Home-Based School Cranks Out Winners
It’s a school that even Huck Finn could love, one without tests, report cards or homework assignments.
But then, the students at remote Mountain School in Mendocino County are a teacher’s dream. Two graduates of David and Micki Colfax’s home-based school for their four sons have won scholarships to Harvard University.
Recently, Drew Colfax, 18, decided to accept an offer from Harvard and turned down those from Yale, Princeton, Amherst and Haverford, he said. A spokeswoman for Princeton, where fewer than one in six applicants was accepted this year, called him “one of our most extraordinary applicants.”
“We’ve never seen a kid like this,” said Princeton’s Laura Clark. “He is home-educated and has demonstrated an amazing academic excellence in an unorthodox learning environment.”
Harvard spokeswoman Margery Heffron said, “I don’t think it’s unique, but it’s unusual.”
Drew will join his older brother, Grant, at Harvard. Grant, 21, is an honors premed student. Reed, 16, is “mathematically precocious,” according to their father, a former university professor in sociology. And Garth, 10, has a deep interest in ceramics and painting.
Their mother said, “I think they’re very bright and very motivated, but I don’t think they’re particularly gifted. They just have a lot of interests, and they pursue them vigorously.”
All four have been virtually self-educated, Micki Colfax said in an interview sandwiched between goat-keeping chores at their ranch.
Mountain School is the family-coined name for the informal school, and that’s how it’s registered with state and county authorities to permit the home-based schooling.
“There really isn’t any format to it,” said the mother, a former English teacher. “After the boys learn to read and write and do math up to pre-algebra, they’re pretty much on their own. Rather than being in a school, I like to think of them as self-taught.”
The do-it-yourself schooling started 13 years ago when the family moved here to homestead a piece of land.
Family members support themselves by growing their own food, breeding prize-winning goats and operating a bed-and-breakfast inn. David Colfax also is a free-lance writer.
Motivating the boys to teach themselves has never been a problem because “what they’re doing here is very real,” Micki Colfax said.
“For instance,” she said, “they built their own sheds to house their animals. That means designing and constructing, and you have to know not only carpentry but math. And they put in the plumbing, laid the tiles and did the electrical system for the bed-and-breakfast.”
Lessons even continue at mealtime, when family members discuss books they’re reading or current events. And the sons are encouraged to take on projects that interest them.
Drew, an avid stargazer, says he has read more than 300 books on astronomy. He writes a weekly astronomy column for the local newspaper and built his own telescope from scratch, as well as an observatory to put it in.