Tulsa World – Homeschool: The Quiet Revolution

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* Story by Michael Overall, Staff Writer
* Video by Mike Simons, Staff Photographer
* Photos by James Plumlee

Part one of a two-part series.

Friends at college don’t always know what to think when they ask Chris Byrd where he went to high school.

“Really? You were home-schooled? Why aren’t you a freak?”

In Oklahoma, by some estimates, 33,000 children are facing that kind of question. If home schools were a district of their own, it would be twice the size of Broken Arrow Public Schools, and three times the size of Jenks.

“They expect you to be so socially awkward that you can’t function away from home,”

Byrd says. “And some home-school kids are like that.”

Maybe the ultimate test for home-schooling is whether it continues for a second generation. Will Byrd and other home-school graduates do what their parents did? Will they home-school their own children?

Byrd hesitates.

“I’ll have to think about it . . . .”

On a sunny afternoon in the middle of a school week, they come marching through the woods in tight formation, five abreast and three deep, breaking ranks only to walk around a tree trunk or to step over a rock.

“Stay together,” one teenager orders the rest, all of them armed with water pistols or Super Soakers. “Stay close.”

Meanwhile, badly outnumbered, a second group sneaks into Heller Park from the north and quietly splits up, crouching one-by-one behind bushes or camouflaging themselves with tree branches and fallen leaves.

They wait for the first group to march blindly into range. Then, with a shout that echoes through the trees, they spring out of hiding and open fire.

Streams of water shoot through the air from all directions.

“You’re dead!”

“No, you’re dead!”

“No, you are!”

The first group’s commander calls for his troops to hold formation, but under a relentless barrage of stinging cold water, their ranks falter and soon they’re running south in full retreat.

Drenched but victorious, the second group celebrates by turning their water guns on each other until a parent intervenes.

“The war is over,” Renee Janzen declares. “Put down your weapons.”

Recreating a battle from the French and Indian War of the mid-18th century, the first group simulated the tactics of the British Redcoats, disciplined and orderly , while the second group played the part of the French irregulars and their ragtag Indian allies.

“The lesson here,” Janzen explains as everybody begins to dry off, “is that sometimes a group of determined amateurs can outmaneuver the well-trained professionals.” Instead of sitting in class somewhere, these teenagers are fighting their own kind of insurgency, breaking free of public education and drawing more and more families into their ranks.

Once scattered and unstructured, the home-school movement has evolved into an elaborate network of alliances and partnerships, decentralized but well-funded — and tenaciously determined to remain independent of any state regulation.

In Oklahoma, by some estimates, the size of the home-school movement now overshadows the combined enrollments of all private schools put together.

With no government oversight, no taxpayer funding and no professional accreditation, they’re trying to out-school the schools.
‘Something like this’

Arms raised above her head in a dramatic “V,” the ballerina’s eyebrow curves gently into her nose, one continuous line that abruptly turns 90 degrees just above the mouth. Matisse painted her in the early 1900s. And now these seventh- and eighth-graders, palletes smeared with freshly mixed colors and brushes scattered across their desks, are trying to copy it.

“He was interested in simple, bold shapes,” the teacher explains to everyone. “You can worry about the details later.”

Next door, a teacher is walking eighth-graders through an algebra equation.

Across the hall, the yearbook committee is sorting through class photos.

Around the corner, the debate team is practicing for this weekend’s match.

And downstairs in the gymnasium, middle-school boys are running laps.

It looks like a school. Sounds like a school. Even smells like a school, with a nostalgic blend of Magic Markers and bathroom disinfectant.

“It is a school,” confirms Teresa Poore, the coordinator. “It’s a school where the parents are totally in charge.”

Five years ago, the Heartland Home Educators included maybe a dozen families, with the parents taking turns to teach the classes.

“It was fine,” Poore says, “but some of us decided that we needed something more academically challenging.”

