Staying Home From School
Text and Photos
A dark Seattle sky threatens to add to 8-year-old Ty Scandora's backyard mud collection. His older sisters--Rhiannon, 13, and Rikki, 11--have disappeared indoors. While their father, Keith, plugs away at his 9-to-5 job at a big telecommunications company downtown, their mother, Julie, kneads bread at the kitchen counter.
In Baltimore, Ron Collins teaches at a nearby college, so he's able to make it home for the lunch his wife, Rachelle, has fixed. The screen door slams after he calls in 4-year-old Ron Jr. and 2-year-old Jared from the fenced-in yard behind their row house. Isabelle, nearing her first birthday, sleeps undisturbed in her crib in a corner of the kitchen.
Lorraine Hoyt recalls what it felt like growing up smart. Her politics are like her temperament--independent. That made it easier for her to decide not to send Zachary, 10, and Joanna, 14, to their neighborhood school in Raymond, Maine, a suburb outside Portland.
Although they number six, the Dunkel children don't feel cramped on their family's cattle ranch in White Sulphur Springs, Mont. The family, headed by Liz and David, is Brady Bunch-style: three boys and three girls, ranging in age from 18-month-old Mary to 14-year-old Kate. Books crowd their modest, three-bedroom home and fill in the hours between school and play.
At first glance, these families don't have much in common. They range from the devout to the agnostic. They live in urban and rural and suburban areas. They are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. But what they all share is that they have each chosen to teach their children at home--not for religious but for secular reasons.
Traditionally, home schooling has been branded as a fringe activity--the domain of Bible-toting parents and off-the-grid hippies. The most vocal home-schoolers--and best-organized politically--have tended to be the religiously motivated, often conservative Christians. And by nearly all accounts, they still make up a lion's share of the growing home-school ranks.
But as these family portraits illustrate, the movement is nudging its way into the mainstream. A new breed of home-schooler is emerging, motivated not by religious doctrine but by more practical concerns ranging from school violence to poor academic quality to overzealous peer pressure.
The families featured here are intended to offer a sliver of the spectrum--they are not meant as a definitive, representative sample of the movement. In fact, even the term movement is something of a misnomer. Home-schoolers are truly a loose conglomeration of individuals, many of whom bristle at the notion of being labeled or categorized in any way. Home-schoolers are branching out--not just in their numbers but in the diversity of philosophies, politics, and approaches represented within their burgeoning ranks.
"Home schooling has begun to be perceived as a viable educational option," says Scott Somerville, a lawyer with the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., a national, nonsectarian membership group with Christian leadership. Somerville calls home schooling the biggest education-reform movement in America. "It's not just 'religious freaks' anymore. I think educators find it easier to just write them off as a bunch of medieval throwbacks or 'just a bunch of fundamentalists.'"
Estimates on how many school-age children are being taught at home nationally range from half a million (about 1 percent of the total K-12 school population) to twice that. But home-school experts like Patricia Lines, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education's office of educational research and improvement, say reliable numbers are hard to come by. Not only do states define and track home-schoolers differently, but some parents simply do not comply with state laws requiring them to register their home-schooled children. Nor do they join local, state, or national home-school groups, another way of counting heads. Their children remain essentially invisible.
What is certain, Lines says, is that the recent growth in home-schoolers has been "steady, with no sign of letting up." Granted, some of that increase stems from better state reporting and data collection as home schooling has gained a higher profile, she says. But the rest is "real growth."
Home schooling is legal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, but the way the states regulate it--and whether they allocate any resources to enforce their rules--varies wildly. A total of 34 states specifically regulate home schooling; the vast majority, 40, do not require parents to have any specific qualifications for teaching; and 29 require students to have regular evaluations or take standardized tests.
But, for example, in Washington state--which the Home School Legal Defense Association ranks in the top 10 states with the most home-schoolers--parents aren't required to turn over the results of their children's evaluation to anyone. Other states require parents to send test scores "upon request" to state or local school officials.
Some states do set set cutoff test scores that home-schoolers have to meet. But even in those states, if the student fails to make the established score, the parents generally have a year or so to improve. There are no reported cases of a state yanking a parent's right to home school due to poor academic performance.
In the eyes of many teachers and school administrators, the apparent lack of quality control makes home schooling a dangerously deregulated enterprise. Both the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Education Associationin recent years have adopted resolutions critical of home schooling.
And, of course, educators can point to tales of parents--"David Koresh types" one state official calls them--who keep their children home because they don't want them to mix with children of other races or faiths. And then there are the stories of parents who, under the home-school label, put their children to work on the farm or in the family business.
