Homegrown Learning

By David Hill — April 01, 1996 25 min read

Betsy Abrams steers her six-year-old Toyota Corolla through the town of North San Juan on her way to pay a visit to the Pryor family. Turning off the main highway onto a narrow dirt driveway, she carefully maneuvers the car over and around a series of large, muddy potholes. “This isn’t too bad compared with some roads that I’ve been on,’' she says. “At least it’s not very long.’'

Abrams has put a lot of miles on her Corolla since she became head teacher of the Twin Ridges Home Study Program. Founded nearly 20 years ago in this Northern California town, about 15 miles from Nevada City, it is one of the few programs in the country that combines homeschooling with regular classroom instruction. On Mondays and Fridays, the 40 or so students enrolled in the K-8 program stay at home with their parents. But on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, they have the option of attending classes at a one-room schoolhouse on the campus of Oak Tree Elementary School.

It’s an arrangement that many school administrators, particularly those who see homeschooling as a threat to public education, might reject outright. But for the Twin Ridges Elementary School District, the home study program is a can’t-lose proposition. That’s because most of the students who participate would probably not be in school at all if the program did not exist. By accommodating them, however, the district is able to collect the same amount of per-pupil revenues--about $5,000--as it does for conventional students. That means the home study program not only pays for itself, but it also brings in funds that can be spent elsewhere in the 450-student district. “It’s a win-win deal,’' says superintendent George Olive.

As part of that deal, Abrams must keep close tabs on what the students are learning at home. Which is why, on this Wednesday morning, she is on her way to meet with Louise Pryor, whose 6-year-old daughter, Emily, is a 1st grader in the program. Abrams tries to see the families once a month, either at their homes or at school, and usually on Mondays or Fridays. Today, however, she has some free time, so she’s arranged to visit with Pryor, who lives only a few miles from the school. (Some families live as far away as 45 miles.)

Two black dogs are barking as Abrams pulls up in front of a small white clapboard house and turns off her car engine. Pryor, a reserved young woman with long red hair tied back into a thick braid, greets Abrams at the door and escorts her to the living room, where Emily, wearing a pink dress and red socks, is waiting with her two sisters, 4-year-old Sarah and 2-year-old Casi. Taking a seat on a couch, Abrams breaks the ice by offering Tic Tacs to everybody. Framed posters of angels hang from the living-room walls.

“I’ve got a new book for you,’' Abrams tells Emily. “It’s a reader called Sun and Shadow.’' At first, the girl isn’t interested, but eventually she takes it, and once she starts reading, she won’t put it down. Abrams pulls out an accompanying workbook and says, “I think this will be good for your writing.’' Emily, however, complains, “I don’t want any more books that I have to do things in.’' Abrams discusses the matter with Emily’s mother, and they both agree that Emily will take the reading workbook but that she can take a break from a phonics workbook she’s been using.

Abrams--dressed in a white turtleneck shirt, a black vest, a long red Guatemalan skirt, and Birkenstock sandals--wants to know what Emily has been learning in math. Her mother explains that they just spent a week in San Francisco, helping her parents move. While there, Emily and a friend set up a lemonade stand and, in the process, learned how to count money. “We made 10 dollars,’' Emily says proudly, “so we split it, and I got five dollars.’'

Abrams decides to test the girl’s counting abilities, so she takes all the money from her billfold and asks Emily to add it up. “Fourteen dollars and 65 cents,’' she says, correctly.

Later, Pryor explains why she prefers to teach Emily at home. Like many homeschoolers, she and her husband, Cary, a building contractor, are devout Christians. “That’s part of it,’' she says. “But mainly, I want to know what she’s learning and be in control of that. There’s too much going on that I don’t trust, things they teach that I don’t agree with.’'

“And they have videos,’' adds Emily, looking up from her new book.

Her mother laughs. “I don’t like them watching television or videos,’' she says. “And I just feel that it’s best to keep kids home until they’re at least 9 because they don’t have the peer pressure. All the kids that I know who have been homeschooled since they were little are real smart. People worry that they’re not going to be socially adjusted, but they all are.’'

