricks or waiting tables or something.
-- Mitch Varnes
For Andino, homeschool means that when he's not traveling, he's working with a teacher six straight hours each day to make up his studies. "I think it's worth it big-time," he says. "I feel I am getting a much better education than I would in a public school."
Yet homeschool is not for everyone. Several prominent athletes -- Tony Hawk and Shaun White come to mind -- have found a way to balance their sports with public school programs. Ryan Sheckler left public high school after one year, but enrolled in a private school program to finish his degree.
Chaz Ortiz, 16, who won the 2008 Dew Tour season in park, began 11th grade last month at his local public school outside Chicago. "It's a lot of work, but it's worth it," says Ortiz, who enjoys hanging out with friends and going to homecoming when he's not skating. "I want to get my high school degree."
His dad, Mark, cited additional reasons for remaining in public school. "If he wasn't in school, his sponsors would have him all over the country," he says. "I've seen kids go off on the wrong path when they're on the road because they weren't guided."
Courtney Conlogue, who graduated from the private Sage Hill School in Newport Beach, Calif., in June, has qualified for the women's surfing World Tour next year. While in high school, Conlogue competed in track and field, and discovered she had a passion for art. Some nights she stayed up until 2 a.m. cramming for exams or making up missed work.
"Just accomplishing it is what's going to make the whole high school diploma worth it because it was a lot of hard work," says Conlogue, of Santa Ana, who declined a wild card entry into the prestigious Triple Crown series on the North Shore of Oahu last year because it would have interfered with school.
With high school complete, Conlogue, 18, plans to pursue a bachelor's degree in business. She has begun taking a college correspondence course in economics. "I'll be able to do college while doing the Tour," she says.
Courtney's mother, Tracey, considered homeschool before deciding against it. "Most of the young gals she competed against chose homeschooling or online, things that were more flexible with their careers, or what they were hoping would be their careers, and they traveled all the time," she says.
Despite the prevalence of homeschooling, Tracey Conlogue saw shortcomings. "The traditional setting offered more than I could offer her in a homeschool setting."
Andino -- a sun-kissed, towheaded incarnation of the California surfing archetype -- admits that in at least one respect he, too, has found homeschool somewhat lacking.
Asked what, if anything, he missed about being enrolled in a California public school, Andino replies: "Honestly, probably meeting girls that are not in the scene."