For many aspiring college athletes, traversing the waters of the NCAA's Clearinghouse can resemble an episode of Deadliest Catch. Usually things turn out OK, even if the process of getting cleared results in a couple of bumps, a couple more bruises, and a stress-filled month or two. But every so often, it hits a snag, whether it's a core class that isn't counted when an athlete transfers to a new school, a test score that gets flagged, or a some other kind of rogue wave that even Sig Hansen can't captain his way through.
If there is one thing we know about the NCAA's Eligibility Center, it is that you won't pass unless all your i's are dotted, your t's are crossed, and your p's and q's are minded. Things will get even more difficult when the Class of 2016 finally makes it to college. The minimum eligibility requirements will be raised --- a student-athlete with a 2.5 GPA will need a score of 1,000 on his or her SATs -- which, in turn, will increase the temptation for academic impropriety among incoming recruits.
When the process of becoming eligible can be such a big headache, it makes you wonder why anyone would want to further complicate matters for themselves. For the parents of Justin Jackson, a Houston native and top 30 recruit in the Class of 2014, the answer was simple: Justin was too smart. While growing up outside of Cincinnati, he got so far ahead of the rest of the students in his class that he wasn't being challenged, so his parents pulled him out of public school when he was in fourth grade and began home-schooling him.
"Home schooling was for education," Justin's mother Sharon says. "We saw a lot of his time was actually being wasted. We decided to go that route [because] we enjoy the Christian perspective that we taught from with the curriculum that we used."
On its surface, home-schooling sounds like an easy way for a parent to ensure that their kid gets qualifying grades. What better method is there to improve a GPA than to take control of the grading process? But in practice, home-schooling is much more structured than most parents realize.
For younger kids -- including Jackson's younger siblings -- "they just do it at home and my mom teaches them," he says. But as students get older and classes get more advanced, the timeline of the curriculum begins to resemble that of a college course. Jackson participates in a co-op, which means that he meets with a group at a church for two days each week. Teachers come in, give lectures and hand out assignments for the coming week. It's a schedule that Sharon believes will help prepare her son for the rigors of receiving a college education.
"We think it is preparing him for college because he understands what he has to get done before he can do the other fun things," she says. "It's a matter of priority. You need to get these things done, and he's adapted to that. It's something that me and my husband don't even worry about at this point when he goes to college because he understands that concept of prioritizing his class work."
Part of the reason that Jackson is able to thrive in a home-school environment is that he is very much a self-starter. He takes pride in his academics and is motivated to do well in school, which is a fairly unique trait to find in an elite high school athlete. "Most of the week, I'm at home doing homework by myself," he says. For a student who is more inclined to play Call of Duty than learn how to find the limit of a function when left to his own devices, home-schooling is probably not going to be the best option.
That work ethic required has benefits outside of the classroom as well. Time management and the motivation to succeed are part of the reason why Jackson is being courted by the likes of Texas, Baylor, Washington and Georgetown. If he demands this much of himself off the court, then the odds are good that he understands how to put in the work to fulfill his potential on it. And as an athletic, 6-foot-8 combo-forward with a soft touch on his shot, his ceiling as a basketball player is high.
According to Jackson's mom, Justin is the one who decides when it's time to study and when it's time to play ball. "He's responsible for his own work," Sharon says. "I actually don't participate."
That sounds great as a quote in a story, but it requires much more than a soundbite and a parent's promise in order to convince the NCAA that a home-schooled kid's transcript is on the up-and-up. Sharon has seen more than her fair share of people who are trying to use home-schooling as a 'get-eligible-quick' scheme, which is why the Jacksons have been extremely diligent in documenting Justin's academic path so they can prove to the NCAA that they didn't, as she put it, "skirt the rules."
"We've actually talked to college coaches, so we're checking it," Justin says. "The college coaches said there's no problem, so we're just making sure early on that I have everything that I need to graduate and everything that I need to get into college. Right now, it's not really a problem."
The process has been made easier thanks to Jackson's former HCYA teammate, Danrad "Chicken" Knowles. (HCYA, which stands for Home-Schooled Christian Youth Association, is a team that allowed home-schooled athletes to compete at the high school level.) A top 50 recruit in his own right, Knowles is headed to play for James Dickey at the University of Houston next season. Sharon said that watching him go through the process -- and keeping Knowles' guardians on speed dial to answer any questions she may have -- has been a blessing.
Organization is the key. The checklist required by the NCAA can be found here and it resembles what would be found on a typical transcript. But instead of relying on counselors and schools to put together a class schedule that will meet NCAA requirements for core courses, the onus falls on the families.
The good news for Jackson is that he has a family that fully buys into home-schooling. So not only will he be eligible when he finishes his high school degree, he'll be well-prepared academically for college courses. And that is something the Jacksons value more than sports.