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Calvert School’s Head Master Launched Formal Homeschooling

While homeschooling continues to grow in popularity, the basis for the modern homeschooling movement can be traced back to one man, Virgil M. Hillyer (1875-1931). Hillyer championed the idea of a formal homeschooling program years before its general acceptance, and it has been his vision for a classic American education that has been at the center of the Calvert School curriculum for more than 100 years.

Hillyer was a Harvard-trained scholar who served as Head Master of the Baltimore, Maryland-based Calvert School shortly after its founding in 1897. When named Head Master, Hillyer was all of 24 years of age. Despite his youth, his ideas for educating children, whether in a classroom or at home, were quite innovative.

"The nearer to the heart of the home, to the bosom of the family," Hillyer said, "the richer is the environment, and the nearer the child is to the center of his world."

After developing the young school’s private school program, he set his sights on what has become known as homeschooling. Hillyer’s motivations for starting the nation’s first formal homeschooling program were probably two-fold. First, an influenza outbreak was keeping children at home and he wanted to make sure they continued their Calvert studies. Second, the school could not accommodate all the children whose parents wanted them enrolled in this widely regarded private school program.

In 1906, Hillyer, then 31 years old, entered a downtown Baltimore bookstore with a curious package in hand. It contained copies of the private school’s Kindergarten curriculum, which he presented to the shopkeeper along with an intriguing proposition: Why not offer the curriculum to parents who, unable to send their young sons and daughters to Calvert, could nonetheless give their children the same educational advantage by purchasing the lessons and teaching them right in the home?

The store owner agreed to the offer, and soon Hillyer placed advertisements in National Geographic, Colliers and other major magazines, announcing the course’s availability through the mail. Within a few years, word of what Calvert offered, a classic American education, had spread. People in remote parts of the U.S. and abroad were ordering curriculum boxes, each filled with lessons, textbooks, workbooks and supplies.

Hillyer and several of his staff would mimeograph the lessons teachers had offered in their classes in the school, sending them to families the following week. As a result, in the early days, students who were homeschooled were just one week behind the lessons in the classrooms at Calvert.

"Another advantage of home education that can hardly be over estimated is the personal, individual attention, care and watchfulness given one’s own child, which exceeds that of any school," he said in a presentation to the Third International Congress for Home Education in the early 1900s.

The correspondence courses drew the greatest interest from diplomats, missionaries and others with children in remote and isolated sections of the U.S. and the world. Actors and musicians, even circus performers, used the Calvert curriculum, and sailing families then and now have always chosen Calvert because everything necessary to teach is included in the course box.

Hillyer died in 1931 of acute appendicitis. His death came suddenly, when he was just 56 years old, and it robbed him of the opportunity to see the full impact of the program he started.

Calvert’s course boxes have been delivered by dogsled, camel caravan, and even parachuted from airplanes. The destinations have been homes in cities, towns, deserts, on islands, in South America, Africa, Europe, near the North Pole and everywhere in between.

In the 1940s, the U.S. Department of Defense started sending Calvert curriculum to children of soldiers stationed in Japan and Korea. By the 1950s, more than 85 tons of Calvert materials were being shipped each year.

Almost 30,000 students in all 50 states and in about 90 countries receive Calvert School courses each year. In every Calvert course box is a core curriculum that still reflects Head Master Hillyer’s fundamental belief "that the whole realm of knowledge is the true field of study and that school is not the preparation for life – it is life."

Embedded within the detailed lessons and the carefully chosen textbooks has always been an educational philosophy that was considered revolutionary in the early 1900s. In fact, the head masters of other schools in Baltimore often complained that Hillyer withheld "trade secrets" because he failed to share his educational philosophy with them.

Hillyer’s innovative ideas remain the cornerstone of the success of the Calvert curriculum. In short, Hillyer believed in a curriculum that focused on the 3Rs, with healthy doses of science, history, art, art history, music, and geography. He believed in teaching from generalities to specifics and constant drilling.

He believed that "advance is never a straight line, but a looped orbit." Hillyer penned numerous articles and several books. His most popular book, A Child’s History of the World, remains a valuable part of the Calvert curriculum and one of the most beloved of children’s books ever written. Hundreds of copies are sold each year to children and to adults wishing to refresh themselves about world history.

His vision shaped Calvert School’s curriculum and remains an unwavering part of its homeschool curriculum. What became known as "the school in the box" has been shipped to more than 160,000 students over the last decade alone. More than 350,000 children have used Calvert’s materials since the private school’s beginning in 1897.

Some of Hillyer’s quotes now appear within the pages of the lesson manuals so families can benefit from his wisdom. "Learning comes into the room when the child senses the beauty and usefulness of the fact or skill being taught," he wrote.

Building on Hillyer’s educational wisdom, Calvert continues to change with the times. While clinging to the principles and ideas of its first Head Master, Calvert continues to enrich its program by offering lessons based on the best of textbooks from major educational publishers. Calvert has added new courses that enable families to pursue areas of special interest in their students, whether in science, reading, art, music or other subjects.

Virgil Hillyer’s once-revolutionary view of homeschooling still remains true: "An advantage that can hardly be over-estimated is the personal, individual attention, care, and watchfulness given one’s own child, which exceeds that of any school."