So they hired professional tutors, adopted a new curriculum from Christian private schools, and moved — rent-free — into the empty Sunday school rooms at Owasso’s First Assembly of God.

“It turns out that a lot of parents were looking for something like this,” Poore says, pointing at a thick folder of enrollment sheets on her desk.

More than 150 students now attend Heartland, but it’s not even the biggest home-school group in Owasso, never mind Tulsa.

Some groups dwarf the size of this one.

Known as “education co-ops,” thousands of schools like Heartland have sprung up in recent years across the country, with local Web sites listing dozens in the Tulsa area alone. Even towns the size of Enid, Muskogee and Lawton will have several to choose from. And with enrollments that can easily match a “real” school, co-ops can offer opportunities that used to be out of reach for home-school students — team sports, school choirs, even marching bands.

“There’s nothing public school can do,” Poore insists, “that home school can’t do too.”
‘It’s working’

Curled up barefoot on the couch, Madison Poore opens a math textbook on her lap and begins copying today’s lesson.

When she glances over her shoulder, she can look out the living room window and see Owasso High School on the other side of a neighborhood pond.

“I could walk there in, like, two minutes,” Madison chuckles at the irony. “I could open the back door and yell ‘Hello’ to my friends.”

At 14, she’s never been to school, at least not in the traditional sense. The Heartland co-op gives her an authentic classroom experience, but it meets only two days a week.

Like Matisse painting a ballerina, the Heartland tutors offer only a broad outline of a week’s lesson. Then Madison spends the rest of the week filling in the details for herself.

“People think home-school means being taught by your mother,” she says. “It’s really more about teaching yourself. It’s homework, homework, and more homework.”

On a typical Monday morning, her 13-year-old sister, Kayla, is reading at the dining room table, while mom and 5-year-old Jackilyn stay in the master bedroom using flash cards to learn vocabulary.

“I’ve wondered what it would be like, going to school,” Madison admits. “But my friends who do go to school are jealous. They’re like, ‘Man, I wish I was home-schooled like you.”

Maybe they wouldn’t be quite so envious if they could see what it’s really like.

The TV stays off and the computer is strictly for school work.

When the phone rings, Madison can answer it and talk to her friend for a minute, but her mother quickly rushes her back to the math lesson.

Hour after hour, she spends all morning on the couch with one textbook or another.

“If people think we’re here just goofing off all day,” Madison says as her mother walks into the room to check on her progress. “They have no idea.”

Back when she was just old enough for kindergarten, the family was living in Norman, where they visited the neighborhood elementary school.

“They were bursting at the seams,” Poore remembers while frying bacon for today’s lunch. “I couldn’t believe how crowded it was. Would my child ever get any attention?”

Click below to listen to Teresa Poore.

Her sister and brother-in-law were home-schooling their children at the time, but Poore didn’t approve.

“It just wasn’t something I believed in,” she says, handing a sandwich to Kayla. “Children should be in school. What makes you think you could do it better yourself?”

After seeing the school in Norman, Poore decided she couldn’t do worse. But it was supposed to be temporary, a stopgap until they could afford a private school or maybe move into a better district.

“I still think of it as temporary, in a way,” Poore says, even after 10 years.

“Sometimes, I think about enrolling them in school, especially this one,” she says, patting her youngest daughter on the head as they both eat.

“We’ll see. I would never say that home-school is the only way, or that home-school is something that everybody should do.

“I’m just saying that for us, for right now, it’s working.”
‘Hands off’

Nobody knows just how many families are home-schooling their children in Oklahoma, because under state law families don’t have to notify anybody they’re doing it.

“If you want to home-school your children, all you have to do is not enroll them,” explains Shelly Hickman at the Oklahoma State Department of Education. “There’s no way to count how many children aren’t there.”

She can only point to figures from the U.S. Department of Education. Based on various nationwide surveys, federal officials estimate that 3 percent of American children are being home-schooled, which would amount to 18,000 children in Oklahoma.