"There are people who claim to be home-schoolers who aren't," Somerville says. "They're truants."
But if just trying to figure out how many children are home schooled in this country is a tangled affair, getting at the reasons behind why parents choose to eschew traditional schools and educate their children at home is even more elusive. Few states ask, let alone track, parents' reasons for home schooling. But many point to Florida, a state with a large home-school population, as one place where officials are looking for--and finding--some answers. In the 1994-95 school year, parents ranked dissatisfaction with the public schools above religious reasons--long in the No. 1 spot--as the most important reason for teaching their children at home.
Some see it as no less than a battle between parents and the state for the control of a child's mind. After all, home-school advocates reason, as institutions for the masses, schools are limited in how much they can accommodate one family's desires. Rather than fight the system, home-schoolers leave it.
It is a lifestyle choice, too. Home schooling usually means one parent--overwhelmingly the mother--will stay home and forego a full-time income. Studies show that most home-schoolers come from two-parent, solidly middle-class families. But observers are also starting to see more single mothers, some on public assistance, take on home schooling. They point to the growing number of habitual truants, gifted children, children with disabilities, and, in general, older children and teens being educated at home.
Parents' own educational experiences can also play into the decision to educate at home. Many remember being deathly bored at school. Or feeling neglected. Or stifled. And they want more for their children.
Despite the unfolding diversity among home-schoolers, commonalities do exist. Many parents demonstrate a fierce independence and a willingness--or eagerness--to buck the system. They choose to disregard assumptions about what's right or good or "normal" for their children. And they aren't afraid to make their own assumptions about what being a well-educated person means.
As a result, many educators see an inherent, if unintended, arrogance among home-schoolers: We, the untrained, can do as good or better a job teaching our children than you can.
But, in fact, many home-schoolers view traditional, state-run, compulsory schools as the blip in education history--a brief interruption in what for centuries was the norm. From their vantage point, it is the children in public schools who are part of some experiment. And it's not a very promising one at that.
Rhiannon Scandora, 13, works on an art project at her desk, squinting her eyes to focus on the tiny slits she makes with an X-Acto knife. She may stay with this intricate paper mosaic for 15 minutes, an hour, or two weeks. It is largely up to her. She may pick up the algebra textbook sitting under her desk and do a few math problems. Or maybe not. "People don't really seem to get it--that I don't really do 'school stuff,'" Rhiannon says. "It's hard to explain." The Scandoras are "unschoolers." Distinct from some other home-schoolers, unschoolers generally believe children learn best when left on their own. They think the best learning occurs when children want or need to learn something, not when they are
forced. School serves as an impediment to learning. In other words, the theory goes, learning is not a product of teaching.
For Julie Scandora, the theory made sense. She watched her children eventually turn off learning after they entered their private Montessori school--particularly Rikki, now 11. Lake Forest Park Montessori currently enrolls 200 children, from infant day-care through 6th grade.
The children in Rikki's 1st-grade class were required to write in their journals every day. At the beginning of the year, she wrote full pages. But as the year progressed, the entries became eerily predictable.
"It was always the same three sentences: what subject she had just finished, what she ate for lunch, and what she was doing next," Julie recalls. "You could just see the spirit squashed out of her. And this, I thought, was supposed to be a freer, more open school, so the other places would only mean much worse."
For a few years after Julie pulled her children out of school, Rikki--once an avid reader--refused to take books out of the library, something Julie attributes to school experiences that made learning "work" and, therefore, something to be avoided.
"I was dissatisfied with the whole institution of school," Julie says. "It was controlling their lives and standing in the way of them pursuing their own interests."
Julie attributes much of her thinking to the writings of John Holt, a teacher and author who once touted school reform but later, disillusioned with schools' potential for change, became an advocate of parents teaching their children at home. In 1977, Holt launched Growing Without Schooling, a bimonthly magazine on home instruction based in Cambridge, Mass. Many of the magazine's 5,400 subscribers hail from Washington state, a place where the unschooling movement seems to thrive.
"There are those unschoolers who do nothing and let their children have total freedom," Julie says. "And others schedule their kids to the hilt with activities. I don't do either. The parent's role is to guide the child. So within the unschooling group, I'm somewhere in the middle."
Julie calls herself anti-establishment. She gradually decided that schools are fatally flawed because, as institutions, they corrupt individuality. But she's not as unstructured as some of the unschooling families she's heard of, where most anything goes. And she's not a "hippie." Her ground rules are as follows: Rhiannon, Rikki, and younger brother Ty have to be awake by 7:30 a.m., visit the library on a regular basis, tell her where they're going and for how long, stay away from TV and videos, and not engage in any behaviors that hurt others.
