SCHOOL'S OUT Forever
"This isn't going to be a negative piece, is it? Where you get some quotes from one homeschool family and then have some expert from the MEA or the MFT do a kind of point-counterpoint and talk about how abusive homeschooling is? Because I really don't want to be a part of something like that."
St. Paul mother and homeschooler Linda Winsor's initial ambivalence typifies the caution that's become ingrained in a homeschooling community long at odds with both the public education system and public opinion. Prior to the 1980s, when much of the country underwent state-by-state retooling of vague compulsory schooling laws, the threat of prosecution for failing to provide an "equivalent" education to that available in the public system was a very real reason for homeschooling parents to keep a low profile. Media treatment of homeschoolers has tended toward one of two stereotypes: bomb-sheltered fundamentalists (either biblically or constitutionally speaking) diligently preparing the next generation of Freemen or quaint remnants of the cultural backwoods (and the subject of many an MPR hayride into Amish country). On the Internet, which burgeons with homeschool-related homepages and resource link farms, a prickly "Homeschoolers Media Guide" advises practitioners how to turn the tables on journalists who "come calling about their latest exposé."
But the world is changing around the homeschoolers; what they're doing no longer seems so outré to a lot of people. There appears, in fact, to be a growing number of families who regard home instruction as a kind of triage--against any number of dangers, including perceived physical peril and poor teaching as well as racial tensions and objectionable subject matter.
When we do meet, Winsor is quick to cite a recent proliferation of home schools in her neighborhood. "Almost always now when you tell somebody," she says, "they'll say, 'I know so-and-so who's doing the same thing.' A neighbor, or a family member. It touches almost everyone." For Winsor, the fact that Minnesota's homeschool population has overtaken the 1 percent mark and continues to grow by nearly 20 percent each year since the state started keeping track in 1987 means she can now look out her front window and point to two nearby home schools. Besides them, she adds, "Another family just moved in that has three little ones, and they've been homeschooling all along. And the people behind us have a 6-year-old. That makes four families within a block."
At the dining room table of her St. Paul stucco, Winsor gives her long hair a rustle. She calls herself and her husband "old hippies" who never thought they "would have anything in common with right-wing Christian fundamentalists." And given the prevailing image of homeschoolers, she now is often mistaken for one. Winsor laments the news coverage of a spring rally at the statehouse this year--billed as a celebration of "Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Homeschools" (the most recent state figure is close, at 9,135)--which emphasized the Christian angle at the expense of others present.
There's no question that the face of homeschooling has changed. There is currently little public information about Minnesota homeschoolers, but the Florida Department of Education has surveyed homeschooling families for some time now. And while their studies have consistently found a majority citing religious reasons in the past, the picture changed in 1995 when two-thirds of respondents pointed to dissatisfaction with public schools as their main motive. And what they propose to provide instead is in many cases as varied as the families themselves. What follows is a series of sketches of a number of Twin Cities families I visited in their homes.
"I DON'T let my kids go play past the end of the street," Evelyn Eubanks assures me. I assume that's because the style of play gets slightly rougher if you hang a hard right at the end of quiet Ferrant Place and walk half a block to the hub of Penn and Broadway. Some other parents evidently have similar rules because Eubanks's frontyard is a frenzy of children giddily buzzing in the extended evening sun.
On the way up the walk of the well-kept, older house, I catch a whiff of pine cleaner, and, as I duck to tie the shoes of the toddler in the yard, a resonant voice comes booming out the door. "You can tie them up, but those shoes are on the wrong feet!" I whisk the baby up into the house to start over. Evelyn Jr., a shy 12-year-old, kneels to help.
Eubanks, a divorced mother of six, last year made the decision to opt out of the public system. She's been homeschooling five of her kids since then. (Her oldest, Dionne, at 18, preferred to remain a senior at North High.)
Eubanks eventually scoots the children from the room and starts by answering a question I haven't yet asked. "No, I did not want to teach my children at home. I was busy. I was a single mom with all that stress right there." Having served as secretary of the citywide PTO and president of both Lincoln and North High PTOs, she describes her journey to homeschooling as one that began with the belief that greater involvement in the schools was the best parental response to dissatisfaction. "After finding problems in our school, I thought it was my job to identify those problems. Once I identified them to people who were not aware of them, they were going to take care of them, and I was going to go home."
But Eubanks says a turbulent stint on the site-management team at one of her kids' schools proved a rude awakening. "They said we were supposed to be making the decisions," she sighs, "but the decisions were being made by someone else. The district said we were making the decisions, the teachers said we were making the decisions, but they were making the decisions."
