Home is where the school is

Judy Shapiro July 26 1982

Home is where the school is

Judy Shapiro July 26 1982

Home is where the school is


Judy Shapiro

Fourteen-year-old Joël

Black of Murillo, Ont., finished Grade 7 with honors last year but could not recite his multiplication tables past five times five and was unable to identify a noun or an adjective. So last fall his parents, Dale and Elvira Black, plucked Joël and his six-year-old sister, Sameena, out of school in order to teach them at home. Now, equipped with hints from a neighboring home-schooling family, texts borrowed from the local school and a collection of Pierre Berton’s books of Canadian history, their two children have successfully graduated, and the Blacks are already getting a head start on next year.

Acting on their dissatisfaction with both the private and public school systems, an estimated 1,000 families are tutoring their children at home year-round. They are a determined lot. All must be willing to battle hostile school boards, skeptical friends and neighbors and, if necessary, the courts to defend their belief in A history class in the Black household using Berton texts educating their children as

they see fit. Yet, though local skirmishes continue, there are signs of softening by some provincial education ministries in recognition of the validity of home schooling.

Charges that home education is detrimental to children fail to ruffle practitioners, who are fond of pointing out that today’s home-schooled children are in illustrious company. Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, did not attend public school until she was 12. Thomas Edison was expelled at age 7, labelled retarded. The parents charge, in turn, that mainstream schools may be even more damaging to a child’s mind. Darlene and Elbert Beekman, fundamentalist Christians who farm 40 km outside Drumheller, Alta., removed their children from school last September to spare them exposure to drugs and rock concerts. Edith Newman of Sooke, B.C., contends that the school system, with its abbreviated 9-to-3 schedule and its inability to tailor courses to individual needs, is a poor environment for learning. As a result, her three children, aged 10, 7 and 2, have never

been to school.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal to keep children out of school. Though every province requires compulsory attendance at school, provincial education acts exempt those children who are getting “satisfactory,” “effi-

Parents are battling school boards, courts and neighbors for the right to educate their children at home

cient,” “effective” or “equal” education elsewhere.

But no statute defines what a “satisfactory” education is. That is left to the discretion of each school board. Regulations are toughest in Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, where a home study program must be certified by the local school inspector. Parents weary of

meeting approval have been known to move to more permissive provinces.

Such may be the upshot of a court case last week in Moose Jaw, Sask., where Evangeline Godron was fined $25 by a provincial court for keeping three of her children out of school without board approval. Before coming to trial, Godron had subpoenaed 30 other families in the area who teach their kids at home, but none testified. Godron has now, her daughter claims, left the province entirely, in search of an environment more open to her brand of education.

In Ontario parents scored a victory with a 1979 court decision that found that in that province the onus is on the school board to prove that the parent is not providing an adequate alternative to public school.

Predictably, few education ministry officials across Candada are willing to admit that |home schooling can offer a feasible alternative, and most are g adamant about their mandate, s Says Gene Thorgunrud, Alberta’s director of field services:

“Parents have a responsibility

for their children, but the state has a responsibility to make sure there are basic qualifications for citizenship.” However, proposed changes in the Alberta education act could offer new hope to home educators. Education Minister David King announced last spring that the concept of compulsory attendance may be abandoned in favor of a provision for compulsory education. This would not release home schoolers from monitoring but could lift the truancy label.

To satisfy school authorities, most parents at first tend to structure their children’s education in a school-like manner. Some parents, such as Laura and Jack van Arragon of Atikokan, Ont., who have eight children, find that it is easiest to set up a one-room classroom complete with desks and a blackboard. In the Black household there are set times for school. The father, an associate professor of mathematics at Lakehead University, teaches math; the mother, history, science and geography; and the grandmother, who lives across the field, English language and gram-

mar. Many of their studies follow regular school board texts or recognized courses from a number of North American sources. “We’re not rigid about school,” says Elvira Black. “Yesterday was a nice day, so we all planted the garden. That’s a learning experience too.” For his part, Joël is happy to be out of school. “I learn more, faster, because I’m not influenced by the speed of other kids.”

As parents gain confidence in their methods, structure is often abandoned. There are no set hours or guidelines for 12-year-old Danny Williams of Thorhild, Alta. He is left to his own devices and encouraged when he shows an interest in something—an educational method experimented with in many free schools of the ’60s. During the Iranian crisis, for example, his concern about nuclear war led him to read up on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, write away for information regarding radiation from fallout, and eventually compile plans for a basement fallout shelter. Like most home-schooled children, he never writes exams or tests. “Compassion and emotional growth are so much more important than acquiring skills, so testing is useless,” says his mother, Marlene Williams. Adds Wendy Priesnitz, founder of the Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers: “What we want for our children is for them to have the selfconfidence to try anything.”

Yet the most common argument against home schooling is that it isolates children from their peers. Frank Neufeld, director of field services for the Manitoba department of education, argues, “We learn from one another by testing ideas; we widen our horizons by chatting with one another, even at an early age, and children should have that opportunity.” Fears that children may be deprived of the opportunity to enter a profession or acquire adequate study habits also lead to widespread criticism.

Dousing such objections are the Carotas of North Bedeque, P.E.I., who, with 32 years of home schooling behind them, are proof that it can work. Among their 19 natural and adopted home-schooled children they count a doctor, a CBC cameraman and a musician. The father, Mario Carota, however, favors a hybrid system—half a day at school and half a day at home, allowing input from peers, educators and parents. But he is adamant that families should take part in the education of their children. “This [home schooling] is the most significant thing a family can do today,” he says. “We’re so powerless to shape the world—we can’t do anything about government or business. The only place we’re free to carry out a revolution is in our own


With files from Sharon Bergen.