Julie quit her job in the marketing department at the telecommunications company U.S. West Inc. in 1991 to stay home with the children. Though she has plenty of degrees behind her--a bachelor's in studio art from Smith College and an MBA from the University of Washington--she doesn't want her children to be forced down the same path.
"I didn't learn to think until I got out of the institutions," she explains, kneading bread on the kitchen counter. "I felt like somebody else had mapped out the course for me. Nowhere in the sequence is there time for you to stop and say, 'This is what I really want to do.' My intent is that my children would not have to go through that because they're spending their days figuring out what they're good at and what they want to look into."
The day begins as usual. After breakfast, Julie and the children are at the park up the street by 8:30 to take their dog, Bo, for a walk. Julie and Rhiannon chat with some elderly neighbors, while Rikki walks their dog to supplement her weekly allowance and Ty rides his bicycle over the wet grass. By 9:30, they're back at the house, and the children map out their day.
"I don't hover a lot, so I'm not always aware of what they're doing," Julie says. "We don't have math, science, or English as subjects, but we learn all those things without the labels."
Grocery shopping, for example, becomes math. The children must ferret out the cheapest goods, factoring in coupons, per-unit cost, and sale items.
Rikki spends a good deal of her day tending to, observing, or playing with the menagerie of animals at the house: Kirby, the blue parakeet; a family of walking stick insects; a colony of red ants; Miss Lea, the frog; and Crocus and Cottontail, the pair of rabbits in the hutch she helped build in the back yard. Or, she can be found reading, nestled in the bean-bag chair in the playroom. Once in a while, she may ask her mom for math problems.
Ty, at 8, is just learning to read (some unschoolers Julie knows have children as old as 13 who don't yet read). Today, he adds more detail to his spacecraft, a cardboard box complete with moving dials, buttons, and electric lights he rigged. During the day, he plays with other home-schooled children. But when school's out for the rest of the neighborhood children, a group of kids gathers in the Scandoras' yard to take turns on the tire swing.
In the playroom, each child has a desk. A bookshelf houses everything from the World Book encyclopedia series to The Canterbury Tales. Rhiannon's desk holds a set of 70-plus colored pencils, beading materials, and customized "RS BEADWEAR" cards for the jewelry she sells. The playroom is something of a gallery, with the children's careful drawings and paintings everywhere. Julie also spends part of her day painting in front of the bay window in the living room.
Rhiannon does her beadwork, listens to the radio, and reads--mostly science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries of late. She has read most of the classics--from Swiss Family Robinson to the Stories from the Arabian Nights--stacked on shelves in the bedroom she shares with Rikki.
She says she doesn't have much incentive to learn algebra--especially when she thinks she can solve problems faster without it than her mom can with it. History is OK, but World War II and the Civil War ranks below, say, ancient Egypt in terms of her own interests. Upstairs, in a room dominated by Rikki and Ty's Lego creations, her father's bookcases are stuffed with titles like Back Door to Richmond and Why the South Lost the Civil War.
On Tuesdays, Rhiannon gets together with another home-schooled friend, Allison. And every other week, she meets with a group of six unschoolers around her age. This particular Tuesday, she and Allison play Monopoly, Scrabble, and walk to get ice cream.
"In 7th grade, I didn't have that many friends, and it was kind of boring," Rhiannon says, since she only recently connected with the home-school group. Last year was the only time since she left school, in 3rd grade, that she's considered going back. "But it seemed like a lot to put up with just to make more friends," she says. So she decided against it.
Any outside activities the children are involved in are of their own choosing. Rikki takes horseback-riding lessons. The girls largely taught themselves to play piano. This summer, Rhiannon will go to Myrtle Point, Ore., to attend the "Not Back to School Camp," run by unschooling expert Grace Llewellyn, the well-known author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook. The registration form asks campers to sign after reading: "I am choosing to attend by my own free will. No parent, guardian, or other person is coercing me into attending."
When Julie decided on unschooling five years ago, her husband, Keith, had many concerns about his children's academic and social lives. When people come to the house, Keith still refers to the playroom as the "schoolroom," which amuses the children. His concerns have since diminished, he says, though he still wouldn't mind if his children went to high school part time. College, he says, wouldn't be bad either.
But Julie says she doesn't want the children in college unless they have a specific reason for going. She doesn't want them to go simply by default. So she encourages them to explore other ways--such as apprenticeships--to learn the skills they need to reach their goals. And she urges them to think about less traditional careers. She was disheartened, for example, when Rhiannon expressed doubts about being able to make a living selling her beadwork, which is what she loves and is good at.
