Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 | 2 a.m.
In a manicured corner of suburban Las Vegas, the rebellion is sipping coffee, nibbling watermelon and talking politely about the state of education.
“My mom is not for home schooling, so I brought her,” the young mother next to me says. She and Grandma are here for answers, the truth about an education alternative still shaking off dust from its underground past. Home school has been legal nationwide for almost 20 years, but Grandma’s arms are crossed, her jaw set. She wants to grill the resident experts because she cares about her family. Under the stern resolve, I see fear.
I see it because I feel the same gnawing doubts about what it would mean to take a child’s education into my hands. The mainstream academic community has strong concerns about quality control, and home-school families contend with lingering stereotypes in the public mind-set. Getting into college and finding a good job is hard even with the essential bullet points, so how do you climb without the same ladder as 99 percent of your peers? More than faith, home schooling seems like a leap of gumption.
Or is it? Nevada’s high school graduation rate is 50th in the nation. In Clark County, only 10 of 100 high school freshmen will go on to earn a university degree, and an estimated 14 percent of Nevada students in grades 9-12 report having been involved in school violence. Faced with grim numbers and growing malaise about everything from budget cuts to bureaucracy, some local parents have unplugged.
But Grandma is not convinced.
“They’re very … home-schooled children are weird,” she says, going right for the jugular. The moms stiffen, but when their kids file into the room, they look, well, regular. Many of them have seen the other side of the fence, and they thoughtfully explain to Grandma why they prefer home school. “So what’s your problem with the brick-and-mortar schools?” she finally asks Elissa Wahl, home-school veteran and facilitator of this info session. Wahl smiles. She has been here many times, and she believes absolutely in what she’s about to say:
“I tell people all the time: I’m not anti-public school; I’m pro-my child.”
Wahl has three sons. Seventeen-year-old Brian Henry got his home-school diploma in June. It’s custom, just like the years of learning and achievement it represents.
“Both of my parents were teachers,” Wahl says, describing an idyllic childhood in rural New Jersey, which, incidentally, has the highest high school graduation rate in the U.S. Brian spent his first few years in that community, where Wahl says per-pupil spending was higher a decade ago than it is in Nevada today. “If the school setting works for you, that’s fine,” she says. “I just didn’t see the reason to put him in because he was learning so much at home with me.”
Wahl acknowledges the role of public education in society, as well as charter schools (somewhat autonomous institutions that receive public funds) and private and magnet schools. As Clark County School District’s home-school liaison through the Nevada Homeschool Network and president of the nonprofit RISE (Renaissance in Student Education) Resource Center, she says she helps curious parents understand their options and make choices that are right for them.
The day Wahl’s choice was cemented, she was on a New Jersey beach, and Brian was 3. The plan was to have lunch and a peek at the lighthouse. But the peek became a daylong adventure when they discovered the original structure had fallen into the ocean. The museum didn’t have a photograph, so they searched the library. No dice. They tracked down a docent of the local historical society, but all they found was one salvaged brick. You could look at it as a day wasted for a lousy brick, or you could marvel at what they learned about the town’s landscape, architecture, history and people along the way, not to mention the subsequent years spent traveling to and studying lighthouses.
“None of that would have happened if I had said, ‘I know what you need, and here’s what you need today,’ ” Wahl says. “So my problem with the public schools is, they don’t know what my son needs.”
The parents of at least 1.5 million American children agree. That’s how many home-school students the National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2007, though the estimate doesn’t include 10 states where home-schoolers don’t have to register, nor does it account for annual growth estimated between 2 and 8 percent by the National Home Education Research Institute. The Nevada Education Department’s most current figure, from the 2006-07 academic year, showed about 4,000 kids — roughly 1 percent of the school-age population — were home-schooled.
While academic quality is among the top three reasons parents pull their kids, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that safety concerns and the “desire to provide religious or moral instruction” rank even higher. Other reasons include family time, finances and special needs. Whatever the impetus, the NCES found that home-schoolers predominantly come from white, well-educated, two-parent households with middle-class incomes ($25,000-$75,000 in 2007).
Steven Cohen says I’ve just described 1950s suburbia, often associated with the “golden age” of American education (along with the fictional school from “Little House on the Prairie”). Cohen has taught in the Education Department at Tufts University since 1995, after two decades teaching high school history, and he belly laughs when I tell him how many people are convinced we had it better in every era but this one.
