Learning at home

2014-02-09T06:00:00Z Learning at homeBy HANNAH JOHNSON | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

On weekday mornings in the Larson household, three of the five Larson kids lounge in the living room with their noses in a textbook or in front of the computer.

Nancy Larson of Bismarck started home-schooling her children about 14 years ago when the oldest, Stephen, who is now 21, started first grade.

Larson, who is the main educator for the kids, said she wanted to be able to teach her children in accordance to family values and with faith-based education.

Home education is a growing endeavor in North Dakota. As of early February, the state Department of Public Instruction had 1,879 families who had filed notice with local school districts of their intent to teach children at home.

Larson, the coordinator for the Bismarck-Mandan Area Home Educators support group, said the group surpassed 100 families last year and now is at 118. That’s an increase from around 90 in late 2012, according to a previous Tribune article.

For most, like the Larsons, religion is a deciding factor. The North Dakota Home School Association itself is a faith-based Christian organization.

Gwyn Marback, the assistant director of teacher and school effectiveness at the Department of Public Instruction, fields the calls to the department from people interested in home education. Mainly, she makes sure they know what North Dakota law entails and directs them to the North Dakota Home School Association for more information.

Marback said she has seen a rise in the number of parents interested in or pursuing home schooling in the state. She attributes it mainly to the influx of people coming to the oil fields.

Some families of oil workers come in already home-schooling, she said, since oil work tends to mean they move around a lot. It is a way for them to provide a consistent education for their children, she said.

Theresa Deckert of the NDHSA also has seen an increase in interest in home education.

Along with the oil patch population influx, Deckert said, concerns over what the new Common Core standards adopted in North Dakota mean for their schools has a lot more parents calling the organization with questions about home schooling.

Larson said Common Core is a major issue of debate in the home-school community right now.

Parents who are home-schooling do not have to use the Common Core standards, but many families are worried about whether their children would then be at a disadvantage when it comes to testing.

In North Dakota, home-schooled students are required to take nationally-normed tests in grades 4, 6, 8 and 10. Families can opt out if they meet certain requirements.

At least one home-school parent is on board with the Common Core. Shannon Grave of West Fargo, who started home-schooling her eighth-grade daughter this year, said going through the standards was very useful in identifying the skills and concepts her daughter should be able to master this year.

Then, she said, she could build her own curriculum, tailored to her daughter, around that.

The benefits of home schooling, proponents say, come in being able to tailor education to their child’s needs and interests.

For many families, home schooling also allows them to integrate religion into their curriculum, particularly when it comes to subjects like creationism vs. evolution.

For Sheri Hanson of Bismarck, home schooling allowed her to spend more time with her children. She has been home-schooling for 15 years — one daughter has graduated and the two others are in high school.

“The last 15 years were a blink of an eye,” she said. “I can’t imagine not having had that time.”

Becky Kuss of Mandan said her family started home schooling after her husband’s second deployment to Iraq. The first deployment had been really tough on their oldest child, she said in a message, and he begged to be home-schooled.

She started home-schooling her other two kids the following year.

For the kids, the flexibility of home schooling — and, of course, being done with school earlier in the day — is enticing.

“I do like being in control,” said Jonathan Larson, a junior in high school. “I can pace myself. Self-learning, self-motivation.”

Not all home-schooled students relished their education.

Kelsey Rusch, now 22, was home-schooled until seventh grade, when she started in public school in Bismarck — first at Simle Middle School, then at Horizon Middle School.

She struggled to integrate into the school, she said, because she wasn’t as well-adjusted as some of her peers.

“I was really, really shy. It was almost crippling,” she said.

Rusch, who is the oldest of six kids, said her younger siblings have seemed to have a much easier go of it in school as they started younger.

A school setting provides a diversity of people and experiences, she said, and without parents around, students feel more freedom to just be kids.

Rusch said she knows there are many home-schooled students who are perfectly well-adjusted and really succeed in it, but she has met others who are barely able to hold a conversation.

The social aspect is something parents should be sure to consider when thinking about home schooling, she said.

Home-schooled students do have the option of taking courses or participating in extracurriculars at public schools. In Bismarck, the parochial schools also open their doors to home-school students.

Families who home-school say it has made all the difference — in their children’s education and in strengthening family bonds.

Since she started home-schooling, Nancy Larson said, she has found there are so many more resources available and much more acceptance of those who choose to home school.

Many companies now write curriculum specifically for home-school students. With the rise of technology and the Internet, the options are practically limitless, she said.

Hanson agreed, saying she is able to provide a curriculum that fits her kids and her values. It’s not just a cookie-cutter education, she said.

“I’m just giving (my kids) what they need,” Hanson said.

Reach Hannah Johnson at 701-250-8251 or hannah.johnson@bismarcktribune.com.

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