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Our Journey Away From School

by Rebecca M. Penoyer

Our girls loved school! It was a private, parent-sponsored, Christian school. It had a spacious, beautiful, state-of-the-art campus, complete with computers, athletic fields, and a nature center tucked into the adjoining woods. The members of the faculty were all nice people, who loved what they were doing and took an interest in each individual child. Every teacher was certified, and each brought fresh approaches to classroom instruction.

So ... why did we choose to -homeschool? Our story begins in the 1995-96 school year.

Our daughter Beth was a bright, sensitive, gregarious child who loved to play violin and soccer. She had been attending the school since preschool, and always had the privilege of being taught by loving teachers who were truly interested in her. Her lack of organization sometimes affected her grades, but her happy-go-lucky spirit remained undaunted ... until the fourth grade.

Mr. K. was a good teacher who was just as interested and concerned about Beth as her previous five teachers. He had a reputation for being demanding, but fair. He wanted to prepare his students for the academic rigors that lay ahead, a noble goal, and I was looking forward to Bethís blossoming under his supervision. Her "wilting" at the age of nine was not at all what I had expected.

Bouts of tears set in, accompanied by exclamations of "Iím too stupid!". Beth lived life in a frenzy Ė up at 6:20, bus ride, schoolwork, bus ride, homework, soccer, more homework, and finally at about 9:30, violin! (You can imagine the quality of those practices.) The activities she loved were being crowded out by academic assignments. Mr. K. believed in one to two hours of homework per evening, but it was taking Beth three to four hours, plus weekends, to complete it. I became the "taskmaster", constantly driving her to complete each assignment so she could go to the next. Yet, she wanted to take a music theory class and join a four-piece string ensemble! When was she to accomplish that?

At the parent-teacher conference at the end of the first marking period, Mr. K. suggested and I agreed, Beth should be tested for Attention Deficit Disorder. Within a few weeks, Beth was medicated with Ritalin, which did help her concentrate and complete assignments, and we felt more confident that she would "make it" out of the fourth grade. She did not suffer any of the negative side affects possible with Ritalin, and she was more attentive, even to soccer and violin. However, her love for school had devolved into an acceptance of the inevitable, assignments still filled every moment not designated to other activities, and her passion for music was on the back burner.

Nicole our exuberant first grader, loved life and her teacher. This was the year she would learn to read! Nicole had not joined our family until she was almost five, and her previous environment had not been one in which she had flourished. However, during her first two years with us, she had developed and matured by leaps and bounds, and she had learned much in preschool and kindergarten. I feel confident she could "keep up" with a lot of support at home.

So for two to three hours every day after school, I worked at the kitchen table with Nicole, reteaching all the concepts of the day. Her teacher was very positive, supportive, and encouraging. Nicole did make progress, but without the constant review and repetition at home, much ground would have been lost. Could I keep this up for eleven more years? Even if I could, I was developing a sense that Nicole could not. Try as she did it was overwhelming to try to hang on to the coattails of her classmates academically.

Lisa had lived with us since her second birthday, and her cerebral palsy had spurred us to help her achieve all she could. She attended a top-notch early intervention program, had the finest specialists I could find, had undergone several surgeries, and received multiple therapies on a regular basis. After three and a half years, she could finally attend the same school as her older sisters!

Her teacher was probably one of the ten best kindergarten teachers on the planet, possessing all the qualities you would order from the "teacher menu". The year went well. Lisa learned at times with extra help and a bit slower than her classmates, but at the end of the year, she knew pretty much what they knew. The school, however, had reservations about her abilities. The powers that be felled Lisa might later have learning problems with which they could not deal; they felt another school could better meet her needs.

Prior to that year, I had never questioned the institution of school, and we were privileged to have the girls in a very good, albeit expensive, one. However, during those ten months of tears and toil I began to consider options. How could Beth follow her musical interests? Since that was her God-given talent, was it not at least as important as her schoolwork? Could Nicole learn in a more individualized, slower paced environment? I was teaching her on a daily basis already, why not do it first thing in the morning? In what environment could Lisa be appreciated for her ability to learn the same material as her peers, perhaps just at a slower pace?

I headed to the library to research homeschooling. The volumes on the subject were few and difficult to locate in the catalog, but I discovered and devoured David Gutersmís Family Matters. It made sense; the direction we should take became clearer.

