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A SCHOOL WITHOUT A SCHOOL
[HOME STUDY THRU SFCS]
by Ed Nagel
As published in MOTHERING magazine; Summer, 1979 Volume XII

     “I have never gone to a regular school. I don’t think I ever will”, wrote nine-year-old Erik Sessions. Actually he “attends” a school outside a school, one without the classroom walls, the bells and barriers to life at large. Erik explains: “I really don’t have classes all day. I do what I am interested in. Right now I’m interested in walking in the woods, reading books, milking the cows, harvesting the garden, studying Indians and myths. I practice my violin for as long as I want.”
     Although living in Iowa, Erik’s educational program is designed as an extension of the Santa Fe Community School in New Mexico, where he has been enrolled for the last two years while studying under the supervision of his parents, at home. Of this experience, Erik wrote: “I like learning the way I am.” His father, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Luther College, believes in a child’s ability to learn from real life experiences: “Kids are naturally curious. They will learn most things without anyone ever teaching them.” Yet part of Erik’s curriculum includes a course in Spanish, for which he is enrolled at Luther College..yes college, at nine years of age.
     This whole approach actually began for me in 1974, when a concerned parent proposed an idea that had since dominated much of the recent interest in educational alternatives outside the walls of public school classrooms; she wrote:
     Would it be at all possible for you to request the records of Roger Smart from Twin Valley South High School, W. Alexandria, Ohio—as though Roger were going to enroll at your Santa Fe Community School? What his father and I have agreed to for Roger is that he may pursue his learning outside of school, if we can help him cut the legalities of evading truancy until he is at least 16.
     And so began a rather unique and incredible experience not only for Roger, who thus became our first “home study” student from out of state, but also for SFCS and more than 100 other students of all ages from different states all over the country who have since enrolled in SFCS, for “home study credit thru correspondence" in a school with-out (outside) a school.
     “On his own this summer, Rog had made arrangements to learn and to have tutoring—in physics, from a friend well qualified, since he is in basic research, and in English from a PhD gal teaching at Miami U.” wrote Mrs. Smart, describing her plan in some detail.
     Well, first we wrote to Roger’s former school and pulled his records. Then we converted some forms we were using with older students working on a “contract” system of independent study, and we explained their function to our correspondent from Ohio: We would receive, evaluate, and record his progress – forwarding a letter of achievement (“credits” in various subject area) at the completion of each school year, based on reports submitted by Mrs. Smart, “supervisor” of Roger’s “off-campus” educational program. “Not sure that I can put words around how proud I am of Rog!” wrote Mr., Smart, after six months.
     “He bats out the study, day after day, and is correcting in his second semester the faults he saw in his performance when he took a good look at his first three months of work…
     The thing that impresses his father and me most about this experiment is how happy the kid stays most of the time, which we attribute almost entirely to his freedom to do his study his way at his pace, at his own time [frequently in the middle of the night!]…
His goal now is to try for college after another year of home study…"

     And sure enough he did. Based on our letter of recommendation, Roger was accepted for a college course in biology for which, in December, 1975 at the age of 16 he received a “B” grade from the Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.
     The year after Roger first enrolled, SFCS received another request for an off-campus educational program; this time from a father of an 8-year-old boy within our own state (175 miles away), who had already come under fire from local authorities, including the local superintendent and the sheriff who served him with a warrant for his arrest. But upon enrollment at SFCS, the charges were dropped against this man, and he became the second home-study “supervisor” of his son’s education in a school without a school. During the course of that year, several exchange visits occurred between SFCS and its off-campus counterpart, and this boy actually came to attend full-time as a boarding student at SFCS the following year. How much difference is there, we wondered, between one of our regular students who from time to time for personal or family reasons does most of his/her studying at home, and this boy, who started his studying at home and then wound up staying at school? It seems to me that both approaches are valid.


