Heads of Their Class

Heads of Their Class

Springfield siblings Sam and Abby Clark, both home-schooled, will enroll in MIT in the fall.

Graduation at the Clark home in Springfield was a low-key affair in June. Although two children, Sam, 17, and Abby, 15, both were ending their high school careers, the two homeschooled students were already beginning to think about the next step in their academic journey — enrolling as freshman in the fall at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"We’re a very free-flowing family. We just kind of glided into preparing for MIT in the fall," said the students' mother, Katarina.

Not that graduation wasn't a cause for excitement. The Clark siblings have been homeschooled for their entire school careers, and this will be the first time they move away from Northern Virginia.

To get college-ready, the Clarks have both been dual-enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) for several semesters. This spring, they finished their community college education by taking Organic Chemistry II and University Physics together. Sam began at NVCC in the spring of 2003, at the age of 15, when he took General Chemistry. Abby joined him for Organic Chemistry I and University Physics a year later, at the age of 14.

"NOVA offered the perfect opportunity as a homeschooled student to take the lab components and the science courses we can’t do at home," said Sam Clark. "Obviously, we can’t … synthesize these compounds and grow bacteria, all that fun stuff (at home)."

Katarina Clark and her husband David, both former teachers, made the decision to homeschool their children before any of them started school.

"We wanted to teach the kids a perspective on life that was God-centered. We wanted them to hear from the classroom, from the teachers, how everything fits together under creation that God had made," said Katarina Clark, a Princeton grad who called her children's schooling "a unique experience."

THE SIBLINGS weren't originally supposed to graduate high school together, but once Sam started school, Abby just managed to keep up.

"We never had problems. Some people complain that they’re isolated, or they don’t like their family. We’ve just always gotten along really well, and our parents are great teachers, so it just worked out that way," said Abby Clark.

And, it turned out, Abby and Sam got along well, too. They paired up as a debate team and participated in competitions nationwide, and both made it twice onto a team for an international rocketry competition, which took them to the Czech Republic and to Poland.

When it came time for high school, instead of applying for admission at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, as many Fairfax County students do, the Clarks set their sights on college credit at NVCC.

"We kind of went against the normal stream, which would be putting talented kids in the talented school. We decided to take the talented kids and put them into the local college situation," said Katarina Clark, who had been impressed with NVCC after taking classes there six years ago. "It was a very maturing experience."

Involvement at NVCC provided both a academic and social bridge between their homeschooling experience and their undergraduate goals.

"I didn't just admit them because of their academic records. But as I got to know their parents and both kids, it was apparent they were exceptional in other ways," said John Thrash, dean of student development at NVCC. "It became apparent to me that (they) were both able to handle college-level work even before they attended here."

DESPITE THEIR dual-enrolled status, the Clarks were vice presidents of the Society of Physics Students at the Annandale campus, started a student debate group and the Students for Astrophysics and Aerospace Technology group, as well as joining the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.

Both Sam and Abby Clark have science-focused goals at MIT. Sam hopes to study chemistry and Abby bio-engineering. Though they applied to Harvard and Princeton, the decision was clear that they would go to the same college.

"We work together really well, as a team," said Abby Clark.

Betty Johnson, assistant director of admissions at MIT said the siblings went through the admissions process separately, and stood out individually.

"It's not typical for homeschoolers to be as outgoing as they are, and involved in things. They are clearly very able in all kinds of ways, and needed an environment that would support that," said Johnson.

The siblings plan on staying close in college, and possibly taking classes together, if their schedules allow.

"We’ve been doing this sort of thing for awhile now, so I feel ready," said Abby Clark.