I found more books on homeschooling at another library, and began searching out homeschoolers. The books were encouraging; the homeschooling moms remarkably closed-mouthed. I was not trying to be a busy body, I had genuine questions of a practical nature about a subject I craved to know more. (This memory has always remained with me, so I try to answer questions in an open manner, just in case my interrogator is in the midst of his or her own search.)

That May, my husband Jeff and I found our way to our first homeschool conference. What a wealth of information! I attended many workshops, mostly those taught by homeschool moms who did want to share their lives. I bought books for myself, and subject material for the girls for the coming school year.

After the conference, the last six weeks of school were an annoyance to me. The procedures necessary to maintain order in an institution, even a good one, felt cumbersome. I questioned practices I had long accepted, and was more joyous than the girls when their final bell rang in mid-June.

Labor Day of the following school year, Beth, Nicole, and I started school at home, and school we did —with a vengeance. It took two more years for me to relax, but thatís another story. (Sixteen years of school and a degree in elementary education are a great handicap to a new homeschooling mom.) Notwithstanding, the two girls were much better off and considerably happier and less stressed than the year before. Beth had time for violin, ensemble, theory, and three soccer leagues over twelve months, eventually Ritalin free. Nicole escaped school before her self-confidence was shaken, and we experimented with different methods to discover how she learned best. Unfortunately, Lisa could not join us our first year at home. She was not yet adopted, so I could not legally homeschool her in our state. I checked into two private schools for children with special learning needs, having been convinced that she required such measures, but the tuitions of $9,000 and $12,000 slammed that door shut. Lisa would have to attend public school for first grade, and we would have to make the best of it.

So as her older sisters began work at the kitchen table, Lisa entered a regular first grade class in our local neighborhood school. That year, she learned to read, and with little problem.

The school district stressed math theory over practicality, so Lisa was expected to know "what numbers lie 10 before and 10 after 293?", but she was never taught or expected to know "5+3". Lisa has an excellent memory, but was never asked to memorize math facts or even a simple poem.

In spite of her documented visual impairment (including two eye surgeries) and my notes to the teacher, Lisaís assigned seat was on the back row. I am sure this made reading charts and the chalkboard at the front of the room an abysmal challenge. (You see why Iím grateful she learned to read that year.)

Science and social studies were never taught, not even the changing seasons. The, teacher explained that there wasnít time, due to the fact that they needed to have math instruction twice a day to cover the curriculum. One day in the spring, Lisaís spelling test came home with 100% on the top. (Spelling words were the one thing the school asked her to memorize, so she always did well on these tests.) However, there was a large, red, sad face drawn across the entire page. The note at the bottom, also in red, said, "messy handwriting. Keep in mind, Lisa has cerebral palsy which affects her muscles, including those of her hands. To write neatly, she must write slowly. Yet she took these dictated tests with her classmates, at the same speed at which they took them.

Lisa still liked school, and she "passed" first grade. The wheels of bureaucracy turned exceedingly slow on Lisaís behalf, summer passed without her adoption occurring. We still had no legal rights to our child of nearly six years (yet another story), so it was back to public school.

The first seven weeks of second grade were a nightmare for Lisa. The teacher informed us early that it was the parentsí responsibility to teach the children all addition and subtraction facts to 20, prior to November, when the "test of basic skills" would be administered to all second graders. She would not be teaching or reinforcing these facts during the course of the seven-hour school day; she would be teaching the math curriculum. None of her assigned homework would be for math facts, it was up to us to teach them in addition to her assignments.

The teacher regularly called Lisa "Pokey" or "Slow Poke" in the presence of her classmates. Lisa rarely was allowed to go to recess, because she hadnít completed her "seat work". She came home every day crying; she was "too dumb," she sobbed.

On October 8 of that year, Lisaís adoption was finalized at 9:30 am. at the county courthouse. (Cheers! Applause!) By 11:30 a.m. that same morning, Lisaís "Affidavit to Homeschool" was filed at the school district office. She was emancipated from social services and school, both on the same day!

Lisa began learning academics at home with us part way into our second year of homeschooling. It took her almost a year to adjust to not attending school. Quite understandably so, when you consider she had been to school since the age of two.

It has been four years since we commenced homeschooling. Now we learn much together, we travel extensively throughout the year, and the girls pursue their own interests individually. We have incorporated Anthony, now six, into many of our activities. He will never know the confines of "sitting in his seat" for hours on end, a task of which he is incapable.

When the girls first "came home", we had four or five good reasons to try homeschooling for a year. Now homeschooling is our lifestyle, and we have hundreds of reasons not to send our daughters, or their two younger brothers, to school.

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