NEW ULM - People's reasons for home schooling their children can vary significantly with each child, as I found out during recent conversations with several home schooling parents.
However, during these conversations, I saw many common threads - outlooks and ideas that most home schooling parents seem to share.
The parents - overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, moms - all seemed motivated by a desire to fully share their children's lives.
Kay Rysdahl demonstrates how to make a type of pastry during an oral presentation part of the Classical Conversations class.
The time you have with your children is measured, said a mom.
"Once they leave home, those precious minutes of just being with them are quickly gone," she said, appreciative of the opportunity to teach - as well as, in her own words, learn and grow along with - the children.
The parents pointed out that home schooling can be a highly individualized form of instruction, tailored to each child's needs - allowing a child to proceed at his or her own pace and to explore his or her special interests in more depth than would be feasible inside a larger group.
One mother - who has home schooled three children, each very different - was convinced that one of her sons would have been labeled a "slow" learner in many "regular" schools.
To this child, home schooling was the sensible alternative - helping develop confidence and building on a child's strengths.
He is now well into a very successful college career.
The parents I spoke with also shared a commitment of time and resources, a willingness to structure their daily routines around their child's education; sometimes suspending a professional career and foregoing the financial advantages of a dual income.
They would be the first to tell you - one should go into home schooling with their eyes wide open, and only if they have sufficient confidence.
Incidentally, what the parents I spoke with did NOT do is, BELITTLE any organized school system - they all pointed out the merits of public or private schools - in terms of professional instruction, a variety of opportunities, socialization, etc.
In fact, many children who were home schooled in the elementary grades transitioned successfully into "regular" schools as they grew older; and all the moms appeared to be taking extra pains to ensure that the children socialized with others in various activities, even attended "regular" classes when needed.
The parents have additionally addressed the issue of socialization by forming home schooling support groups that also help pool parental knowledge and resources.
I observed one such group in action; a fledgling initiative formed around a curriculum called "Classical Conversations."
(In addition, said Gigi Rysdahl, a veteran home schooling mom, there is a group of 70 children that has met fairly regularly in the past year. A "Tea with the Classics" group has just begun this fall, and there is a co-op that meets in St. Peter, of which several New Ulm area families attend.)
"Classical Conversations," of which Rysdahl, with daughter Kay, is part, is just one of many structured home schooling curriculums that seeks to ensure academic rigor.
"Here in New Ulm, we have four families," said Rysdahl. "We are an unofficial group this year, but I am hopeful that the word of how successfully and abundantly our children are learning will get out, so that many more will be interested in joining."
"Classical Conversations" - which participants call CC for short - is part of a nationwide network of more than 400 communities. CC has rapidly spread in this area with campuses in Plymouth, Duluth, Monticello, Hastings, Chaska, Maple Plain, Eden Prairie, New Prague and Burnsville, in addition to New Ulm.
This is the group's first year at the New Ulm campus. The families meet at First United Methodist Church. The class runs from 9:15 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays.
The group meets once a week for 24 to 30 weeks depending on grade level. Tutors who are trained in classical education model skills present material from the CC curriculum guide. Parents then work on the material at home with their children between classes.
The goal of the program is to equip and encourage parents, while providing a rigorous classical program of study, say organizers. As a Christian program, the curriculum has a Biblical worldview.
During the core class time, seven subjects are covered: math, English grammar, Latin, science, geography, history and timeline. Additionally, an art project, a science experiment and an oral presentation are a part of each week's class.
Next year at the New Ulm campus, in addition to the core curriculum time, the group will have an afternoon intensive English grammar and language arts class, said Rysdahl.
During my observation of the half-day class, the children, in the grades K through 4 range, displayed an active engagement and proficiency in the material covered.
The tutor, Kim Moellenhoff, presented information in each subject in what I could loosely describe as a "scaffolding" format.
She used songs, games, visual props, etc., to make it entertaining as well as enlightening.
The children presented projects; and Moellenhoff also reviewed the session in a game-like format.
The idea was to "plant pegs" in the children's brains, explained the moms, upon which the parents could place expanded knowledge.
"The parent is always the teacher, the main authority for the children," noted Rysdahl.
Modeled upon classical learning, the CC curriculum unfolds in three stages of increasing sophistication dependant on age, explained the parents. The rote memory stage is succeeded by an "inquiry' stage and that in turn is followed by a "rhetorical" phase, with children being able to speak, explain and defend what they've learned.
The phases "unfold" as the children learn and mature.
I was curious about how parents ensure that their children learn as well as their peers in public or private schools.
Testing is mandated by state law, the parents explained, and the majority of the children I observed have reportedly not just been meeting, but also easily exceeding, grade-level benchmarks.
By Kremi Spengler
Photos by Steve Muscatello