“That is some beautiful romanticism about a past that never was,” he says. “Fifty percent of kids in the U.S. didn’t have high school diplomas as late as 1950. Therefore, anyone who’s talking about the golden age before then is out of their mind … And if that was the golden age, I’m quitting.”
Cohen is a product of that time and says its methodology wasn’t so different from the current system, in which performance varies immensely from ZIP code to ZIP code. He says widespread panic over education doesn’t factor in this inconsistency, and America’s “average” K-12 rankings — 14th in the world for reading, 17th for science and 25th for math — don’t show the wide range of students the U.S. educates for longer stretches, nor the funding many schools now devote to much-needed social services.
However, Cohen says home-schoolers are reacting to legitimate problems in education, from the lack of local control to overcrowded classrooms and administratively hog-tied teachers, not to mention standardization that narrows curriculum and demands constant testing.
“These tests, to me, are such a disservice to education, because instead of doing what you’ve seen the home-schoolers do — really do something in depth and try to understand it — everything becomes sort of a race of coverage.”
The result is a lopsided definition of smart. The idea that everyone needs to learn the same thing the same way on the same schedule, Cohen says, is silly because different kids have different strengths and needs, and curriculum is an imperfect science. That didn’t stop him from enrolling his three kids in public school, but he thought hard about it, even though he was in the right ZIP code.
“You can’t do better class size than one-on-one,” he says of a celebrated home-school benefit. “In a public school with 35 kids, that’s really tough for a teacher. In a high school where a teacher might have five classes of 35 kids, that’s impossible.”
Brian Henry may not know it, but he’s an “edupunk,” part of a small but scrappy international movement against institutional learning. He’s got a binder for each year, every field trip and experiment and book report chronicled, but the test scores and GPA are conspicuously missing.
That’s because Wahl chooses not to test or formally grade her kids, a freedom she’s afforded by Nevada law. Nevada Homeschool Network has been fighting for looser regulations since it formed in 2002, and its efforts have been successful.
Parents who decide to home-school here must submit a two-page Notice of Intent to their school district, assuming full educational responsibility for their children. They must attach an Educational Plan “appropriate for the age and level of skill of the child as determined by the parent” in the subject areas of English, math, science and social studies. Every subject doesn’t need to be taught every year, and the plan can be as simple as a “typical course of study” recommended by educational products company World Book. Parents also have the option of signing their kids up for standardized tests and extracurriculars at local schools, such as sports and the arts. The daily structure is theirs to design.
Some parents choose to follow packaged curriculums, which can cost up to $1,200 a year. But Wahl says it’s possible to home-school for free, thanks to online and community resources. She pulls material from everywhere and favors “unschooling,” learning led by the child’s interests and experiences.
“I don’t want that internal love of learning that comes with them when they’re born to be squashed by a school. I don’t want it to be squashed by a bell ringing. I don’t want it to be squashed by moving on to the next period,” she says. “With education, if you wait till kids are ready, they pick it up like that.”
Brian is a good example. He speaks and writes Japanese. He’s a skilled photographer. He’s a seasoned volunteer at Roos-N-More in Moapa. He makes Twinkies from scratch. He started Web coding when he was 12. He loves books first and video games second, Regina Spektor and Elvis. He watches “30 Rock” and occasionally plays “Alphabet Stomp” with brothers Sebastian, 5, and Elias, 10. He tries not to cringe when Wahl literally sings he’ll be grateful someday, but when she’s not in the room, he acknowledges her dedication to him with warmth and maturity. As teenagers go, he’s typical and not.
He says modern home-schoolers are social, sometimes even more so than kids in public school. The world is their classroom, so they’re constantly interacting with different people in different settings rather than just their grade. Perhaps because of the “weird” stereotype expressed by Grandma, home-school parents often cite formal research and philosophy when they talk about their reasons. Wahl knows it all by heart, but what I notice is how much she loves her kids. She wants to be there for everything, to see their eyes light up as they make connections. And more than anything, she wants them to be happy.
“I don’t want them to just be getting stuff thrown at them and having it go over their heads, in one ear and out the other. I want them to absorb it. I want it to pertain to them personally. I want it to help them move on in their future, whatever their future is,” she says.
In service of his future, Brian tested for the state’s Millennium Scholarship. His mom says he “aced” everything but the essay. It was the third straight day of tests for a kid who had never taken one. Brian was frustrated, so instead of answering the question, he wrote a one-sentence apology and drew a candy cane. He retook the essay portion a few months later and passed the proficiency.
