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The Colfax Corner

by David and Micki Colfax

My homeschool son is 15 and isn’t interested in going to college. Where can we find out about apprenticeships? B.Y., Albuquerque, NM.

Apprenticeships are appealing to homeschoolers for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they provide young people with an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in the real world of work, and to learn about themselves and the world in the process. John Gatto, teaching in New York’s schools, found that his students who were given an opportunity to work in a variety of commercial and industrial settings, usually as unpaid and short-term apprentices, almost invariably acquired a wide range of valuable skills and attitudes. Many homeschoolers have part-time jobs or make it part of their educational program to work on a voluntary basis in places such as hospitals, senior centers, fire departments and radio stations, not only to learn new skills but also to see if they might be interested in working in these fields. If you are interested in a long-term, more intensive apprenticeship, the best thing to do is to contact people who work in the field to find out what is available and what the entry requirements are. Those interested in the more traditional crafts should contact the unions directly, which are listed in the yellow pages under “Labor Organizations”. Don’t be disappointed if they don’t seem very encouraging, however, for many of the few programs now available want applicants who have completed a high school industrial arts program. I’d suggest that your son make an appointment with the folks in charge of the programs he’s interested in and be prepared to convince them that he’s a quick and independent learner and therefore a better choice than someone who may have gone through a conventional high school program.

I consider myself to be one of those rare birds, something of a liberal, and many of my friends are liberals. So what do I tell them when they say that I am being an elitist by teaching my kids at home? They argue that we’re depriving the public schools of the presence of our bright, highly-motivated daughters, and that we should be trying to change the schools, not abandoning them. Should I become a conservative? R.D., Berkeley, CA

Ah, liberals. You are obviously hanging out with the kind of people who have made P.J. O’Rourke and George Wills, who write bad things about them, very, very rich men. If your friends are of a historical bent, you might suggest that they familiarize themselves with the history of the public schools, and examine whose interests they serve, and when and how. If they are of a philosophical turn of mind, point them in the direction of our friend John Gatto. But perhaps the easiest way to counter their misplaced populism is to suggest that the next time their children need to see a doctor that they be sure to go to the worse one in town. After all, he probably could use the business and think of how much better he might become if were given an opportunity to practice on their children. Or when they have a legal problem, that they make sure that they consult with the most inept law firm around, in order to help it become better at what it now does so badly. If your friends point out that their children would almost certainly get worse care or that they’d probably lose their case were they to follow your suggestion, urge them to consider the larger good they’d be serving, how they would be enhancing the noble institutions of law and medicine. Surely they would not want to be accused of putting the needs of their children and themselves above the well-being of their new doctor and lawyer friends? With a little luck your friends might get the point. But maybe not. Liberals are notoriously ineducable. Perhaps you will, after all, have to make new friends.

My younger sister is homeschooling her children and has them enrolled with their school district in something called an ISP. She says that they get books and are supervised by a teacher who comes to her home. It doesn’t sound like homeschooling to me. My adult daughter was homeschooled with no help from our school district. B.Y.M., Portland, OR

To those of us who homeschooled our children back when local school districts were anything but friendly, didn’t have the opportunity to become involved in what may be broadly termed “homeschool-school district” cooperative programs. In the last decade or so, many more progressive -- some might say more mercenary -- school administrators came to recognize that if they could involve homeschooling parents in district programs they would be able to collect at least a part of the otherwise lost “average daily attendance” funds that fuel the public school enterprise. They have established programs that variously offer current and would-be homeschooling parents individualized study programs (ISPs), opportunities to participate in school activities and sports, and access to school books and materials. Some homeschoolers regard this as an insidious effort to coopt homeschoolers, others regard it as a way of providing parents who might otherwise never consider homeschooling with a valuable option, and still others feel that it combines the best of all possible educational worlds, melding the resources of the school with the independence of homeschooling.

And there is no question that the programs vary widely and get mixed reviews from homeschoolers who have participated in them. Some feel that they have been saddled with poor teachers by administrators who want to get them out of the classroom. Others have had to deal with teachers who are hostile towards homeschooling and see their role as that of doing everything possible to get homeschoolers “mainstreamed”. There are concerns about the kinds of educational materials that homeschool coordinators recommend to their clients. (We were recently appalled to find that a key workbook used in one of the larger ISP-homeschool programs was -- almost by any standard -- several degrees worse than anything that a child might encounter in a classroom -- but it did have “homeschooling” in its title). And in another California county, homeschoolers who wish to take part in the school-run ISP have had to apply for admission to the program and sign a statement in which they agree to follow certain special rules and procedures -- which means that homeschooling parents are required to meet standards which are not imposed on parents who enroll their children in conventional public school programs.

While parents need to be careful about taking part in programs that do not adequately serve their children’s needs, and to be wary about being drawn into the confining institutional mind-set that dominates public school culture, and on guard against program drift, ISPs can be useful. For new, less-than-confident homeschoolers, for homeschoolers who want to participate in the social life of the school, and for those who aren’t happy with public schools but are not, for whatever reasons, comfortable with being entirely responsible for the education of their children, ISPs fill an important need.

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