"I don't have the requirement that they do something different just to be different," Julie explains. "But I'd be somewhat disappointed if they took the traditional route because I'd prefer they stay uncorrupted by a system."
But it's not always easy to maintain the hands-off approach, as Julie described several years ago in a letter to the editor published in Growing Without Schooling magazine: "A few months ago, I found my usually active 7-year-old lying on the couch. 'Bored?' I asked her. No was the reply. 'Can't think of what to do?' I tried again. No, she said impatiently. 'I know what to do; I just have to figure out how.'"
And, since she thinks organized sports are too competitive and--well, too organized--Julie is rounding up neighborhood kids to play pickup softball games. But the irony is not lost on her.
"I hope the kids will take over," Julie admits with a smile. "And it will become simply pickup softball instead of 'organized' pickup softball."
The Collins family has lived in this brick row house on a tidy block in the Mt. Royal neighborhood since 1991. Ron Collins points to the homes, ticking them off by owner: college professor, high school teacher, music instructor. One house is boarded shut--the neighbors suspect its former inhabitants were dealing drugs. Down the street are squat brick complexes of low-income housing. Beyond that--where the elegance of the Victorian row houses fades and leaded-glass windows are replaced by graffiti-splattered wooden slats--is where the family rarely ventures. Though they may not know it, the Collins family is part of a small but growing number of urban, black families gravitating toward home schooling. They don't really
identify with the "granola-hippie-type" or religiously motivated home-schoolers, though they say they certainly respect any family's right to choose their own educational path and philosophy.
"I don't see us as being part of a movement," says Rachelle, mother of Ron Jr., 4, Jared, 2, and Isabelle, 10 months. "I'm just finding the best way to raise my children given the context in which we live."
For the Collins family, the choice is a pragmatic one. They are troubled by what they see and hear about Baltimore schools. They worry that the system has low academic standards ("I don't want them congratulated at school simply for reading at grade level," Ron says). And they fear that students who want to excel often face ridicule from their peers in the predominantly black school system because being smart and doing well in school translates into "acting white."
Faced with paying off hefty loans taken out to pay for their own higher education, Ron and Rachelle know private schools are out of reach financially. But home schooling has become a viable alternative.
"If we lived in the 'burbs in Montgomery County, we never would've looked into this," Ron admits. "There are some outstanding teachers in this city, so I don't turn my nose up at public education--it served me well. But what they're confronted with confounds them--what the children bring with them today as far as social ills. The teachers' hands are often strapped."
The neighborhood school Ron Jr. would attend next fall is Mt. Royal Elementary-Middle School. The preK-8 school is 98 percent black, with half its 950 students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. Last year, students in Baltimore's cash-starved school system earned the lowest reading scores in the state on the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment.
In the Collins house, one is literally bombarded with words. Books--about 5,000 of them, Ron estimates--are crammed onto shelves in nearly every room. In the brick-walled basement where the kitchen and playroom are, a brightly colored alphabet banner runs across one wall. In the boys' rooms, Richard Scarry and Barney books share space with Dr. Faustus and The T.S. Eliot Letters.
Ron grew up in a small town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a product of the local public--and largely segregated--schools. He went on to Bowie State College in Maryland, earning Danforth and Fulbright scholarships, then studying linguistics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Georgetown University. He's now finishing up his doctoral dissertation while he teaches at Coppin State College, a historically black college in Baltimore.
Rachelle, with degrees from Howard University and the University of Chicago, recently earned an additional degree in optometry to ensure her family a solid income. She currently practices part time. A native of Harvey, Ill., she attended public schools through 6th grade, then moved into the Catholic school system.
Ron and Rachelle are not yet wedded to any particular philosophy or approach to home schooling. And though they are just starting, they say they plan to continue through the high school years, assuming all goes well. With a relatively flexible work schedule, Ron plans to continue to pitch in at home, too.
"We figure I have the right brain covered and Rachelle the left," Ron says with a laugh.
The Collinses see education as a family enterprise. Even if they were to send their children to school, Ron and Rachelle say they would consider themselves--and not the teachers--as the primary educators. Ron plans to volunteer as a tutor in the local schools, even though his children, for now at least, won't be part of them.
As a linguist, one of Ron's major concerns for his children is language. He fears that in the local public schools--where many students come from homes where dialect or "black English" is spoken--his children might not acquire standard English skills or fully understand the contexts in which speaking in dialect is appropriate.