The scholarship is helping him pay for classes at College of Southern Nevada that are prerequisites for the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, which accepts 52 students a year. He also had to take the ACT. Without studying, he got a composite score of 26 out of 36.
“Not great, but not bad,” he says. “It was really the math that messed things up, I got 18 on that. I kept drawing blanks on that test with things I knew I knew, which was frustrating, but I can always retake it … I’ll actually study beforehand this time.”
If he doesn’t, Brian will have to take remedial algebra at CSN. Math was always his least favorite subject, and though he tried several curriculums and took two intensive classes with other home-schoolers, he says he didn’t retain enough.
He may not remember formulas, but he does remember going to glass-blowing demos after seeing Bellagio’s Chihuly installation. And when he and some friends studied ancient Egypt, his mom found a guy on Craigslist who would “fresh kill” rats for a mummification lab.
Wahl is not certified as a teacher. She worked at the library in her hometown as a teen, had Brian at 20 and has mostly been a stay-at-home mom and home-school advocate since. She says a common misconception about home school is that parents have to tackle every subject. Instead, they share expertise and rely on community education and tutors-for-hire. They network through “support groups,” of which there are 44 in Las Vegas alone.
The majority of support groups listed on the NHN website have some foundation in faith, though there are a few that emphasize diversity. When Laurie Ciardullo made the decision to home-school her son Chris many years ago, her Pagan perspective fit the Melting Pot, a defunct group that once boasted 120 local families.
“I wasn’t looking for a place that believed everything I believed. It was a place that welcomed everyone,” says Ciardullo, a self-proclaimed “granola mom” who shares Wahl’s stance that government should not decide what’s best for her child. But her reason for bringing Chris home had nothing to do with romantic notions of unfettered learning or a chance to shape his principles. Chris had a visual impairment. His parents thought it had been corrected, but he struggled through elementary school, continuing to advance despite serious problems reading. Seven weeks into junior high, Ciardullo sat him down and said it was time to come home.
“He was very upset about it. He said, ‘I have a life at school; I don’t want to just sit here and hang out with my mom all the time,’ ” she says. “So I promised him that we wouldn’t just sit here; we would do all kinds of cool stuff. And I kept my promise.”
Chris went through an “umbrella school” called Clonlara, a fully accredited, online independent study program that allows students and parents to design curriculums within a basic framework. Parents have access to advisers and other collaborative tools, and kids are awarded official diplomas when they graduate.
Chris did well on the state proficiency exam, but he was already settled in a tech retail job and didn’t pursue college. Today, he’s a 23-year-old RadioShack manager. He doesn’t love what he does. But his mom is confident he’ll find his way, just as he did on the “magical journey” that enabled her to learn along with him and give him the specialized attention he needed.
“I’m not going to say everyone should home-school,” she says. “It’s a unique choice for every family.”
To help families make informed choices, Wahl teaches classes about what home schooling is and how to do it, and her home brings its lessons to life. At the kitchen sink, middle son Elias and I rub “Glo Germ” on our hands. We examine our fingers under a black light, and Wahl explains that the purple smears represent microscopic germs on our skin. I win the hand-washing contest by a glowing knuckle. Then we explore “Inside Ralphie: A Book About Germs,” part of “The Magic School Bus” series. Sometimes she reads to him, and sometimes he reads to her. He decides.
“When you’re a child, you have very little control. I’m always trying to give them as much control as they’re capable of having,” she says. “I think the biggest messages for parents that are afraid their kids aren’t going to get it are: A) They can never get everything. B) If they’re lifelong learners, they’ll get what they need — not what we deem they need, not what the world deems that they need, but what they need.”
She and many other home-schoolers follow the philosophies of Raymond Moore, an education professor and researcher who believed children can’t effectively learn until they’re developmentally ready. That doesn’t mean skipping subjects that don’t come easy, but Wahl says she doesn’t force it.
There are dissenting voices.
Despite studies that show home-schoolers performing above their age level and better than public school students on standardized tests, there are experts who dismiss such findings as representative of only a select population. A recent article in Education Week says that opponents of the movement, including the National Education Association, “worry that there is no way to assure that all home-schooled students receive a quality education. In the eyes of some public school teachers and administrators, this lack of quality control makes home schooling a dangerously deregulated enterprise.”