When teaching methods switched from straight phonics to "whole language" and from traditional grading to "outcome-based" evaluation, Eubanks was incensed. Snapping her fingers, she sends 9-year-old Desmond running for his school file. "Now, when I first saw this," she says, "I was like, 'God help us, what in the hell is this? They took my son's second grade report card and from A, B, C, and D, they went to 'Developing,' 'Not Developing,' and 'Able'. They did not say what he was developing from, did not say what he was developing to. Where's reading, writing, and arithmetic? Able? Able to do what?
"All you have to do," she goes on, "is behave yourself and you're going to get a good grade." When her skepticism was met with the answer that teachers were going to be spending more time "child-watching," she began to panic. "Child watching?! In a district that's failing children at an alarming rate?!
"What I saw was a real easy way for my son to get lost. And if I was an involved parent sitting on this committee and my son's getting lost, a lotta people's kids are getting lost. Basically, in outcome-based education, it doesn't matter how long you take as long as you master the material, but let me ask you this, when you get a job, are they going to give you A, B, and Incomplete? We're talking about de-emphasizing competition in a world that's getting more competitive. We are going to have increased competition for jobs, and my children were being taught not to compete."
During that time of upheaval, Eubanks started an informal African-American Parent Helpline to advocate for parents in similar straits. More disappointments followed. "I had teachers who said there weren't a lot of black parents involved," she remembers. "Well, they care. The problem is when you deal with a large system that has not always dealt with you fairly, you come in with your fears. The teacher comes in not realizing this, and that's where it begins to break down.
"And then you put a child in the middle, and children will be children. If he can understand there's a difference, then he will manipulate it. If mama doesn't trust the school, he will go home and tell mama, 'You know how those teachers are,' and if teacher doesn't know cultural things about little black boys, he will tell her, 'Well, you know that's how it is sometimes.' And she'll throw her hands up, because she won't know."
After a brief encounter with the Frederick Douglass Charter School, Eubanks pulled her kids out of public school. Living solely on child support has made her a frugal homeschooler. The cost of state-mandated annual testing alone can run a family $30 to $50 dollars a year per child.
For Eubanks, the struggle will have been worth it if she can teach her kids the basics and inculcate them with "competitive spirit." Conservative on issues like birth control in schools, Eubanks's operative curriculum relies heavily on conservative culture maven E.D. Hirsch, the purveyor of Cultural Literacy and to many an emblem of old-school elitism. Eubanks defends his books on the grounds that the prevailing currency is the prevailing currency--and she wants her kids to have it. She likewise scours school and church book sales, the DAV, and the Salvation Army for books with titles like World Neighbors and America and Americans--most of which are out of print and would not be deemed culturally sensitive by present standards, though Eubanks believes they "get the job done."
Eubanks says that if she found a public or charter school that was rigorous enough, she would likely consider sending her kids to it. Essentially her position is still no different from the one she says she aired at a district meeting two years ago. Back then, in front of a large crowd and the cable-access cameras, "I asked, 'How many of you are here because you care about kids?' And all these hands go up. I said, 'If everybody here cares about kids, then tell me why the district is in the state it's in now. How many of you are really here for political aspirations? How many of you are here because of job security?'
"I said, 'I'm here because I have five kids and I'm also here for my neighbors' kids, because if you fail these kids, these kids have to inhabit this world, they're not going away.' I wanted parents to see me on that TV, to understand that you don't have anybody to educate your kids. That's our responsibility, and if we choose to use a public facility and it does not meet our needs and we cannot afford private school, then we have to homeschool."
Denny and Debbie Warwich
IN 1975, Debbie Warwich arrived in Minneapolis from Pittsburgh, a restless commercial artist with a Kawasaki 500 and a marked cynicism, especially regarding marriage and children. Her own family wasn't particularly close, and her parents' divorce, which involved selling off a farmhouse that had been in the family for generations, had caused enough upheaval to sour her on the idea of children and commitment. Commitment meant "promising not to change," which one obviously could not do. Twenty-plus years later, on a cool summer Saturday, the 43-year-old mother of six plays up the irony, sipping long from a cup of black currant tea in the sunny front room of her Richfield home as the kids traipse through on their way outside to help their dad re-shingle the roof.
An easy candor and robust laugh balance Warwich's gravity when she attributes certain life decisions matter-of-factly to having "accepted Christ." That's what changed her mind about marriage, helped her accept the challenge of children, and inspired her and her husband, Denny, to homeschool. Warwich's homeschool philosophy mirrors the revelation she says she reached about marrying Denny: Instead of promising not to change, she could search creatively for ways to make sure the changes were productive and to let them infuse her commitment with fresh energies.