"I don't want them to think standard English is the only thing out there and that they should look down on those who speak in dialect. I couldn't bear myself if I erased that dialect," Ron explains."I want them to know both. But it's important in this society to play by the rules, and the language of success is standard American English. They're not going to get that in public school here. The peer group games kick in--talking standard English is 'talking white,' and being smart isn't cool," he says, noting that some of his students at Coppin State still struggle with written and spoken standard English.
"We're not trying to segregate ourselves away from the real world," he continues. "We want our kids to have the skills to be able to make it out there. They need to be able to move in a number of circles."
Rachelle sees clear advantages to home schooling in the city--namely, resources. Ron Jr. already attends a children's program at the Walters Art Gallery. And she's looking into programs at the Baltimore Zoo and music lessons at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "Whatever they express interest in, Mommy's going to find a way to make it happen," Rachelle says, restacking the pbs videos the children have scattered around the playroom.
At first, Rachelle's mother, a 1st-grade teacher in the District of Columbia public schools, had concerns about home schooling. Ron Jr. had already tagged along to school with her from time to time, and she was eager for him to start kindergarten.
"She said, 'He needs to be in school.' Her idea was, we're teachers. We're trained to teach your children," Rachelle says. "But it didn't take too long for her to see that we were concerned about the schools and wanted the very best for our kids. She came around.
"And why should I automatically hand off the teaching of my children to someone else if I'm capable and motivated to do it myself?" Rachelle asks.
"Maybe if enough people 'abandon' the system, it will change eventually," Ron says, stuffing his briefcase for an afternoon class. "But I don't really see us as abandoning the schools. When it comes to something so precious as my family, then you can talk about 'abandonment.' I feel we have to do what we're doing."
More than a decade ago, Lorraine Hoyt began to realize there was something different about her first child, Joanna. The Hoyts were packing to move to a new house, and boxes with plastered-on labels were stacked throughout their apartment. Joanna, then 2, asked her mother: "What does 'couch' look like?" Lorraine was sure her daughter was just being silly. "I thought, 'Well, of course, you know what the couch looks like,'" she says. Moments later, she realized her daughter was asking her to spell out the word on paper. Joanna had read other items--books, plates, clothes--off the labels on the boxes. At 3, Joanna was reading "anything she put her hand to," her mother says. By 4, she had read the
entire Little House on the Prairie series. She had also begun to write her own stories. Lorraine still remembers the day Joanna came crying to her because she didn't understand why her friends wouldn't read her story after she had taken special pains to write in neat block letters. It was then that Lorraine realized she had to explain to her daughter that people learn at different paces. She suggested some games Joanna could play with her friends because regardless of how well she'd printed her tales, they could not yet read them.
"She was just devastated that she was going to feel different forever," Lorraine recalls, gently rocking in a chair that, like most of the furniture in the Hoyt home, appears slightly oversized to accommodate their tall frames. "School could've slowed her down and made her more 'normal' and look like everybody else, but it would've made her miserable. This home is a place where the kids are normal. It's a place they can be understood and don't always have to explain themselves."
Though their neighborhood public school is just a few blocks away, forLorraine Hoyt--a former public school teacher herself--the cost of making her children "fit" there was too high. Both Joanna, 14, and Zachary, 10, are considered "profoundly gifted" by virtue of their above-average intelligence. The Hoyts are among a growing number of families with gifted children who are opting out of school, says Kathi Kearney, a specialist in gifted-and-talented education and the founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in nearby Portland, Maine.
"The rhetoric of school reform is 'all children.' But often that doesn't really include gifted kids, and that's why people are bailing out," says Kearney, who works with the Hoyt family and others across the country. "Within the last 12 years, we've seen the number of highly gifted kids being home schooled go through the roof."
That growth should not come as a surprise. Many schools have slashed gifted programs as "extras" in times of tight budgets. And when the programs do survive, they are often branded as elitist. Add in the move away from ability grouping and toward cooperative learning in many schools, and gifted children are left in the lurch. They are often in and out of schools at various points in their education, Kearney says, struggling to find a fit.
"I had no idea what the solution was," says Lorraine, a product of the public schools in Wiscasset, Maine. "It just never occurred to me that not going to school was an option." That is, until she went to a meeting at the Hollingworth Center and heard from other families who were home schooling, often out of sheer desperation.
"I don't blame the local school. But I felt what my children really needed was time and space," Lorraine says. "And I was able to give them that here."
She adds softly: "Home schooling hasn't made them different. I did it because they were different."
