Home-schoolers embrace Free Minds
Students in the Free Minds enrichment program perform at a dress rehearsal of "Robin Hood and His Band of Merry Persons" at North Park Lodge. From left are Gracie Rynkowski, 7, of McCandless; Winter Wischmann, 8, of Shaler; and standing, Kenna Steele, 6, of Mars; Elissa Cousins, 10, of Richland; Jonathan Beckas, 14, of Bellevue; Locke Wischmann, 10, of Shaler; and Luka van de Venne, 9, of Lawrenceville.
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Home-schooling is not about staying at home, a misperception that makes many home-school parents roll their eyes. In fact, home-schooled children are usually out exploring the community, or attending classes designed for home-schoolers at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, the zoo, libraries or nature centers.
For these youngsters, one constant in their lives is an enrichment program called Free Minds, which meets on Tuesdays during the school year at North Park Lodge.
There, 40 children and parents come together to delve into just about everything.
Free Minds is one of two groups of secular home scholars in the county. The other, PALS Enrichment Program, is in Swissvale. There are other groups of home-schoolers in the area whose common focus is religion.
"The important thing is to find people with whom you are comfortable," said Carla Morrison, of West Deer, who with Lisa James, of Zelienople, coordinates Free Minds.
On a spring morning at North Park, Trish Casey toted bottles of Sprite and water, a few limes, lemons and raisins into the lodge, preparing to teach a class on "kitchen science."
She is not a physicist but a mother who, with other parents, teaches the classes.
"The reason I home-school my children is the 'light bulb effect,' to see the brightness in the eyes of the child when they get it," said Ms. Casey, a yoga teacher. "We all know that moment of bliss, when it all comes together. This group encourages that search for knowledge, rather than achievement through competition and the use of grades as a measure of success. It's the light bulb that counts, in my opinion."
Ms. Casey and her husband, who live in Bellevue, have four children. One child is in dental school, and the other three are being home-schooled.
"We came to it because of our second child. He is mildly autistic. He was so incredibly distraught going to school and it wasn't the fault of the school system. He was not just adjusting well and was having anxiety attacks."
"My sister, who had home-schooled her children, suggested I try it," she said. "I didn't think I could do it. I'm not the brightest person in the world, but what it takes is passion and love of your children.
"When you think about it, no one loves children more than their mother and father. So I thought, 'What the heck, I'll try it.' [My son] went from being unable to complete a worksheet to initiating his own work and completing it independently."
Free Minds began in fall 2008 with parents who met through children's play groups and activities at local libraries, Ms. Morrison said. The coordinators choose topics from suggestions made by the children, and set up six-week sessions of classes with parents and outside experts as teachers.
"We learn ourselves, more now than we ever did as children," Ms. James said.
Ms. Casey agreed: "When I think of myself, I retained very little of what I learned in grade and high school, and only did so when it was my desire to retain it."
Not far away, Ms. Morrison was teaching children cooperative American Indian games. In another area, younger children were listening to a mother tell the story of Paul Revere and preparing to re-create his famous ride on wooden horses.
Preschool mothers, nestled in a corner, with seven or eight small children, were talking about Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which suggests that people learn in different ways.
"We are the most over-researched group you could find," Ms. James said. "If there is something new that could help the children learn, that's the idea of the group."
In 1988, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 169, amending the Pennsylvania School Code to allow parents or guardians to home-school their children as an alternative to compulsory school attendance. The curriculum is loosely defined, but the children must take standardized tests in third, fifth and eighth grades, as they do in public schools.
English, including spelling, reading and writing; arithmetic; science; geography; history, and a few other subjects must be taught at the elementary level.
High school curriculum requires four years of English, three years of math, science and social studies, and two years of arts and humanities. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Allegheny County had 970 home-schooled children in the school year 2006-07, with 188 of those in the city.
The law requires the person responsible for instruction to submit a proposed plan for the year, then an instruction log, a portfolio of the child's work, test results from the standardized test and the evaluator's report to the superintendent's office of the school district in which the child lives every year. School districts do not issue high school diplomas to home-schooled students, but youngsters can take the high school diploma equivalency test, or take 30 college credits and submit that information to the Pennsylvania Department of Education to receive a Commonwealth Secondary Diploma.
The possibilities within the law invite innovation. "You teach whatever topic feeds their passion and help them to become what they are here to become," said Karen Bernard, mother of home-schooler Rachel Greene, who is graduating this year.
Ms. Bernard, of Indiana Township, is also an evaluator for home-schoolers. She examines the portfolios the children prepare showing their work for the year and determines if "progress has been made."
Rachel, who never liked math, has found the fun in it. "Today, I needed to convert metric to inches at my dad's stained glass studio in Regent Square, and it was actually sort of exciting," she said. She is preparing to take the college entrance exams and is now highly motivated to brush up on math.
Sierra Pastel, also from Indiana Township, taught herself algebra, among other subjects, and graduated a year ago from home-school.
"At age 13 or even earlier, something else kicks in and you become independent," Ms. Pastel said. She now attends Duquesne University, studying harp with Gretchen Van Hoesen from the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Ms. Pastel and Anna Donohoe, of Forest Hills, who graduated this year and will attend Carnegie Mellon University, attended Community College of Allegheny County when they were 16 and presented their transcripts along with their portfolios when applying to colleges.
"My portfolio," Anna said, "showed the books I had read, the DVDs I had watched, museums I had visited, programs I had listened to on National Public Radio. It shows a lot about a person, the depth of their development, more than a 'B' in American history."
Although early home-schoolers often met with some resistance from the state and skepticism from professional educators, the landscape has improved over the years.
Dr. David McCommons, assistant superintendent of Fox Chapel Area School District, said the majority of home-schoolers in that district follow district curriculum and work closely with the schools to ensure state requirements are met.
"The Fox Chapel Area School District does everything it can to support the families who choose home-schooling. We have found that the majority of parents who choose to home-school their children have the same goal as the school district ... to provide the best education possible for their children."
Home-schooling may not be for everyone, but Rachel Greene likes to place it in the realm of the possible.
"There is not anything special about us that make us able to learn on our own," she said. "Every kid is able to do that."
The Pennsylvania Department of Education maintains a Web site about home schooling: http://www.pde.state.pa.us/home_education/site/default.asp.
First Published June 25, 2009 12:00 am