The Warwichs--whose six kids range in age from infancy to 15--had no experience with homeschooling and had not considered it until a friend recommended that they read Raymond Moore's book Better Late Than Early, which many homeschoolers consider a classic text. Warwich, then pregnant with Laine, who's now 5, was intrigued by Moore's notion of "delayed entrance" into school. But she had her doubts: "I didn't even know if it was legal. I thought, is this a radical fringe group?" She had more or less shelved the idea by the time a notice appeared in her church bulletin advertising a meeting of the Minnesota Association of Christian Home Educators (MACHE). That gathering drew upwards of 300 curious families.
As they got acquainted with the scene, the Warwichs felt little in common with the libertarian clamor they found in the pages of the Educational Liberator, a paper that regularly calls for a total federal pullout of education funding and policy. They were fairly traditional Republicans; both Denny and Debbie's mothers taught in the public school system. "It's just I felt that God was saying 'I gave these kids to you, I want you to be in charge of how they are trained.'" If you press, Warwich will allow that public schools have their problems, but she attributes them mostly to the breakdown of the family. "The problems of the public schools [can't] be cured by the public schools," she says, "because children haven't learned to obey their parents and haven't learned to respect their parents. Why should they respect and obey this stranger, this teacher?"
Among homeschoolers, there are differing beliefs regarding the use of what many call "canned curricula." Some think they are vestiges of oppression. But Warwich is among those who take full advantage of the MACHE curriculum fair, gathering catalogs and comparing the products. Tools like Saxon Math. And particularly Wisdom Workbooks, an interdisciplinary lesson series that uses Bible verse--for example, a Pauline epistle on the meaning of persecution--as starting points, and moves on to explore the central theme through sections on history, science, art, math, philosophy, and linguistics.
Music lessons--the accordion for 15-year-old Jeni; the piano for 11-year-old Laurel and 9-year-old Jimmy--are among the things that occupy the kids' non-schooling hours. The Warwichs don't have a TV. "I would say this is the toughest job I've ever had," says Warwich . "In commercial art, if you missed the deadline or the customer got angry with you, you lost the account. Or whatever. Here you could be wrecking somebody's life."
One way to avoid the pitfalls, Warwich figures, is to be honest--about the isolation she sometimes experiences, and her need to set aside time alone for herself. She envisions her kids going on to college if they choose. At this point, she says, their energy level is high. Only occasionally does she need to remind them that "God has called us to do this, and you need to work too."
Linda Winsor & Andrew Prokop
"AFTER SIXTH grade, everybody at our school from our neighborhood went parochial or private because the junior high was in a low-income neighborhood. It was like crossing the tracks, you know. All of a sudden, all the white kids went to SPA, St. Luke's, Derham-Hall."
Linda Winsor is raising her own children in the same working class St. Paul neighborhood south of Macalester-Groveland where she attended school as a child. We talk while her three sons self-direct their learning:12-year-old Louis lounges on the vivid lime green quilted carpet with Lucy, the black lab. Nine-year-old Evan snuggles up with a laptop. James, 5, opens and closes a pink Lion King umbrella. Cello and guitar cases rest against the piano alongside a Suzuki method book.
But Winsor went to the public school. "And after two years, my parents agreed that it was too rough. I mean, it was scary, and I wasn't learning that much. I learned a lot about social life and class and poverty. That was probably the best lesson there."
The daughter of a teacher, Winsor graduated in 1980 from Arizona State's "alternative" education program and taught in that state's public schools for three years. Neither she nor her husband, Andrew Prokop, had considered homeschooling until, after moving back to Minnesota, they befriended a homeschooling couple. As Louis approached school-age, Winsor tried "to imagine him there in a classroom, in a progression through the school." She searched for something resembling her own classroom methods. "I would find a teacher here who was doing the kind of education I was excited about," she says, "and then I would try and see if there was a teacher for each grade level that would allow them to go without workbooks and read books they were interested in, do their own writing, and I couldn't find a school where they could go all the way through with what I thought was the best kind of education for my child."
Winsor acknowledges that her own family is "comfortable," but for most of the homeschoolers she knows "it's a major commitment. Because of their plans to homeschool, they have had to live much more within their means. One car. No vacation. And I think, no matter what income bracket you're in, it's quite a choice to stay home.
"When I was teaching and I saw kids going home to empty houses, I thought, if I ever have kids, my kids aren't going home to that. I knew right away from seeing all the things going on, that kids need their parents involved." And how does she feel about being the one at home?