Zachary's passion is anything to do with aviation, architecture, and technology. Model rockets and airplanes he has built protrude from his closet and under his bed. Where Zachary's shelves are stacked with titles such as Incredible Cross Sections and airplane manuals, Joanna's offer Les Miserables and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. One of the few authors they agree to like is J.R.R. Tolkein, whose quotes on a poster grace one wall of Zachary's room. They also like to make up words. Try "unresidentiated." Read homeless.
Zachary wears his suede moccasins untied, the leather laces flapping across the living room's wooden floor as he lopes off to collect one of his balsa-wood planes. Both children speak in precise, staccato-like quips. They explain what they like about learning at home--managing their own schedules, working at their own pace, having bigger chunks of time to work on projects. Joanna adds that "it's also nice being able to question: to think out a refutation to something."
Zachary: "Oh. What do you mean by reputation?"
Joanna: "No, refutation."
Zachary: "Oh, I know what that means. Refutation. Yes."
Both have had a taste of school. They attended the Raymond public schools--which constitute one 472-student, preK-6 school--for some classes, like art and music, for a while. Starting in 1st grade, Joanna took some academic classes with 5th and 6th graders in the school's gifted program. But by 3rd grade, she felt increasingly frustrated and conspicuous there.
"I did have a hard time relating to some of my peers," Joanna says. "I remember kids quizzing me on pop culture--like rock music, which I'd listened to and didn't really like--and I never really could answer them. I noticed pretty quickly that I didn't look normal to other people. After a while though, I felt rather proud to be a 'misfit.'"
Zachary's memories, from his kindergarten year, are a little less clear. While he says he wouldn't mind being with people besides his family more, he doesn't want that to happen at school.
"The social scene at school is, well, from what I've heard about it, is not very tempting," he says. "I'd be willing to go to school, but I'd rather not."
Neither Joanna nor Zachary has many "school friends." Most of their friends come from the network of home-school families they belong to in Portland, about 30 minutes away.
And they socialize in different ways as well: Joanna has a collection of pen pals across the country (from a former Harvard student to a home-schooled girl about her age who lives in Washington state), attends local conservation committee meetings, and volunteers in the art room of the public school she used to attend. Zachary has both young and adult friends from his rocket-launching club and "sky school" where he studies aviation on Saturdays.
Zachary and Joanna outline their typical day with the caveat that they don't always adhere to it. From 8 to 10 a.m. is study time, which they define largely for themselves, though Lorraine will nudge them if they haven't worked on a particular subject in a week or so.
Many of their textbooks are college-level, such as the two-volume history text Joanna has passed down to Zachary or the math book that covers basic addition through trigonometry and probability. Their father, William, brings home the textbooks from St. Joseph's College where he teaches chemistry. But he leaves most of the day-to-day home-schooling logistics to his wife. The children often supplement the college texts with more detailed books from the public or college library.
From 10 to 11, they play "wild outdoor games" or make up plays on their two-acre yard, which comes complete with a treehouse fort and bridge the two have constructed. From 11 to noon, it's project time, which may include working on a solar cooker, identifying and collecting herbs, constructing bird houses, or surfing the Internet doing research.
Then comes lunch--today it's homemade turkey soup and whole-wheat rolls--usually eaten with classical music playing in the background. After lunch, they take to their rooms from 1 to 2 for a little quiet time, mostly to read.
But from 2 to 3, the two are back together playing games, a tradition dating back to when they were 4 or 5 years old and would give literal stump speeches on the tree stumps in their front yard, adopt political personae, and hold their own legislative sessions. From 3 to 4, they either devote more time to their projects or write letters.
Joanna, ultimately, wants to be a writer and live on a farm. Zachary can only whittle down his options to five at this point: a pilot who flies people in and out of remote areas, aircraft designer, architect, reporter, or president. The latter, however, is the one he's least sure about.
"I'm thinking there are better things to do than sit in an office and sign papers or have to explain why you're not signing them," he says, the faintest hint of a grin creeping across his face.
The future is something Lorraine also ponders. She says she would consider sending her children to school if there were a more alternative, flexible school nearby that offered mixed-age groups and more student choice.
But for now, she is steadfast in her belief that her children would have been lonelier at school--surrounded by others they were supposed to feel connected to but didn't--than they are at home. Rather than send them someplace where they would risk feeling ashamed of the gifts they possess, she decided to help them build the self-confidence they will need to fend for themselves in the real world.
"I sometimes wonder if I don't try to make them conform or fit, where will they end up." Lorraine says. "But they're never going to fit anyway, so they might as well feel good about themselves and use that to be able to find places where they feel accepted. I wonder where they will fit in society or the world. But I don't know how it will end because as far as I can see, the experiment isn't done."
