Learning at Home

One family’s experience with homeschooling in rural West Virginia

By Katie Lusso and Katie Griffith | 12/11/09

CHLOE, W.Va. – When Shelly and Gerald Stehman began homeschooling their son Briar two years ago, they marched head first into the world of home education without a firm direction.

The Stehmans always knew they wanted to home-school their two children, giving them an alternative and, in their minds, a more complete education than the public school systems offer. The family is among a number of West Virginia families choosing to home school, and according to officials, the trend continues to grow.

The most recent study by the United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, released in 2004, showed an increase in the number of home schooled children from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.1 million in 2003.

In West Virginia alone, the number of home-schoolers increased by 30 percent, from 3,820 in 1999 to 5,100 in 2004, according to the West Virginia Department of Education.

Unimpressed with the available public school system and their own public school experiences, Shelly and Gerald knew before Briar and his sister Jacy were born that they wanted to home school, though neither parent is college educated.

A self-employed electrician by trade, Gerald wanted something different for his children than a monotonous 40-hour week. “We wanted to teach our kids that life doesn’t have to be a daily grind,” Gerald said. “You can be free to live the way human beings are supposed to live.”

“WINGING IT”

Rather than waiting on the Calhoun County school buses each morning, Briar, who is officially in first grade, begins his day around 9 a.m., but his day-to-day learning schedule often varies. Depending upon his mood or that of his parents, Briar’s learning on any given day could involve anything from nature walks and archery to home economics and bookwork.

“When we started doing this, we didn’t know what we were doing. We just kind of started winging it,” Shelly said.

The family decided to start by using books from the school to give them a guideline.

“You’ve got to beat the basics into them. He has to learn math and reading,” Gerald said. But the family has admitted that sitting down to bookwork can be hard for Briar. “He reads beyond his age, he’s articulate beyond his age, but when he takes to not wanting to do it, it is a fight, then, too,” Gerald said.

The parents get tired of fighting. After borrowing a book on learning styles from a friend, Shelly came up with the idea to do a unit study, which encompasses numerous aspects of one subject, from literature to math and science. Fascinated by marine life and prehistoric creatures, Briar will begin his unit studies with sea life next semester.

“He specifically needs something like that to guide him,” Shelly said. “Like I said, the sitting down doing book work on a daily basis just doesn’t get it for him. At six years old, the last thing I want to do is turn him off reading.”

Feeling that she wasn’t being encouraged or allowed to learn as she wanted to learn, Shelly left school at the beginning of her 11th year and got her GED as soon as she was able.

“I didn’t have the most positive public school experience myself, not being allowed to learn the things I wanted to learn, just being told, ‘You have to do better, you have to do better,’ but never being helped do better,” Shelly said.

Though she later took a few college classes trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life, ultimately Shelly gave up her dream of being a veterinarian.

“My children deserve to have a better learning environment than what I’ve experienced with public schools,” she said.

MAKING FRIENDS

One of the biggest worries for Shelly is that Briar isn’t getting enough social interaction. Without neighbors around to play with, sometimes it can be days before the family sees other faces.

“You can tell when he needs to get out,” Gerald said. “His behavior starts to wane and you can pretty much tell, ‘OK, We have to get these kids out of here, we’ve got to do something.’”

In order to broaden that environment and to make sure their children are getting enough social interaction with other children, the Stehmans drive two hours round trip every Saturday during the Fall semester to Heartwood In The Hills, where Briar is exposed to dance, music and art.

Though she claims not to be artistically inclined herself, Shelly believes it is important for Briar to find a creative outlet, and he loves to dance.

“Heartwood has been very good for him,” she said. “It’s been a very nice place to go spend a day, give him some interaction, some other perspectives.”

Gerald says Briar doesn’t have problems making friends.

“He’s very outspoken, very outgoing; he’s not shy in the least,” he said.

At Heartwood, children twirl around a wide-open dance floor impersonating bubbles or march along to the beat of music, as the parents sit down to chat. Many of the other parents are involved in homeschooling as well, so Heartwood serves as a support area for families to discuss their experiences with home education.

“I’m sure we’re feeling the same apprehensions everyone else is.” Gerald said. “You’re not born knowing how to home school a kid.”

A NATIONAL TREND

According to Dr. Brian Ray, Ph.D., the founder of the National Home Education Research Institute, home-schooling is often intimidating for first time educators, but social support for and acceptance of homeschooling has increased in the past 20 years. Parents across the country are homeschooling their children for a variety of reasons that Ray says haven’t “changed a lot in the past 25 years.”

These reasons, which he cites on the NHERI Web site, include the desire for a customized learning environment, a safer environment, a guided social interaction and the desire to teach a particular set of values or beliefs, among others.

“It is not surprising that home schooled children do so well,” Ray said. “They’re getting a customized education without distractions. On average, the success of them academically is attracting more people.”

According to several studies, on average home schooled students outperform their peers and are just as successful later in life. The home-educated typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above average public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests, Ray said in a report.

“On average, they’re doing well in any way that is measured. Every study says they do at least as well or better than other college students,” Ray said. “Most parents say it is extremely fulfilling, it’s worth it, they’re glad they’re home educating, and it is work.”

Though Ray says homechooling no longer has the stigma it once used to as a “fringe” activity in society, the idea of non-professionals taking education into their hands has many looking at homeschoolers askance.

“Even though homeschooling has become more acceptable, the culture tells everybody you have to be a professional to do anything; you have to have a degree to do anything from teach children to glue two tubes together,” Ray said.

STARTING OUT

Ray said one the most difficult times for homeschoolers is just when they start.

“It is a little overwhelming at first for people. The first year they have to just realize they’ll be learning as they go – how they learn and how their children learn,” he said.

Early on, the Stehmans faced similar challenges and stigmas.

“Some parents say ‘Wow, that’s great, I could never do it.’ And other parents look at you like you’ve got two heads, like you’re crazy and your kids are going to grow up to be social recluses and paranoids,” Gerald said.

“It’s going to take him longer to learn some of the harder lessons in life,” Gerald said. “He’s going to learn them, eventually he will, he just might learn them when he’s 18 instead of when he’s 12.”

In addition to the social support benefits of Heartwood, Shelly has started a support group for homeschoolers closer to home that is to meet every Wednesday. “I have high hopes that it will continue to pan out into something more elaborate,” Shelly said. The group, which began with eight moms and 15 kids, has met several times already to do activities such as origami crafts and cookie swaps.

In a few years, the Stehmans will be home schooling two kids, when their daughter, Jacy, 2, begins kindergarten. Jacy already learns along with her brother at home, always being around during lessons, but the Stehmans say that if she or Briar want to go to public school at any point, they will be allowed.

“We leave it up to them,” Gerald said. “We’re wanting to let them bloom to be their own people.”

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