     'Why does the burden of proof have to rest on the parents, to show they can teach their children? I am trusted to provide adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care for my children without any direction or supervision from the State…Why can’t I be trusted to educate them also?'
nbsp    I made reference to these first two enrollments in a letter to John Holt, which was published a few months later (February, 1976) in a national newsletter, the New Schools Exchange, and again as a part of a footnote in Holt’s book, Instead Of Education. This kind of publicity brought more queries, more enrollments.
     Since Roger Smart first began in 1974-75, SFCS has enrolled over 100 students-total-in home-study. More than half of these are currently enrolled, with almost twenty students participating in this, their third year of learning in a school without a school. In fact, this year two of our home-study students “graduated”. For the first time so far SFCS issued diplomas with a special commendation for an “outstanding” performance in self-regulated learning thru independent study, one to a student in Maryland, and one in Indiana.
     On occasion, when parents in good faith choose to provide an education for their own children at home, without enrollment at any school, they find even then that the courts will accept such instruction as an educational alternative to physical attendance at a school. One such mother in Maine, Elizabeth King, who was “uncertified” to teach her own children at home, provided her own legal defense in response to charges by the local superintendent. In addition to evidence showing her educational program was “comparable to instruction at school, Mrs. King addressed the dilemma faced by parents who oppose “the monopoly nature of compulsory public schooling:”
     “We are forced to accept this service whatever our opinion of the quality of the service may be. Not only is there no alternative available, but we are not even allowed to refuse what the State offers if we don’t like it…”
     She also questioned enforcement procedures:
     “Why does the burden of proof have to rest on the parents, to show that they can teach their children? I am trusted to provide adequate food, shelter, and clothing and medical care for my children without any direction or supervision from the State…Why can’t I be trusted to educate them also?”
     Why not indeed? The lower court judge here agreed, and Mrs. King was allowed to continued with her home instruction program. Only after she had vindicated her fundamental rights in this regard did she then choose to enroll her child at SFCS, for home study credit thru correspondence.
     As our enrollments in a school with-out a school increased a new idea was developed here at SFCS for a “Home Study Exchange Newsletter”, which is sort of a non-school newspaper for all the children who attend school at home. Implemented this summer, the following announcement describing the HOSTEX News was mailed to all the families known to have shown an interest in home-study approach to education:
     This is a newsletter of children learning at home, published by children and for children like themselves. The first issue is composed of material by/from/for children who are enrolled at the Santa Fe Community School but who do most of their real learning at home, by themselves, with their parents, friends or neighbors in their local community. In future issues, other children who are learning at home may find this idea a useful tool for them, in expanding their reach among peers outside the home without actually “attending” a school in the traditional sense of that word. Children will be “attending” each other, and the ideas exchanged thereby will become an organic “curriculum” of common experience upon / with / through which HOSTEX will “run”.

     The editorial staff of the HOSTEX News is composed entirely of students under the age of 18, who hold full and unabridged decision-making power to print any material which they may consider important / useful / entertaining in the market place of their readership…

     How the newsletter looks and works and how often it appears in the future will depend upon reader interest and support. If, as we now believe, a real need does in fact exist for this kind of exchange, then young reader responses will make it become a paper of importance in their lives, for young people who may now be feeling isolated and alone or who may just be looking for a way to connect with other children like themselves trying to seek out and share their common interests.

     Due to the cost factor involved, only paid subscriptions can receive copies of the HOSTEX News. Upon payment subscribers receive all copies published during that school year [including any back issues] regardless of the date payment is made, so that all subscriptions will expire together. For the rest of 1979 and up through June 30, 1980, the subscription price for HOSTEX News [published bi-monthly, more or less] is $10.00. [Individual sample copies can be ordered for $2.00 each, which payment can later be applied toward a full subscription for that same year.]
     The children at SFCS do appreciate the fact that there will be some who want HOSTEX News but cannot afford it, so requests for a “free” subscription [or sample copy] may be made at any time. Based on postmark dates, a waiting list of such requests will be maintained at HOSTEX, but copies will be sent only if/when funds become available to cover the cost of paid subscriptions [or samples] sponsored by donations to HOSTEX. [Tax deductible contributions to SFCS for this purpose are therefore invited.]
     Send cheks or money orders to: Treasurer, HOSTEX NEWS, c/o SFCS, PO Box 2241, Santa Fe, NM 87504.

     Now, if you are seriously considering home-study as an educational alternative, you need to know that it is not a viable approach for all parents, even the most open-minded. You must have the time and the interest to “teach”; you need to love and respect your child as a person, first, and as a learner, second; and you must feel a genuine concern for the manner and material to be used in a home instruction program. Even then, a word of caution is in order, for you must be prepared to “prove” yourself in court, if necessary.

     For example, one home-study family, as SFCS discusses above, the Sessions, just finished a two-year court battle in this regard, when an Iowa State District Court found that “the State has failed to prove…that the schooling for Erik is not the equivalent by a certified teacher elsewhere,” finally “acquitted” the Sessions of charges filed against them, and assessed legal costs to the plaintiff, the State of Iowa.** Although this is the only court case to develop after the family had enrolled their child at SFCS, over a dozen similar cases have gone to court elsewhere in the country, many of which are still pending. In one extreme, when a father refused on constitutional grounds to obey a lower court order that rejected his right to educate his own children at home, the police shot-gunned him to death.** (In court now, his wife had filed a “wrongful death” suit, and the children have since continued receiving instruction in their own home.)

     Still, despite the very real threat of criminal prosecution, in response to compulsory education requirements all around the country literally thousands of parents are now choosing an educational alternative where they can control the environment and provide for their children a wholesome education in keeping with their sincerely-held-beliefs at home,, in a school without a school.

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