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Home school: Making the grade?

Megan Holland
Connor McBryde, 16, of Eagle River, practices piano in his family's home Thursday. McBryde has completed half a year of college courses, is teaching himself Italian and also plays the drums and clarinet. His father, Brett, right, and mother Linda have home-schooled their four children. 090910
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Linda McBryde works as an anesthesiologist during the day and teaches the kids literature at night. She said one son didn't learn to read until age 8, but caught up and was taking college courses at 15. Daughter Kelly and husband Brett are behind her.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
The McBrydes say they couldn't have given their kids the education they have in a more restrictive state. From left is Connor, Linda, Brett and Kelly.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Brett McBryde, left, is the primary teacher and stay-at-home parent for the four kids, including Kelly, 12, right.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

If Alaska parents want to home-school their child, no paperwork needs to be filed, no phone call made. No one need be told.

As for the student, no specific subjects need to be studied, no number of hours need be logged behind a desk, no tests taken.

Alaska has the most lax home-schooling law in the country.

No one even knows how many Alaska children stay home instead of attending a public or private school -- they aren't tracked or monitored.

Home-school advocates say the lack of reporting and regulation is the way it should be because it leaves parents free to make choices for the child. But others say it leaves an uncounted number of children at the mercy of parents who don't have what it takes to give kids what they need to avoid being left behind in life.

The tension between the two camps -- traditional bricks-and-mortar educators and fiercely independent home-schooling parents -- has existed for years with each bad-mouthing the other for real or perceived inadequacies.

Should Alaska join the ranks of other states by tightening its home-schooling laws?

State Education Commissioner Larry LeDoux wants to at least ask the question.

EXCEPTIONS?

Connor McBryde sets his alarm in the morning like most 16-year-olds. But unlike others his age, the Eagle River teen may spend four hours a day playing the piano and not touch his history books for a month. He learns on his own schedule, and has ever since he officially began home-schooling in kindergarten.

So far, it seems to have suited him. He's completed more than half a year of college courses, is enrolled in calculus and chemistry classes at a local college this fall, is teaching himself Italian, and plays the piano, drums and clarinet.

His three siblings have similar stories. Older brother, 20-year-old Rory, entered University of California, Davis, as a junior because he had enough college credits. He's planning on law school next year.

"It would be a tragedy if the state intervened," said mother Linda McBryde, an anesthesiologist who works during the day and teaches the kids literature at night. Her husband, Brett, is the primary teacher and stay-at-home parent.

They say they couldn't have given their kids the educations they have if they lived in a state with more restrictive home-schooling laws.

Are the McBrydes the exception or the norm for home-schooling families in Alaska?

The problem, school administrators say, is that without tracking of some kind, no one knows.

What of the other extreme? Like the Papa Pilgrim family of McCarthy, where the 15 children were famously schooled in very little other than the Bible and their father's interpretation of religion?

Spike Jorgensen was superintendent of the Alaska Gateway School District, a rural school system in the central part of the state, for 15 years. He estimates there are at least 1,000 home-schooled kids being left behind, mostly in the Bush.

One girl he recalled still couldn't read by the fifth grade, not because she had a learning disability but because she and her mother did not get along, so mom couldn't teach her. A professional could have had the child reading in a month, he said.

Within rural school districts, like Alaska Gateway or the Yukon-Flats district, the local school boards are not doing enough, Jorgensen said. "These kids out in the remote don't make any difference to the state and they don't make any difference to the district because the ones who have the power are getting their children the best service they can get.

"So we have a whole group of highly, highly neglected kids in this state," he said.

Parents have their own limitations -- education levels, teaching ability, other demands on their time. Parents with good intentions can run out of their ability to explain, Jorgensen said.

"If you have healthy kids and healthy parents, they do pretty good until the kid gets in algebra and the parent doesn't know algebra," he said. "If you are going to ensure that these kids are going to be educated, you need to have some professional assistance at points in time, like counseling, or help with the classes that become more difficult."

ONCE NECESSARY

Home-schooling has a long history in Alaska. In 1939, the territory started a correspondence program for rural residents who lived where there were no schools.

Correspondence programs were a hybrid -- home schooling, but with some state oversight.

Until the mid-1980s, home-schooling families were well supported by the state. In some areas, teachers took Bush planes to remote locations to check on children once a month.

In 1997, then-Sen. Loren Leman cleared any ambiguity about state oversight by sponsoring a law that gave complete freedom to parents. He and other legislators also did away with regulations that said certain subjects needed to be studied.

Over the years, state money for correspondence programs has significantly dried up. Families who choose to take part in some kind of organized course work via correspondence can sign up for Internet courses offered by several districts in the state or by Outside programs, called "cybercharters." The support they receive -- financial, technical or otherwise -- varies, but educators say it is minimal compared to what it used to be.

Families who home-school independently, get no support.