Some of Pryor’s friends also homeschool their children, using a Christian-oriented curriculum. “I was just going to homeschool her myself,’' she says, “but I was very nervous. I didn’t trust myself too much as a teacher. So, I’m really happy with the program because now I have a lot of resources I can use, and Betsy really helps show me what I should be doing and how to channel my energy in the right direction.’' So far, however, she has elected to keep Emily home four days a week, taking advantage of the home study classes only on Thursdays. “I think more than one day and maybe a couple of electives would just be too much for her,’' she says. “She’s a really intense child, and she likes to have her freedom.’'

Driving back to school, Abrams says Pryor isn’t as diligent about covering the material as some of the other parents in the program. “But Emily is so bright,’' she says, “it probably doesn’t matter. She picks up everything very quickly.’'

Seven years ago, when Abrams, who is 50, began teaching in the program, she would sometimes lose sleep at night worrying that some of the kids were falling behind. She’s learned to keep it all in perspective. “It’s not that I’m not concerned anymore,’' she says. “But I know that I don’t have a lot of control in these situations. I ask the parents to do the paperwork, and they take the materials for the curriculum. And they’ll usually do what they feel they need to do. And I can’t say, ‘You’ve got to finish every page of this math book this year.’ Because it’s just not going to work like that with homeschoolers. That’s not what they’re about. So I’ve really forced myself to just not worry about it and to see that things work out in most cases.’'

According to the U.S. Department of Education, an estimated 500,000 students--1 percent of the nation’s school-age population--are now homeschooled. The practice is legal in all 50 states, but many school districts still see it as a direct threat to their existence, which, in a sense, it is. In the past, most parents who kept their children at home did so for religious reasons, but a growing number of families are homeschooling out of dissatisfaction with the state of public schools. In short, they think they can do better, and they believe their children will be healthier for it.

Yet not all homeschoolers want to abandon the public schools entirely. Some, for example, want their children to participate in school sports; others want their children to be able to take one or two classes, without having to enroll full time. More and more districts are responding to such demands. In Des Moines, Iowa, about 300 of the district’s 400 children who are taught at home now participate in a program that offers weekly group activities and regular home visits from a teacher. And in Uxbridge, Mass., the district pays for books, videos, and other supplies for parents who wish to teach their children at home, provided they teach core subjects mandated by the state and take part in a state assessment plan.

The Twin Ridges program, founded in 1978, was among the first (if not the first) attempts to bring homeschooling into the fold of public education. At the time, North San Juan, like a number of other small towns in Northern California, had been invaded by hippies seeking sanctuary from the big cities. They wanted to get “back to the land,’' and North San Juan, a funky old mining town set in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, seemed like a good place to do it. Poet Gary Snyder, whom Jack Kerouac fictionalized as “Japhy Ryder’’ in his proto-hippie novel The Dharma Bums, moved to the area in 1970, and many of his Bay Area friends followed suit.

“Nonconformity is sort of the essence of the community here,’' says Betsy Abrams, who moved to North San Juan in 1978 after making a living as a potter in Oakland. Back in the late 1960s, she taught for a year at a school in Harlem, N.Y., and then worked as a political organizer as part of a leftist group called the Astoria Collective. One of her friends was Ted Gold, who later became a member of the radical Weathermen organization. In March 1970, Gold was one of three Weathermen to die when a bomb he and others were building in a Greenwich Village townhouse accidentally exploded.

In North San Juan, the hippies are now settling into middle age, but the spirit of the ‘60s lives on. At Oak Tree Elementary, for instance, there are two sisters named Silver and Imagination, and a boy named Mojo just enrolled in the home study program.

“It’s always been an alternative community,’' notes Holly Williams, who moved to the area the same year Abrams did and helped get the home study program off the ground. (Her daughter, Gillian, has been homeschooled since kindergarten and is now a 6th grader in the program.) “A lot of people here were not pleased with the school system. They lived alternative lifestyles. Some homeschooled for religious reasons, others because they traveled a lot, and some, like myself, because they thought they could do better by having their kids at home.’'