On second thought, however, Hickman can suggest a roundabout way to count home-schoolers after all. And her method will suggest a significantly higher percentage in this state.

First, take the number of school-age residents from recent U.S. Census data: roughly 648,000 children in Oklahoma.

Now subtract the total enrollment figures from all Oklahoma public school districts: approximately 587,000.

Finally, take out the total enrollment from private schools: 28,000, according to The Heritage Foundation.

That leaves 33,000 children unaccounted for, or roughly 5 percent of the school-age population.

“Presumably,” Hickman concludes, “that’s approximately the number of kids in home-school.”

Under law, the state can set no standards for those children, can measure no progress and keep no records.

“We’re totally hands off,” Hickman emphasizes. “We have no jurisdiction at all.”
‘Won’t go away’

Tucked into a windowless office in the back of a computer store in Tahlequah, state Sen. Jim Wilson has to dig behind stacks of paper and manila folders to find the ringing telephone on his desk.

The voice mail won’t pick up because the voice mail is already full — Wilson has lost count of how many people have been calling to protest.

“Three hundred? 400?” he shrugs. “It doesn’t matter.”

He keeps thinking, instead, about just one phone call last year, when a grandmother contacted Wilson to complain about her granddaughter’s education.

Despite being mentally disabled herself, the young girl’s mother had withdrawn the child from school . And truancy officers couldn’t do anything about it because the mother claimed to be home-schooling.

“What she was really doing,” Wilson says, “is following a boyfriend around all day. This child wasn’t getting any kind of education at all.”

Without any way of tracking the children, Wilson can only guess how many families might be faking home-school. But he’s guessing it happens a lot.

“I’ll stipulate that nine out of 10 people who say they’re home-schooling are really doing it, and they’re doing a great job of it. I’ll stipulate that all these kids are going to grow up to be National Merit scholars, OK? All of them. Fine.

“That still leaves thousands of children being abused, because that’s what I think it is when you’re not giving a child an education — it’s child abuse. And I’m not going to just stand by and watch it happen.”

Written by Wilson, Senate Bill 308 would’ve given school districts the authority to investigate parents who claim to be home-schooling, and take them to court if there’s not sufficient evidence of real lessons being taught.

“This really has nothing to do with people who are home-schooling,” Wilson insists. “This is about people who aren’t home-schooling, but are using it as an excuse to neglect their children.”

Nonetheless, home-school families nationwide rallied to fight both bills, flooding Oklahoma lawmakers with phone calls and e-mails from as far away as California and the East Coast.

This month, the proposal died in committee without even a hearing.

When it comes to lobbying, home-schoolers have a well-funded, highly organized army, marching lockstep into battle, Wilson says.

In this fight, he’s part of the outnumbered, outgunned militia, fighting against the odds. “And you know what?” Wilson shrugs. “That’s OK.”

Because, with enough determination, the underdog can win — eventually.

“This issue won’t go away,” Wilson promises. “If it doesn’t pass this year, it will come back again and again, because the problem is too big and too serious to ignore.”

State laws regarding home schooling

Ten states, including Oklahoma, take a completely hands-off approach to home schools, subjecting them to no government regulation at all.

On the other side of the spectrum, half a dozen states — mostly in the Northeast — have strict standards, in some cases requiring parents to become certified as teachers or to use state-approved curriculum.

The other 34 states fall widely in between, some requiring home-school parents to register with local school districts and others demanding to see test scores. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association keeps track of all these differences with a color-coded map.

Green states have little or no regulation for home schools, while red states impose strict regulation, and various shades of orange mark the states in between.

Over the long term, the country seems to be turning more green.

“The trend is toward less government regulation and more freedom for home schools,” says Thomas Schmidt, an attorney for the HLDA, based in Virginia.

“Legislators, in general, are getting more comfortable with the idea of home-schooling because it has been around for more than a generation now, and there’s no evidence of it causing a problem.”

* Michael Overall 581-8383
* michael.overall@tulsaworld.com