Stanford political scientist Rob Reich shares that worry. On his blog, he argues that studies in support of home schooling often are subsidized or sponsored by groups that share the home-school mission, and that unbiased measures aren’t comprehensive. “Absent rigorous, social scientific data on the outcomes of home schooling,” he writes, “we are left in the realm of anecdote — the home-schoolers who win the national spelling bees — and the occasional ethnographic study of small populations of home-schoolers. But neither can give us any picture of whether home schooling ‘works.’ ”
Nevada Homeschool Network chair Frank Schnorbus can’t vouch for every parent, but he says the home-school community is vigilant about negligence.
“Making the decision to home-school, if you’re serious about your children and their education, it’s not a decision that you make lightly. It’s a scary decision, actually, because you do consider, ‘Gee, what if this doesn’t work out? What am I going to do to my child, and what’s it going to do to me?’ ” he says. “These are very normal and expected feelings. In fact, if you don’t have those feelings, I’d almost submit that maybe you’re not looking at this seriously enough.”
Schnorbus and his wife pulled their kids out of school when their oldest daughter, Stephanie, was in sixth grade. They’d moved from Nevada to California and back, and despite Stephanie’s impressive grades, test scores and participation in Gifted and Talented Education, her new school waffled about putting her in advanced classes. The Schnorbuses were already fed up with their diminished role in and ability to influence their kids’ education, so they leaped.
Stephanie ended up graduating with honors from private, nationally ranked Christian university Biola before earning a doctorate in history from USC. She currently works as a legal document specialist with Nevada’s Legislative Counsel Bureau. Schnorbus says that contrary to popular belief, home-schoolers don’t have trouble applying to college as long as they have the necessary test scores and transcript (even if it’s signed by their parents).
That doesn’t mean they all go. Schnorbus jokes: “Not all children are Stephanies.” Her six siblings ran the gamut of educational needs and outcomes. When Kenny took the ASVAB, the Air Force’s battery of tests, he got perfect scores. His younger brother Frankie learned to read late and is still living with his parents. Much like public school, home school doesn’t achieve universal results.
Seven-year-old Wyatt McMillen can wire an electrical system and build solar radios. Eight-year-old Ethan Darden plays drums, guitar and piano. And 12-year-old Sabrina Jaramillo is a baker with entrepreneurial dreams.
I’m watching them run an obstacle course at Summerlin’s Centennial Park, part of a home-school boot camp that meets multiple times a week. There are young kids and older teens, every look and personality you’d find on a public school playground. The difference is that these kids are not in grade-based herds. They’re one big amoeba of flushed cheeks and laughter. Grandma should really see this.
There are home-school dads, but today it’s all moms sitting in a circle of camp chairs, doling out homemade zucchini bread and praise. They belong to Christian home-school support groups, and to them, instilling beliefs and morals is an essential part of education.
“My kids are very important to me, and I want to be the primary influence,” says Ana Jaramillo, who pulled her three sons out of private school after a successful “guinea pig” year with daughter Sabrina. “What I realized is that I was checked out of their education. I dropped my kids off at school and said, ‘Please do your job.’ I would help them with their homework, but I was checked out … As a parent, I had completely surrendered that to the school.”
Taking control is intimidating (and logistically impossible for some parents), but these moms say once you give yourself permission to try, things start clicking. Even in this small group, academic approaches range dramatically. Angela McMillen stresses God and traditional values. Corinne Alberini feels kids should be getting more out of their elementary years, including fun. Home school has no normal.
As Steven Cohen says, learning “is not a scientific experiment.” Mixing A and B doesn’t always yield the expected result, but information is everywhere.
It’s impossible to say what Brian Henry knows. What’s obvious is that he believes in himself, despite wishing his mom had pushed him to write more essays. We share math war stories, and I say that even though algebra is no longer part of my life, it felt important to learn.
“I don’t feel that way,” he says, and we both laugh. I ask if his life would be different if he hadn’t chased lighthouses, so to speak.
“A lot of the stuff I’m interested in, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to discover at public school, and if I had, I wouldn’t have had the time to commit to it,” he says. He doesn’t believe his education was perfect, but the words that stick in his mind are creativity and freedom.
Like Stephanie Schnorbus, I’m 32. I went to public school and loved it. She went to four public schools and a private school before thriving in home school, though she knows what it feels like to be underestimated because of her unconventional pedigree. As for the individual decisions we’ll make if we ever have children of our own, we feel the exact same way.
“The decision whether or not to home-school them will depend on a number of factors, including callings, personalities and family needs and desires. I’m certainly open to home-schooling when the time comes, but we’ll have to see,” she says. “Children need to be taught how to learn. If they’re taught that, they can learn just about anything else.”