White Sulphur Springs, Mont.
The technicolor postcard sold in the drugstore on Main Street showcases two local landmarks: the town post office and the county courthouse. Both are just a few strides from the Buck-A-Roo bar and the Rainbow Supper Club. The Cattle Women's column in the local weekly newspaper, the Meagher County News, offers up evidence of the superiority of eating beef, preaching to the choir in this predominantly ranching community of 1,000. The town's bulletin board announcing coming events is nearly blank, save for the high school sports calendar. Basketball games, residents report, are often standing-room only. Driving north of town for about a dozen miles, a handful of ranch signs dot the otherwise uninterrupted rolling brown hills,
sporadic tufts of sagebrush cartwheeling across the highway. After passing a small lake, a one-lane, shale-rock road opens to the left, winding through the hills where a group of elk are feeding and over a trickle of river. Seven miles later, the road turns to dirt. Then, the Dunkel ranch appears: a modest, three-bedroom house and a series of small barns and bunkhouses, kids' bicycles strewn about.
This solitary--albeit scenic--route is one of the reasons the Dunkels decided to teach their six children at home. None has ever beento school. During the long winter months, with heavy snows and frequent subzero temperatures, the roads can be impassable. The school bus would only come as far as the paved highway.
"Getting to school would be a very chancy kind of thing," says Liz Dunkel, whose children range in age from 18 months to 14 years. "It was obvious that home schooling would solve that problem."
It was also a conscious lifestyle choice. Leaving the ranch was not an option. David Dunkel grew up in White Sulphur Springs, attending the local public schools, living part of the year in town and part on the ranch his family has worked since 1913.
Many students who attend the local schools board in town with relatives or friends because home is too far away to drive every day. The Dunkels' eldest child has a friend who lives 45 miles from school and has to wake at 4 a.m. to get to school for basketball practice at 6. Weary parents are often found sipping coffee in a Main Street cafe at 9 p.m. waiting for their children to finish their sports, David says. The Dunkels didn't want that life.
"If my kids were away eight hours a day, five days a week in school, the school has the best hours of my child," Liz says. "And I've got the leftovers--when they're asleep or needing to go buy tennis shoes for basketball."
The Dunkels also had concerns about the schools' academic quality. This year's senior class from White Sulphur Springs High School numbers 26. There are 279 other children enrolled in grades K-11 in town.
"Sports are more important than Shakespeare in the schools here," Liz says. "When you see they hire a teacher who has a 25-year football coaching career--who incidentally will be teaching biology even thoughhe taught math before--it tells you about the priorities."
For David, described by his wife as a rancher who reads Chaucer, home schooling is a matter of practicality.
"If we felt there were some reason, academically or socially, to send them there, we would," he says. "But frankly, there's not much there that we can't provide here. It just seems like a lot of bother."
Liz's own schooling also played a role in the decision to teach the children at home. She spent her elementary years in Catholic schools, junior high in public school ("dismally boring"), and high school at a private boarding school ("inspiring"). But private schools are not an option for the Dunkels. Liz says they are too far away and too costly. In a good year, when cattle prices are stable, the Dunkels pull in a $35,000 income to support their eight-member family.
By 7 a.m., the Dunkel children--Kate, 14, James, 12, Conor, 8, Stuart, 6, Phaedra, 4, and Mary, 18 months--are wiping sleep from their eyes at the long, rough-hewn plank table and benches David built. Platters of pancakes steam before them. Their Japanese guest, one of the dozen or so International Agricultural Exchange Association trainees who've worked as a ranch hand for the Dunkels over the past decade, pours a glass of milk for Phaedra.
After breakfast, the same kitchen table the family gathers around for meals three times a day is where school happens. Sticky syrup plates give way to green coffee cans filled with pencils, pens, scissors, and tape. School for the Dunkels runs Monday through Saturday, until noon, and centers on the Three R's. Science occurs more naturally on the ranch, Liz says. Every time a cow is butchered, for example, the children dissect the eyeballs and other assorted organs to examine under their microscope.
Each child--except for the two youngest--has a plastic bin full of works in progress, textbooks, and the journals Liz requires them to write in daily. An alphabet chart runs above the kitchen window. A pencil sharpener is mounted on the windowsill overlooking the barns.
One April morning, Liz flips through grammar flashcards with Conor, while she cradles a nursing Mary. Kate works on algebra II problems. Stuart counts quarters, nickels, and dimes. And James mostly procrastinates, mapping elaborate columns with a ruler, ostensibly, to be filled with math problems.