"At first it wasn't easy. It was lonely. Now there are more people staying home that we've gotten connected with. But you know, I just look at my kids and just say I don't want to miss this, and my husband is very supportive. He didn't want them in daycare or spending their time with somebody else."
Responding to the teachers' union resolutions against homeschooling, Winsor speculates, "Teachers unions are seeing us as more of a threat than they ever used to. They used to see us as a fringe thing out over there, but I think they're realizing now that we're raising some good questions.
"I came to feel that best way to change the system was to get out of it, so that I could be totally independent. I think that our voices are being heard. It's like the people in the home birth movement. The reason why the hospitals and doctors are changing and the nurse-midwives are changing the way people can give birth in hospitals is because enough people were saying, you know, 'I want to be in control of my birth, I want to have my husband there, I want to have my kids there, I want to be able keep the baby in my room.' All those things. I think those of us who stepped outside are starting to cause things to change."
Karl Bunday & Grace Chen
A MINNESOTA Homeschoolers Alliance briefing brought 30 or so curious people to a St. Paul community center one evening this summer. When the questions turned to legal matters, the MHA's president, attorney Karl Bunday answered them with obvious relish, happily pointing out weaknesses and ambiguities in Minnesota law. Do both parents need college degrees in order to homeschool, one woman asked? No, said Bunday, but parent-teachers without degrees must submit quarterly report cards to their districts and are subject to closer scrutiny, "I say that if either one of you has any degree in anything, count yourself under that part of the law and let them argue with you if they don't believe that the one with the degree is doing most of the teaching."
In reality, though, it's still mothers who bear the vast majority of day-to-day homeschooling duties. Bunday and his wife, Grace Chen, happen to represent a minority: homeschool families in which women are the out-of-home breadwinners and the men are doing most of the instruction.
Though the state may see Bunday as a babysitter rather than a "homeschooler" until 3-year-old Matthew reaches age 7, Bunday insists he's homeschooling Matthew now, and plans to simply continue "unschooling" him, to use a term popularized by homeschool guru John Holt. Bunday and Chen's Christmas Lake apartment is a shrine to auto-didacticism: bookshelves piled with everything from worn biographies of the founding fathers to Chinese newspapers and maps to computer guides. The stereo is stacked with CDs; the floors and tables are a spectral topography of Duplo blocks and dioramas.
Shortly after I arrive, Matthew squeals about "painting on the com-pyooooter" and disappears into an anterior room that barely accommodates both its kingsize bed and an enviable computer workspace. While his father wires the fax machine to receive MHA's newsletter copy, Matthew swirls the computer's rollerball on the "spraypaint" setting to create white splotches on a midnight blue field, then spins around to face me, sing-songing, "Nighttime stars! Cold cold wintertime!" I learn later that the boy prefers speaking Mandarin and that any precocious English is purely for my benefit.
Bunday doesn't believe in forcing lessons down the gullet. He recalls as a child "making a grid with all the numbers up to 30 on both sides and how they multiply together. And I did that simply because I had seen something like it in a book that a relative had given me for a birthday present. Kids need a family environment where it's natural to be interested in learning about things like that."
With her B.A. in music, Chen teaches piano lessons afternoons and most evenings. She says she can detect Matthew's "acute musical sense" in "his movement and his memory and reaction to listening." She'd like him to listen to music before introducing him to an instrument, hence the eclectic cache of music. "He's heard easily more than 300 titles since he was born, every kind of music from all over the world."
According to Bunday, Matthew's regimen includes "at least an hour of reading to him every evening, sometimes a lot more. He gets to the library about three or four times a week. He's got his own books. He'll play with the CD-ROM interactive games at the library." When I ask about teaching Matthew civics, Bunday laughs. "You learn civics by living with other people. You don't learn civics by the leaders telling you to follow the leader."
A former translator for the State Department, Bunday is working on compiling "the largest homeschool bibliography in the world," furiously establishing cyberlinks between reform-minded Americans and what he sees as the most progressive education systems in the world. But though the explosion of interest in homeschooling has increased traffic to his web page (220.127.116.11/School_/is_dead/Learn_in_freedom.html), living solely on Chen's income isn't always easy. Library trips have to be scheduled around the shared use of the family's single car, and Bunday confides that "Grace gets a lot of hand-me-down toys from her piano students, so we have more toys than our own income could support."
In Bunday's ideal universe, tax dollars would be spent bolstering libraries and museums--which are, according to the Minneapolis Public Library, experiencing a noticeable increase in use and requests for materials by homeschooling families. By his lights, "It's fine for the government to encourage learning--but the empirical question that's never been answered is whether public school attendance results in learning."
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