Home Schooling Teaches a Lesson in Freedom of Choice

There is much talk these days about destiny, controlling it, guiding it, making it happen. It starts with you .

Variations on this theme, unimpeachable advice, are everywhere you turn. Nike even uses it to sell shoes. "Just do it," the logo says.

Not doing it can mean a missed chance and its nagging byproduct, guilt.

I was thinking of this the other day after meeting three mothers and their children, each extraordinary in their own way. These are children, from 7 to 12 years old, that any parent would want. They are kind, articulate, well-mannered and bright.

And these are mothers who did more than just worry about how their kids would grow up, about what influences might cause them to go astray. They have been teaching their children themselves, at home, full time.

They call this a holistic approach to raising their children well.

This is a radical idea, one that is catching on in droves. There are critics galore. Many school districts feel threatened by the concept; some think it should be banned. They say parents just can't teach their children as well as the established system can.

Yet parents point out that the system is full of gaping holes. And many of these parents, their enthusiasm motivated by love, are proving the doubters flat-out wrong.

California is officially fuzzy on schooling at home. There is no law against it, but parents are required to file affidavits saying that their homes are private schools. Except many parents don't bother and that is usually the end of that.

Still, Julie Richards jokes that maybe I shouldn't use her name. She teaches Aaron, 12, and Adam, 8, at home in Lake Forest. She has been doing so for seven years without advising the state.

She and her friends make sure that their membership to the Home School Legal Defense Assn., a national organization offering legal assistance, is always up to date.

Former public school teacher Alice Kalomas, a home teacher for seven years, is in front of the class now. It is in her family's house in Laguna Hills, upstairs in a carpeted room with a balcony, table and chairs, bulletin boards, an American flag, a computer and lots of books.

This is where her sons Anthony, 12, and Gabriel, 11, usually take their lessons alone. Last year, daughter Melena and her friend were here too. Now both girls are in their first year of Catholic high school.

Today is a little different than most, although no day can reasonably be called routine here. There are plenty of field trips and not long ago, even a foray to the Middle East and Greece. Sometimes there are tests and always, lots of working quietly alone.

Julie's boys and Keith and Elise Luna of Laguna Niguel are joining Alice's sons for class today. Another boy, 10-year-old Brandon Collins, is visiting from Arizona, where his mother home schools him too.

Last week, the kids made ghosts out of stiffened cheesecloth and now they are reading the stories they wrote that bring these ghouls to life.

"In a faraway place called Ghost Town lived the clumsiest ghost in the world," Gabriel reads. "All of the other ghosts called him Gabo the buffoon ghost. Every night he lumbered lumpishly down Ghost Street to Casper's Restaurant."

Gabriel goes on to explain that Gabo worked the midnight shift at Casper's. He was always dropping trays. Then one night, it payed off. A hit ghost had come to blow Casper away.

"Gabo tripped with a tray and a bowl knocked the hit ghost out," Gabriel writes. "Gabo was a hero! From then on, everyone treated Gabo as their best friend."

The other children share their stories too. Elise, who is 7, talks of Grealey the candy monster, who was ultimately caught "white-handed" by children who were sick and tired of this ghost stealing all of their Halloween treats. Then Grealey became their friend.

Later the kids tell me that they love learning in their homes, although Elise says that sometimes she wishes she wasn't the only girl. And they all say they've got plenty of friends outside of class, in ballet, soccer, choir, baseball, Indian princesses and other activities too numerous to list here.

"What everybody mentions as a problem with home schooling is socialization," says Red Balfour, who heads the Community Home Education Program at Orange County's Department of Education.

"But if you want to see socialization in the public schools, just go out and look during recess. Tell me how much proper socialization is going on there. What these kids are getting is proper socialization instead."

Balfour, whose office provides curriculum help and teaching advice for the 550 home schoolers enrolled in his program, says public schools need to loosen up and look into alternative ways to educate kids. From what he's seen of home schoolers--here for eight years and in San Diego before that--this is something that is working, often exceptionally well.

Last year, for example, the four home schoolers at the Kalomas house joined with two other children from a public gifted student program to compete in Odyssey of the Mind, an international creative problem-solving competition. The team won the regional and then the state competition, coming in fourth worldwide out of 51 teams. They were also younger than the other kids.

Balfour says maybe 2,000 kids are being taught at home in Orange County today. Home schooling expert Patricia Lines, a professor of education policy at Washington's Catholic University, estimates some 353,500 children were being taught at home nationwide last year--although that number could be low, she says.

Back at the Kalomas home, the mothers are talking about choice. Each teacher-mother has her own style, her own ideas about what she thinks is most important for her own kids. Each tailors lesson plans to each child.

"I believe this is a freedom, a freedom of choice," says Ronna Luna, mother of Keith and Elise. "I believe the more the government tries to control or regulate, the worse it gets. I don't believe it is in the best interests of anybody to have the government come in and tell people what they have to teach, what they have to be."

"I find that as we go on, the teacher becomes obsolete," Alice says. "That's what the problem is with public schools. (The students) haven't learned how to learn yet." Julie says: "It's a different mind-set. We don't move the school to our home. We school at home."

Class is over now. The children have been sitting quietly, listening to the adults, offering their opinions after raising their hands. Before they leave and go outside to play, they tell me that it was a pleasure meeting me. Gabriel shakes my hand.

These mothers are doing more than just something right.

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