"I see that, James," Liz admonishes. "Get back to it."
When Liz helps Kate with an algebra question, Stuart and Conor slip away from the table into the living room, unnoticed for the time being. Eventually, Liz rounds them back to the table. Kate appears nonplused when Mary starts to shriek or Stuart and Conor start roughhousing on the floor. She often helps the others study and, this morning, takes over reading aloud from Ivanhoe as Liz stirs a vat of beef spaghetti sauce for lunch. The boys page through Kingfisher's illustrated History of the World to learn more about the medieval era.
As far as Liz can tell, Kate is the most academic of the crew so far. She has won awards for her stories in Cricket magazine and often reads for hours. The first formal classroom she sits in may be in college--she intends to go "somewhere good."
The Dunkels hold roughly 180 days of school, though the schedule fluctuates depending on what's happening on the ranch, as noted by Liz's daily log of each child's work in her well-worn gray planner. Take the week of 3/19: "Everyone is helping with the calving. It has been difficult this week, minus 30 and snow."
Home schooling has not always gone smoothly.
When she first started, Liz felt self-conscious because she has no college degree. And--as is common in rural areas like this--the schools are the cornerstone of the community. Opting out is not taken lightly.
"I've been told by some in town that 'we need every child down there because we're losing money.' David has been accosted in town by someone who said, 'Why are you letting Liz do this? It will ruin your kids.'" Many, she notes, have since recanted on the latter point.
But James has concerned Liz. He has problems reading, at times reversing letters, though Liz sees signs of improvement. She has taken him to reading specialists and eye doctors to little avail. Still, she's encouraged that James--who has become a Calvin and Hobbes devotee--continues to write and read on his own.
"I sometimes wonder, am I doing the best thing for him? But then I see kids coming out of White Sulphur who graduate from high school and can't read. So if I thought they could really help, I'd send him tomorrow," she says. "If he's going to read anywhere, it'll be here. There are books all over this house. I love to read. His father loves to read. We read to them all the time. But it's been terrifying at times."
The Dunkels know what they want as an end result of the education they're providing. They like the self-reliance that living on a ranch requires and want to pass that on to their children.
"I wanted my children to be certain kinds of people--people who'd identify birds and plants and hike in the hills rather than watch TV," Liz says. "I wanted them to be highly motivated academically and to have the kind of educational experience in which that motivation occurs. And that is not public school. I went. I know. It's much more important to me that they be good, moral, honest, and brave people than get a Ph.D. from Harvard and be jerks."
Over time, Liz says, she's seen the connection between education and religion more clearly. School time now also includes discussions about biblical principles. Sharing her faith--which, she says, if it has to be labeled, would be fundamentalist Christian--with her children has become one of the things she enjoys most about home schooling.
"Years ago, when I went to visit a few home-schoolers who were religiously motivated, I thought that's all fine and good and it's like church, but let's get on with the academics," she recalls. "But education has to include humanity, too."
The family is not totally removed from the community or the schools: The 4-H club the children belong to often meets at the schools, as do the hunter-safety classes James attends. Kate takes piano lessons every other week in Bozeman, a 200-mile round trip. And the children make regular visits to the local nursing home for community service.
Kate has two good friends in the area: One goes to school in town, and the other is home schooled. While she says she gets along with the girls in town well enough, she can't figure out why they're so "boy crazy." She knows she's different from many of the girls her age at 4-H, who spend their weekends watching TV or talking on the phone. Kate opts for reading, horseback riding, training her dogs, and striking out on long walks, taking in views of the Little Belt Mountains that rise beyond her family's land.
After lunch, when school is over, the children are on their own. They often help out on the ranch, ride horses, or play in their "miniature Montana"--a plot of land where the boys have set up a mini-ranch, complete with tiny fencing, hay feeders, trucks, and real wheat growing in the spring. When dusk falls, the children straggle into the house for dinner.
After the children have cleared the table, the family settles into the living room for reading time--the Dunkels don't own a TV. Conor and James sprawl out on the faded flowered sofa while Stuart and Phaedra sit on pillows on the floor as Liz reads aloud from Green Grass of Wyoming and the sky outside turns cobalt blue and swallows the mountains. Kate dislikes the book, so she reads on her own at the kitchen table. David has gone out to the barn to check on the calves.
"I've come this far, and the schools may neverbe able to get me back," Liz says, once the children have been tucked in. She turns off the coffee pot that perks all day.
"They can't replace my family," she adds. "That's my career. And when my kids declare independence, hopefully, I'll be able to shut my mouth."