Most administrators wouldn’t have given the homeschoolers the time of day, but the superintendent/principal at the time, Marilyn DaVore, decided to accommodate them. “She picked up on what was going on,’' Abrams says, “and she talked to one of the teachers, and they drafted the program. And it started out in this funky little blue trailer, with very few resources. It came out of an administration that supported the community and wanted to have programs that met the community’s needs. And there was definitely a need in the community to have home study.’'

As the program became more established, other school systems began to take notice. Now, three other districts in Nevada County--Nevada City, Grass Valley, and Penn Valley--have their own home study programs. Abrams estimates that between all four programs, at least 300 students are now enrolled in some form of home study. “People move here just to do home study,’' she says. When writer and homeschooler David Guterson praised the Twin Ridges program in his 1992 book Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, interested parents began calling from all over the country, and some even came to North San Juan to check it out for themselves.

The program has evolved over time. Home study students used to attend school only one day a week, but two years ago, a group of parents decided they wanted it expanded to three days a week. Their children were getting older, and they wanted to expose them to more nonacademic subjects, like drama, dance, Spanish, and art. The school district agreed to enlarge the program, bringing in several part-time specialists to help out Abrams. “The whole structure of the program changed,’' she says. “Before, it was a home study program with a workshop day once a week. And now, for many kids, it’s like a part-time school.’' The change, Abrams adds, “is a real example of how parent-directed the program is.’' (Another change occurred three years ago when the state of California imposed tighter restrictions on home study programs. Twin Ridges reacted by turning its own model into a charter school, which allows it to operate with fewer state regulations.)

Now, the students attend classes in language arts, history (or “Civilizations’’), science, art, Spanish, physical education, dance, drama, and music. Most classes are divided into two groups, one for younger students (K-5) and one for older students (6-8). Abrams handles the language arts classes, which, along with Civilizations, are known as “Core Classes.’' About once a month, Abrams organizes a field trip for the home study students. In November, for example, they went to Sacramento to the Discovery Museum and Planetarium, and in February, they went ice skating at Squaw Valley, a ski area near Lake Tahoe.

A one-room schoolhouse, built as a replica of a 125-year-old school in the nearby town of North Columbia, serves as home to the program. The classroom is small, but a warm atmosphere fills the space. Overhead are massive wooden beams that support the structure. The walls are lined with bookshelves containing hundreds of resource materials arranged by topic, among them: History, California, Geography, History/Politics, Biography, Reference, and Math. Student artwork is everywhere. Two Apple computers rest side by side against one wall. The students sit at long tables, which, depending on what’s being taught, are constantly being moved around. There’s a small blackboard, a nominal concession to convention.

It’s a beautiful Wednesday afternoon in February, and the home study students have just finished lunch and recess. It’s time for Core Class, which today means language arts. The students--seven girls and four boys, in 6th and 7th grades--wander into the classroom and take their seats. Meanwhile, the younger students--today there are six of them, in grades K-5--have made their way to the Oak Tree school library, where a substitute is going to help them prepare oral biographies of famous Americans.

“Let’s take a few deep breaths and settle down,’' Abrams says. After a few moments, the students stop talking, and Abrams asks them if they want to do anything special for Valentine’s Day.

“I think we should dance,’' says a girl named Cory.

“Everyone can make Valentine cards for everybody else,’' says another girl, Claire.

Eventually, Abrams and the students agree to have a one-hour Valentine’s Day party, with food provided by the students. Abrams elects to put off a decision about whether to exchange cards.

As Abrams passes out spelling tests from the week before, several students ask if they can read aloud some of their poetry and prose. Abrams obliges. Claire, who is in 7th grade, reads a review of the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. It’s a good, well-argued piece of writing. Another 7th grader, Robin, whose mother is married to Gary Snyder, reads a short essay on why she likes the poetry of Frank O’Hara. It, too, is excellent; it sounds as if it were written by a much older student. (Abrams doesn’t necessarily buy the argument, sometimes made by homeschoolers, that children taught at home are brighter than conventional students, but she does concede that they are more opinionated. “I think it’s because they’re asked for their opinions a lot,’' she says. “Their opinions are respected at home. They’re included in a lot of discussions. Some parents take it to real extremes, like asking a 5-year-old, ‘Do you want to use this book?’ And I’ve objected to that. They need some guidance.’')

