I recently went to my first parent-teacher conference of the new school year, and it was unlike any I'd previously attended. It was literally a "parent-teacher" conference, because my wife and I are our youngest children's parents and teachers.
While the Wake County school population explosion has many parents hustling to adjust to a year-round schedule, inquiring about bus stops and dreading carpool lanes, we are very calm and comfortable with our transportation and calendar options. I couldn't care less about reassignments or transportation schedules, because my kids' bus has only one stop between bed and school, at the intersection of Bathroom and Breakfast.
We joined the ranks of home-schoolers a year ago, with my middle son—then a rising fifth-grader—as the guinea pig. Things went so well that we subsequently withdrew our two youngest daughters from first grade and pre-school in January, and home-schooled them through the second semester.
Home schooling is one of those self-explanatory terms that nevertheless beg extensive explanation. It is a legal right for parents and guardians of children in North Carolina to personally administer and conduct their children's education. The North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education (www.ncdnpe.org) spells out the requirements, which are fairly moderate by national standards. A home school must be registered with the state via a Notice of Intent. Immunization records must be kept up to date. Standardized testing must be conducted annually in English grammar, reading, spelling and mathematics. Teachers must have at least a high school diploma or GED. The school must operate a minimum of nine months each year.
The ranks of home-schoolers are growing in North Carolina, with about 36,000 registered home schools. Since 2004, the number has increased by approximately 6,500 new home schools annually.
Wake County leads the state in the number of home schools (3,250 for 2006-07) and home-schooled students (6,516 for the same period). By comparison, Wake County Public Schools listed an enrollment of 120,000 students last year; 5 percent of the total does not a revolution make. But that's still a significant amount of people taking their children's education into their own hands.
Why would parents choose to home-school their child? For my wife and me, our rationale can be summed up thusly: We know what is best for our children. We know them better than anyone else. And, most important, we view the proper raising, nurturing, training and equipping of them as our God-given responsibility. Sure, we can outsource the execution of those duties to others (and for the record, our two oldest children remain in public school), but it is we who are ultimately accountable for them until they are old enough to be accountable for themselves.
Every school day starts with a prayer in my household and, like the curricula, each prayer is tailored to the needs of our individual children. For each child, we've set academic and character goals for the upcoming year. For one, it is maturity, self-control and a willingness to confront anxieties. For another, the bar is set at humility, selflessness and caring. Another of my kids needs to work on self-confidence, leadership and independence. And yet another has been signed up for patience and maturity.
The root of "educate" is the Latin educe, "to pull out of," while the Middle English definition of "educate" was "to rear." Educating our kids means that every day we will raise our children by attempting to draw out these and other traits that exist as capabilities within them.
It's not that we felt they couldn't be educated in public school. My wife, a former PTA president, and I have both been very active in all of our children's schools. We've long prioritized volunteerism and direct involvement in their education. In doing so, however, we've come to the understanding that we are uniquely situated to tailor educational experiences to their individual needs: to accentuate the areas in which they are strong, and bolster those in which they are weak.
We did not undertake this journey lightly. Our experiences with another major and "different" path undertaken by our family—foster care and adoption—led us to believe that this, too, would be met with some mixture of apprehension and curiosity. And as with our decision to adopt, we've encountered both support and opposition in places where we wouldn't have expected, either. My wife and I were especially apprehensive about our decision to home-school, considering that we have educators on both sides of the family: my father retired after more than 30 years as a teacher and coach in New Jersey; my wife has an uncle who is a principal, and another who is a longtime teacher in Maryland. We have teachers and school administrators in our circle of friends, extended family and church family.
But, our fears of "What will they think of us?" must necessarily be answered with "It doesn't matter" if the underlying decision is a correct and principled one. Thankfully, the people closest to us supported our decision, and that was even before phenomenal first year results confirmed the correctness of this path for this family. Due to anxiety, our "guinea pig" used to wake up with nightmares and vomiting at 3 a.m. prior to the start of the school year or upon return from a lengthy holiday break; he is now brimming with excitement. He made tremendous strides in maturity, focus, self-confidence and peace after only one semester last year. And the "light" of learning that was being slowly squelched in him over years prior has been rekindled brighter than before.
Emboldened by that success, the decision to home-school our youngest daughters, beginning last January, was almost immediately rewarded. Our middle daughter, woefully behind and overmatched by her first-grade curriculum, and moved to tears from frustration at her inability to keep up, learned to read in only three weeks at home. After only six months, a seemingly insurmountable gap has been closed, and she is at or above grade level in almost all areas; she now enters second grade as a willing and voracious learner, overflowing with self-confidence. My youngest daughter is now an emergent reader, and more than a semester ahead of her kindergarten year.
Against that backdrop we held the conference with my youngest son, letting him know what to expect from fourth grade. His mother and I are hopeful that he will be every bit as successful as his brother and sisters were, but we don't want to take anything for granted. All we can really be sure of is that we'll probably get along with his teachers just fine.
After a hiatus, Derek Jennings has returned to the Independent. His column will run monthly.