Across the country, the popularity of home-schooling is growing. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that from 1999 to 2003, the number of home-schooled children increased from about 850,000 to roughly 1.1 million, a 29 percent jump. National home-schooling proponents suggest even higher estimates today of around 2 to 2.5 million children. But again, no one knows for sure.

University of Alaska Fairbanks admissions director Mike Earnest says he's seen an increase in the number of home-school applicants to the university coming from around Alaska. In 2006, the university established a special Web page telling home-school students how to apply.

SENSIBLE OVERSIGHT

Home-schoolers are protected under the Alaska compulsory education law, under which a child does not have to go to school if he or she "is being educated in the child's home by a parent or legal guardian."

Other states are more restrictive to varying degrees.

In Oregon, a state that Alaska often looks to for example, parents must notify the state that they are home schooling and the child must take state tests. If a child continually performs poorly on the tests, the local school district steps in.

In Washington, parents have to teach their kids for at least 1,000 hours a year (about 25 hours a week for a school year), and they must instruct on 11 specified subjects -- for example, standard math and science but also music appreciation.

Fairbanks superintendent Nancy Wagner came to Alaska after teaching in Tennessee for 25 years. At least there, she said, the state requires parents doing the teaching to have a certain education level.

"If we are going to have a compulsory education law, there should be requirements," she said.

In New York, regarded as one of the strictest in home-schooling laws, the law drills down to very specific required subjects from English and math to substance abuse and traffic safety. Parents have to maintain attendance records and file quarterly and annual reports. And when home-schooled students take New York standardized tests, they must score above the bottom one-third of pupils in the state or risk losing their privilege of being taught at home.

Home-schooling advocates think such restrictions are ridiculous. When told of the New York rules, Linda McBryde asked, "And when the kids in school score in the bottom third of their class, do they get taken out of school?"

Such rules wouldn't have worked for her children, she said. Her kids learned on their own time lines, according to their own brain development, something she and her husband studied before embarking on home schooling. One son didn't learn to read until he was 8, but then sped ahead and was in college chemistry classes by 15.

The problem, school administrators say, is that quite a number of kids end up at public school after their parents fail at home schooling, and teachers have to try to fix the damage -- to make up for lost time. Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendent Steve Atwater is like many other school administrators who say it makes sense to have more oversight. "A lot of kids come in (to public schools after being home-schooled) and really excel. Then others come in and are disastrous," he said.

LeDoux said he carries over his concerns from when he was a school administrator on Kodiak Island.

"Am I concerned about some of the kids who are home-schooled or not doing well or not receiving the education they need? Yes," he said. "Do I think it happens out there? Yes. Do I think it's the majority? No."

"We have to be careful. If we consider any regulations or laws, we need to be careful that we don't hurt a system that works very well for the vast majority of the system."

MYSTERY KIDS

Some parents home-school for religious reasons. Some because their child has learning disabilities and needs special one-on-one attention that schools don't offer. Some because they don't like the public school social environments where their kids are bullied. And others because they think their kid will get more out of individualized instruction.

The state knows there are 110,000 children in the public schools. And, it knows at least another 10,000 Alaska children are home-schooled through the state's most popular correspondence program, run by the Galena School District. But it has no idea how many others are doing it on their own.

LeDoux wants to know. For a start, he's directed staff to compare Permanent Fund Dividend records to school records.

So, what's the actual issue here? What's the harm in at least requiring parents to register that they are home schooling their kids?

Ramona Mortier, a home-school parent on the board of the Eagle River Christian Homeschool Association, said she thinks state involvement would mean imposing unnecessary and unproven regulations on families. About half of the 100 families that are members of her group are independent home-schoolers, completely off the state's radar.

Home-school advocates point out that the state applies no oversight to private schools in Alaska.

"There's nothing that shows that education achievement and regulation necessarily go together," said Mortier, who has one son at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and another at the University of William & Mary Law School.

Narda Butler, a home-school mother and board member of the Anchorage Frontier Charter School who has worked with home-schooling kids for years, is a home-school advocate who wants accountability.

"I come from a background where I really enjoy having the freedom to make curriculum choices... but I also want kids to be adequately prepared."

Butler is the rare home schooler who falls in line with such educators as Juneau's assistant superintendent Laury Scandling who wants to see greater regulation.

"I find it very, very scary that you can home-school under Alaska law in a way that has very, very limited accountability."

She knows of kids in Juneau whose parents are failing them, but she cannot step in.

"To a certain extent, I think we are too liberal in some cases. I think we have some responsibility to make sure kids are learning but I don't know how to balance that with the freedoms that parents have, too," LeDoux said. "So it's something we are going to move at slowly and with a great deal of respect toward home-schooling parents. We don't regard them as the enemy but as partners in making sure Alaska kids are ready to go."

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.


By MEGAN HOLLAND
mholland@adn.com