Moving on, Abrams passes out copies of The Weekly Reader and asks the students to take turns reading paragraphs from an article about the upcoming presidential election. Some read the passages effortlessly; others stumble over words here and there. After everyone has read aloud, Abrams divides the class into two groups for a debate on the merits of electing presidents by the electoral college. Like any good teacher, Abrams asks a lot of questions, and she tries to get all the students to participate in the lesson.

The class isn’t really much different from what you might find at any small school, except for the fact that students of different grades and abilities are mixed in together. To homeschoolers, of course, that’s perfectly normal; it’s the traditional classroom that they see as an aberration. “They think it’s unnatural for kids to be segregated by age,’' Abrams says.

To pure homeschoolers--and there are many in Nevada County--the Twin Ridges program isn’t really homeschooling at all. According to superintendent George Olive, 250 families in the county have signed affidavits with the state of California allowing them to teach their children at home. And then there are the ones who are off the grid, those who believe it is their God-given right to homeschool without any governmental interference. “There are a surprising number of people around here who are completely outside the system,’' Olive says. Even within the home study program itself, some families, like the Pryors, prefer not to send their children to school three days a week. And a few other families don’t take advantage of the classes at all. Their main interest seems to be the curricular resources, which can be checked out, and Betsy Abrams’ expertise as a teacher.

Yet for many families, the Twin Ridges program offers just the right combination of homeschooling and regular classroom instruction. “That’s the appeal,’' says Carole Koda, Robin’s mother. “I don’t think I would have done homeschooling completely on my own. For one thing, Robin is a very active human being. And very social. So it would be very cruel to make her be with me all the time. I mean, I’m just not that entertaining.’'

Unlike most of the students in the home study program, who have been homeschooled since kindergarten, 12-year-old Robin is a relative newcomer to the practice. Two years ago, when she was a 5th grader at Grizzly Hill School, she began having some behavior problems. “The girls in her class were becoming vicious with one another,’' Koda says. “And Robin was becoming really flippant. She was beginning to feel that it was normal to turn against somebody who was your good friend the week before, and to attack them, and to talk about them, and then become their friend again if they did something nice.’'

Most parents, for whom homeschooling isn’t an option, simply put up with this kind of adolescent behavior as best they can, hoping it will disappear when their son or daughter gets to high school. But Koda wanted to take a more active approach. She decided to pull Robin out of Grizzly Hill and give homeschooling a try. “It was mostly for social reasons,’' she says, “but I also wanted to give her more focused academic work because I felt that she needed more individualized attention than they could give her at Grizzly Hill.’'

Koda, a Japanese American who grew up on a rice farm in Livingston, Calif., is a Stanford University graduate who once taught kindergarten. But that didn’t make it any easier for her to learn the ins and outs of homeschooling. “I was uptight about it when we started,’' she says. “I was overorganized. I had this idea for a curriculum. But it just meant imposing myself on her constantly, which was very unpleasant. So finally I just gave up. And after that, things got better. Now we’re on a good routine. We really work pretty much every day, including weekends.’'

Koda, Gary Snyder, and Robin live in a beautiful wood-beam house about three miles down a rutted dirt road. The house, which Snyder built with a group of friends in the summer of 1970, is set among ponderosa pines, black oaks, and cedars. A wood-burning stove provides heat, and solar panels provide electricity. Deer and wild turkeys--even mountain lions--are frequent visitors to the compound, which Snyder named Kitkitdizze, after a local shrub. Inside the house and an adjacent office, where Snyder and Koda both write, are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal setting for homeschooling.

