JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald
Recently, about 20 children were taking part in the precious daily rite afforded American elementary school students – snack time – inside a Needham Elementary School classroom.
At one table, kids bit into apples and chatted amiably. At another, one little girl showed her friend the best way to prepare animal crackers, a delicate culinary process that involved thrusting them headfirst into the table.
What made this classroom different than all the others was that it was filled with home-schoolers, whose parents had enrolled them in Durango School District 9-R’s Shared School Learning program, where, twice a week, home-school kids are welcome to take classes at Needham.
District spokeswoman Julie Popp said public schools have a lot to offer children who aren’t enrolled in them.
“Socialization is really big, a very important aspect of education,” said Popp. “The district opens its doors to any kid in the region. We even have some from Ignacio.”
Popp said the program is a sign of its commitment to school choice, whereby every student could participate in sports, drama, music, clubs and special enrichment programs. “It supports the model of learning that the school district endorses as a whole,” she said, “so if a kid wants to pursue math beyond his parents’ level, he can supplement with an AP calculus class at Durango High School.”
The district’s take on home-schooling – come one, come all – and even its tone of voice, marks a departure from public schools’ traditional view of home-schoolers, just as the 44 students now enrolled in the program mark a departure from home-schoolers’ traditional view of public schools.
Historically, the antagonism between public schools and home-schoolers has been stark, and public dialogue frequently careened into vilification.
Home-schooling was viewed as the domain of religious extremists, bohemian losers and even cunning child-abusers. And education aside, denying kids the chance to go to public school was denying them a full experience of life, complete with band practice, bullying, proms, detentions, pig dissections in science class, student government elections, and ill-destined auditions for Our Town.
Such arguments were easy to make as recently as the 1970s, when the number of children being home-schooled in America hovered around just 10,000.
Today, nearly 2 million children are home-schooled nationally, and the home-school movement – once eager to reject public schools as hotbeds of iniquity and academic failure – is increasingly assertive.
Within the local home-schooling community, some members are sticking to the hardline.
Tommy Meadows, who has three children and served for years as president of Christian Home Educators of La Plata County until it disbanded two years ago, said since the 1970s, sharp criticisms of home-schooling had produced many misconceptions. Meadows said he and his wife Holly had attended public school, where they’d been elected prom king and queen. While kids’ yearning for the typical high school experience was “something we relate to strongly,” Meadows said his family hadn’t taken the district up on its offers of support.
“No, and I don’t want them to,” he said. “The thing that I believe the Bible teaches about education is that the government doesn’t do it,” Meadows said.
But, in interviews, many parents saw programs such as Shared Schooling as opportunities to take an a la carte approach to their children’s education, combining the individualized academic rigors of home-schooling with the inherent adventure, curricular range, and broad social exposure provided by public school.
Karen Edmondson, who runs Pine River Community Learning Center’s Wednesday home-schooling program, said when she saw her child struggling in public school, she decided to home-school her.
“It worked out really well. There’s a lot of distraction in a public-school classroom, not that that’s bad, but some kids have a harder time focusing. In just a couple of years, we were able to cover four years of material.” Edmondson said her daughter had since re-enrolled, at Bayfield High School.
In art class at Needham, fifth-grader Bailey Smith said she loved home-schooling. While she enjoyed learning at Needham, too, she said she sometimes found classes with other students overwhelming. What she really looked forward to at public school was drama class.
Third-grader Julian Colby said by being in the district’s Shared Learning program, “we get the benefits of school, but we also get to hang out with our parents, and they are very nice.”
His mother, Sarah Illsley, said while home-schooling had allowed her family to pick up and travel Mexico for a year, Julian “actually gets a lot of wonderful things through Shared Schooling. It offers drama, music, computer labs, physical education and Spanish. I think it’s a magnificent program,” she said.
In part, parents’ willingness to use public-school resources is a sign home-schooling – which touts a diverse collection of poster children, including Margaret Atwood and Tim Tebow – has less to feel defensive about.
Many recent studies have found that home-school students have an edge in college admissions. The College Board, which administers the SAT, reported that home-school students tended to outscore their public-school counterparts by 72 points, or 7 percent, in 2002. According to a 2011 report by the National Home Education Research Institute, a prominent advocate of home-schooling, home-schoolers typically beat public school students by 15 to 30 percentile points on academic achievement tests.