Education

Home Schoolers Add Twist To Traditional Graduation Fete

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 11, 2003 5 min read
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As time drew near for Bethany Messersmith and her 47 fellow graduates to march into an auditorium to the “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1,” the 18-year-old turned to a friend and said, “I have to sit down.”

Alan Messersmith hugs his daughter Bethany, as her mother, Miriam, looks on. Bethany's parents presented her diploma during a graduation ceremony for home schoolers on May 30 in Lancaster, Pa.
Alan Messersmith hugs his daughter Bethany. Bethany’s parents presented her diploma during a graduation ceremony for home schoolers on May 30 in Lancaster, Pa.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week

More than a tad anxious about the speech she was about to deliver to hundreds of people, even though she had practiced it “tons of times,” Bethany found her nerves were getting the best of her.

Such feelings of nervous excitement were common among the students in a Friday-evening graduation ceremony in a chapel here at Lancaster Bible College.

In many ways, the May 30 event mirrored hundreds of others being held this spring by private Christian high schools across the country. The well-planned ceremony was not, though, for classmates departing their school’s campus, but for Christian home schoolers.

A rite of passage for most public and private high school students, graduation ceremonies are becoming more common for home-schooled children as well.

The event was sponsored by a home schooling umbrella organization, the Coalition for Homeschoolers Across Lancaster County, or CHALC.

As the home schooling movement has gathered momentum, so have the efforts of home schooling parents to provide opportunities for recognition or social interaction that fill in for what their children would have experienced if they had attended private or public schools.

“One thing that would be a drawback for home schooling is a lack of socialization,” said Steve Graybill, who energetically led the rehearsal for the CHALC “class of 2003.” His son, Ryan, who has been home-schooled for nine years of his education career, walked across the stage.

The CHALC graduation “allows them to be a part of a graduating class,” Mr. Graybill said.

Caps and Gowns

Shortly before the ceremony began, graduating senior Hannah Day Wilson echoed the sentiments of her classmates, exclaiming, “This has been a day I’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

The graduates had spent an hour and a half practicing their roles. They wore gaps and gowns over fine clothes, and some sang in an ensemble or gave speeches. They watched a video featuring photos from their childhoods, sang hymns, and listened to a commencement speaker who encouraged them to seek a life of serving and worshiping God rather than money or power or popularity.

And, of course, the graduates walked across a stage to receive their high school diplomas.

Their parents had paid $100 a child to give them the opportunity to graduate in style. Most of the diplomas handed out at the ceremony were issued by home school organizations such as the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency and had been approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as the equivalent of a public high school diploma.

CHALC sponsored its first home schooling graduation seven years ago— with seven graduates. Over time, the number of graduates has grown, and CHALC has added new activities. This year, CHALC sponsored a formal banquet for the seniors for the first time. The youths considered the event the equivalent of a prom.

From left, Valerie England, Cindy Good, and Stephanie Greiner take pictures of graduates prior to a graduation ceremony for home-schooled students in the Lancaster, Pa., area. Ms. Good and Ms. Greiner presented their daughters with diplomas during the May 30 ceremony at Lancaster Bible College’s Good Shepherd Chapel.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week

“We had lots of fun getting ready—trying to figure out how to do our hair and what to wear,” said 18-year-old Colleen Brown, who has been home schooled by her mother, Lora P. Brown, since 3rd grade. The banquet featured a student talent show but no dancing. As one parent explained, dancing would have offended some of the more conservative families involved in CHALC.

As was the practice in previous years, CHALC sponsored monthly meetings and various social activities throughout the school year to help the students to get acquainted with one another before graduation day. Most live within 40 miles of Lancaster, a city of 51,900 located about 75 miles west of Philadelphia. Some seniors said they even think of themselves as a “senior class.”

“The highlight of my whole senior year has been the time that I got to spend with my senior class of 2003,” Bethany Messersmith said in her graduation speech.

Touches of Home

In addition to the traditional graduation trappings, the two-hour ceremony had some home schooling touches.

For instance, student speeches lauded the merits of home schooling. Senior Matthew Chubb said that home schooling had provided a flexibility of scheduling and curriculum that enabled him to study Japanese with a tutor.

Bethany noted in her speech that because she was home schooled, she had had the opportunity to take classes at Lancaster Bible College and work part time at a local public library. She’s hoping to get a college degree in library science.

And it was the seniors’ own parents—not school officials—who presented the graduates with their high school diplomas.

Each senior met his or her parents on stage (for every student, both a mother and father appeared).

The senior gave Mom a rose and a hug, and then Dad gave the senior a diploma and a hug. Meanwhile, a CHALC board member read a Bible verse that had been selected by the senior.

The graduate then moved the tassel from the left side to the right side of the cap. The threesome walked across the stage and then posed for a photo with a professional photographer.

Miriam Messersmith, Bethany’s mother, said during an interview before the ceremony that, she, too, felt a sense of accomplishment in watching her eldest daughter take part in the festivities, after having home schooled Bethany for her entire school life.

Like many parents participating in the CHALC graduation, Ms. Messersmith said that she and her husband, Alan, had decided to home school their children because they felt it would ease the task of passing on their Christian values to them.

Ms. Messersmith has a degree in elementary education, but she admitted that when she started home schooling Bethany, she never expected to teach her past the 2nd grade. “I know now that I can do it,” said the mother of four. “Three more to go!”

Then she paused and said “I do weigh it out every year. It’s time-consuming. I could be doing other things.”

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