Most days, Koda rises at 5:30 or 6 and makes her way to the office, where she works for about three hours. (She is writing an oral history of her family.) When Robin gets up, usually at 9 o’clock, Koda heads back to the main house, and, if it’s a Monday or a Friday, the mother and daughter start their routine. Robin usually has some homework to do, so that comes first. Then they might move on to a science project they’ve been working on, or they might spend some time doing grammar exercises. “We have a little workbook on diagramming sentences,’' Koda says, “which is something that nobody would do in school anymore, but it really does help her.’' For math and reading, Robin uses the Kumon method, the highly structured drill-and-practice approach imported from Japan. “It’s really cut and dried,’' Koda says. “And it’s not for everybody. But it’s good for Robin, and it’s good for me because it gives us one thing that we do consistently, every single day. It’s added a kind of comfort level to our home study. I know there’s a baseline.’' Twice a month, they drive to Sacramento, about an hour and a half away, so Robin can attend a class at the Kumon Math Center.

Robin is a talented writer, so Koda makes sure that her daughter has plenty of opportunities to work at it. “I think she’s doing more writing in this program than she would be at the other school,’' she says. “And she has time to write. It’s not just that she gets a lot of writing assignments. She works at her computer quite a bit. She’s a very good letter writer. I mean, she will literally write three or four letters a day. And when she was at Grizzly Hill, she didn’t have time for that. So she’s learned to just sit down and write on her own. She writes stories. She writes poems. She loves poetry.’' Recently, Robin took one of Snyder’s poems, called “Earth Verse,’' and wrote her own version, a sort of mirror image of the poem, each line the opposite of the original. Snyder loved it. Koda suggested they publish them together. “But what would I call her poem?’' Snyder wondered, to which Koda replied, “How about, ‘Earth Reverse’?’' Koda says she would like for her husband to help out more with the homeschooling, “but he has a strong work habit that doesn’t have space for that.’' Nonetheless, “there’s always good conversation at our table. I read a study once that said the kids who do best in school have dinner with their parents. And we always eat dinner together.’'

“One of the wonderful things about home study,’' Koda continues, “when you couple it with a really excellent program like the charter school, is that the kids get to have a lot of unorganized time. And they get to find out who their favorite poet is, instead of, ‘This week my favorite poet is Emily Dickinson because that’s who we’re studying.’ We have time to go back to the same people. And Robin gets to travel with us a lot. She went to Nepal with us last October for a month. And that will affect her for the rest of her life, in ways that she doesn’t even know yet. She’s gone to Alaska, and we’re taking her to Korea and Japan next year. If she were in regular school, I would feel more hesitant about taking her out because of the whole thing of catching up.’'

Despite her enthusiasm for homeschooling, Koda says Robin will return to Grizzly Hill next year for 8th grade. For one thing, she believes the goals she set for her daughter (“To get her to be more aware of how other people are feeling and to develop a compassionate and sympathetic point of view’’) have largely been met. The main reason, however, is that Robin wants to go back. “I miss all my friends,’' she says. “I sort of wish that I’d gone back this year.’'

For Koda and her daughter, homeschooling has been a convenient option, but not necessarily a way of life. Other families in the Twin Ridges program, however, are much more committed to the practice. Jann Garitty, for example, has taught both of her two children at home. “Even before I had children,’' she says, “I knew I was going to homeschool them. It just made a lot of sense to me.’' Her 13-year-old daughter, Kelly, enrolled in the Twin Ridges program four years ago. “Personally, I think she’s in school too much,’' Garitty says. “I’d like her to be at home more. But she likes it.’' Her 15-year-old son, Shannon, is much more independent. He tried the home study program for two years, but he’s back at home now.

Holly Williams, too, has homeschooled her children right from the start. “We wanted a broader curriculum for our kids than what school is physically capable of doing,’' she says. “I’m not putting down the school system. It’s just that, obviously, one person with one to three kids is going to be able to accomplish a lot more, and within their own time frame, than a classroom teacher. Homeschooling allows so much more to happen. There’s not all that dead time of passing out papers, or listening to the teacher chew out some other kid, or having to all go at the same speed. I would say that’s the biggest benefit. But boy do you have to be flexible, and boy do you have to be patient, and boy do you have to not have a big ego yourself.’'

Often, children who are homeschooled from kindergarten eventually decide to give regular school a try. The Williams family fits this pattern. Conor, now 17, was taught at home until 9th grade, when he entered Nevada Union High School in Nevada City. “But he’s the type who bucks the system,’' she says. “School was too easy for him, and he’s a rebellious kid, so he ended up not continuing, and he’s going to get his GED and go on to college.’' Sadler, 14, has had an easier time making the transition to regular school. A freshman at Nevada Union, he just got straight A’s on his report card. Daughter Gillian, 12, is currently a 6th grader in the Twin Ridges program. She, too, is considering going to Nevada Union for high school. “We give our children a lot of room to be themselves,’' Williams says.

Is the Twin Ridges Home Study Program further proof that the nation’s public schools are disintegrating? Or is it simply an example of how an enlightened school district is trying to meet the needs of all of its “clients’’? The answer depends on whether you think schools should be “one size fits all,’' or whether you think they should offer students a diversity of programs, classes, and services. For advocates of choice, charter schools, and homeschooling, the answer is obvious. As David Guterson writes in Family Matters: “Public educators in some school districts have begun to take a critical look at the notion of an educational system universally applicable to all children. Faced with advances in learning theory and with the truth of varying learning styles, educators are now considering the value of offering a wide variety of educational opportunities. Some districts have instituted alternative programs that mostly attract those who, in one way or another, don’t get along well in conventional schools; others have begun to see it as a duty to offer programs varying not only in educational content but in methods, structure, and guiding philosophies. Advocates of these programs have been opposed by staunch proponents of a nationwide curriculum (and by forces hoping to standardize education in order to achieve widespread cultural literacy) but have nonetheless pushed forward.’'

To Twin Ridges superintendent George Olive, the home study program is simply an appropriate response to a need in the community. “We’ve got a lot of variety in this area,’' he says, “so our school district has an amazing range of points of views, lifestyles, and expectations. Which makes things like the home study program critical. You couldn’t serve this community properly without that kind of option.’' Two years ago, the district responded to another need by opening a Waldorf-style school in Nevada City. Ironically, the two alternative programs now compete for some of the same students.

Homeschoolers, naturally, are an incredibly diverse group, and that’s presented something of a challenge for Betsy Abrams. For one thing, she herself did not homeschool her two daughters, and, even now, after teaching in the home study program for seven years, she’s adamant that homeschooling isn’t for everybody. “I came in with the expectations of more of a classroom teacher,’' she says. “You have to be tremendously flexible because every family is different. I’ve had to change certain standards. And I don’t mean that I’ve lowered my standards. I’ve just changed them. I’ve become more accepting of different approaches. I think if you can’t do that, you’ll drive yourself crazy in this job.’'

Many of the parents in the program seem to think of Abrams as a sort of miracle worker. “Betsy’s fantastic,’' gushes Carole Koda. “She’s amazingly dedicated to this. It’s really hard work. The amount of coordination that she has to do. . . . She does not allow herself to get upset about things. I could never do her job. I just think she’s miraculous. And the other teachers are all excellent, too.’'

Holly Williams agrees. “I like Betsy a lot,’' she says. “She’s very flexible. And you have to be flexible. You’re dealing with all kinds of different families. I would say that every family has a totally different viewpoint of why they want to homeschool, what they want to do with their kids. And you’ve got a lot of strong individuals that you’re going to come up against.’'

Sadly, there’s a strong chance that Abrams will be laid off at the end of the school year. The district is grappling with declining enrollment, and because Abrams was one of the last teachers hired, she could get axed. Some parents have already written letters to school board members about the matter, urging them to keep Abrams on. Others are threatening to pull their children from the program if she gets laid off. When Abrams told Emily Pryor about what might happen, the girl turned to her parents and said, “If Betsy’s not my teacher, I’m going to quit school!’'

Abrams is trying to be philosophical. “I’m feeling a lot of support from my colleagues and from the parents,’' she says, “but there’s nothing I can do. It’s pretty cut and dried.’'

Whatever happens, the Twin Ridges Home Study Program will surely go on. After all, it’s been around for 18 years, and during that time, it’s become an integral part of the North San Juan community. “The program is here to stay,’' Abrams says. “It’s definitely proven itself.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Homegrown Learning