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We Alaskans

Why home schooling works in Alaska

  • Author: Erin McKittrick
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 1, 2016

In Alaska, we fly our own airplanes and build our own houses. We grow our own vegetables, fix our own engines, catch our own fish, cut down our own trees, hunt our own meat and can our own jam. Any Alaskan who actually does all these things is too busy fending off reality TV crews with a homemade spear to be reading this, but do-it-yourself individualism runs as thick through the state as our silt-choked glacial rivers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that we educate our own children -- at three times the national rate. More than 11,000 Alaskan children, some 9 percent of the school-age population, are signed up with one of the state's 30 official home-school programs. That's a minimum number, not counting the families who home-school independently. And the number is growing.

"Do you home-school?"

People assume "yes," before I even open my mouth, probably because they're eyeing my kids' tangled hair and torn hiking shoes, appearing out of the wilderness in the middle of some schoolish month like April or September.

I do home-school my kids. Home schooling makes it easy to schedule a few months hiking across the Aleutian Islands, or a few hours tidepooling on a Tuesday morning. But much of the time, we're not trekking in the wilderness. I have a regular home, too, and we spend many irregular days inside it.

Doing their own thing

The door bangs shut behind us. "Watch!" my first-grader instructs, crouching on the porch, a beaker of blue solution clutched in one pink-gloved hand, and a beaker of powdered aluminum in the other. They spit and hiss as he pours them together, bubbling into a mat of clumpy red flakes.

"See the copper I'm making?" I nod, because I'm pretty certain he knows what he's doing, and a little more certain that I never bought him any explosives. The beakers and chemicals are courtesy of money allotted to us through the home-school program we're signed up for. The experiment is entirely his idea. We leave it hissing, and go back inside, following a trail of molecular models to where my preschooler sits drawing a princess riding a unicorn.

It might look very different another day, or another hour. Stuffed animals raining down from bunk beds. Ice skating on the lake at the end of the road. An invented board game or a sibling screaming match. The 5-year-old insists that her 7-year-old brother knows everything, and my husband steps in to point out that he doesn't know the shallow-water wave equation, which describes how tsunamis move across oceans. And then they talk about tsunamis, as he scribbles equations and graphs with a handy black Sharpie. The kids suffer their geeky father with grace. Maybe they even learn something before they move on to lunch and spilling the jam -- homemade! -- all over the kitchen table. Like all kids, mine do amazing things, awful things and completely unremarkable things. They do their own things.

And if it's about anything at all, home schooling is about doing your own thing.

One home-schooler I interviewed, Janet Otto, started by saying she didn't think her family was unique, before sharing story after story of gold panning, goat milking, foraging, mushing and helping out at a beluga harvest. She sent a photo of a smiling teenage girl flying a small plane in the Civil Air Patrol, and another making seal oil. They learned about the 1964 earthquake in a village destroyed by it, became Russian Orthodox after learning about the missionaries and helped rebuild after last summer's Sockeye Fire destroyed 55 homes in the Willow area. Now she's a full-time farmer, with economics and biology on her family's everyday curriculum. She has seven kids, most already grown, and grandchildren home-schooling as well.

Another, Shona DeVolld, talked about taking a daughter who loved space and wound up visiting NASA and eating lunch with an astronaut. She described the weekly meals planned, shopped for and prepared by her other daughter, a budding 8-year-old entomologist who spends summers collecting bugs.

Tromping, trudging, asking, exploring

In a library, I struck up a conversation with a proud mom who told me her home-schooled girl spent her teenage years as a judge in youth court, and is now taking the LSAT. So passions can stick.

Or they can shift. The girl who loved space can win an essay contest, go to D.C. and think of growing up to be a speech writer, while the girl who loves bugs wonders what it would be like to be a journalist. There was a year I read my son every dinosaur book in the library. This year, I helped him email a chemistry professor with questions that reached beyond my knowledge.

It's not always academic. My son's friend has a huge, hand-drawn map on his wall outlining the expedition he's planning -- hiking and paddling to the next town over. His mom waved her hand out the window to where our kids were both packrafting -- slicing a maze of boat-sized paths through the skim ice on the slough. It's lucky, she told me, to be able to home-school when they're little, and to live in such a good place for exploration.

So much of what's amazing in Alaska exists outside the walls of any building. Tromping, trudging, asking, explaining and exploring — that's how I learn up here.

I love to see the sparkle of a kid on fire, explaining his or her latest passion -- or the pride of a kid who can climb a mountain, build a boat or identify every critter under a rock.

Any kid. Because lots of people do this stuff, not just home-schoolers. Ask any good teacher, engaged parent or passionate child. This stuff is just life.

The difference is time.

In school, time is at a premium. Last week, I walked into a second-grade classroom with my just-published kids' book. And then another classroom. And another. My sister-in-law and I walked into half a dozen schools, and plopped down boxes and bags of books and art and a packraft and art supplies. Fifty little kids I didn't know crowded onto the carpet "criss-cross-applesauce" and we never had more than an hour to pull off the program. It worked -- only because the teachers surrounding us were masters of logistics. I've led enough group hikes to know that every extra body makes the whole trip take longer.

Home-schoolers have more time.

Shona, who describes herself as "very, very serious about academics," has no trouble fitting her two children's six daily subjects in four to five hours each day -- much less than a school day plus the bundling, transportation and homework on each end. It leaves them a space of quiet, uninterrupted time -- for projects done start to finish, for food delivery to families in need, for charity, family and relaxing.

People often home-school their kids just to grab a chunk of that time. When Alaskans decide to skip the state for a few months, leaving in February sounds pretty attractive. I know families who home-schooled just for a semester or a year, as a way to pull off that big road trip the kids will remember the rest of their lives.

Some families move in and out of school. Others are committed to staying out of the system. Janet moved here from Texas, and didn't like the politics of the Alaska schools, nor the way they dealt with her autistic son.

An adult friend, Jenna, grew up with her 10 siblings in a religious family that didn't consider public school an acceptable option. Home schooling gave her time to read novels, many of the classics, and a hundred other things she might not have had time for otherwise. She's grateful for that, but not for the fact that her human anatomy book left out the reproductive system, or that she had to fill in all the education beyond eighth grade by herself, studying for her GED. Mostly, she wished her family hadn't been so secluded -- so socially isolated.

Deregulating home schooling

In Alaska, home schooling got its start as a consequence of isolation, rather than a cause. By the 1950s, the state began offering correspondence courses to remote-living students — sending out packets of work through the mail and hiring teachers to create and grade them.

Then in 1997, Alaska deregulated home schooling entirely. Children "educated in the home by a parent or guardian" are considered to meet attendance requirements — no registration or paperwork required.

Immediately after this change, a new type of home school sprung up. Modern correspondence schools still enroll home-schooled kids as public school students, but no longer mail each one a packet of work. They provide educational advice and curriculum to parents that want it, check out laptops, sponsor rock climbing camps and math meets, allow students to attend a school music class and join a sports team, and reimburse parent-chosen educational expenses to the tune of thousands of dollars per child. The largest of these, IDEA (Interior Distance Education Academy), has more than 3,800 students. Many programs accept students from all over the state, and compete with one another to enroll them.

These programs can be moneymakers for all involved. For each correspondence student, a district gets 90 percent of the "base student allocation" from the state -- around $5,300. Roughly $2,000 of that goes to the families for educational expenses. That leaves a school district with more than $3,000 per home-schooler, which serves to administer the program while bringing in extra cash.

In return, the home-schooling families agree to submit learning plans and report cards and to bring in their third- through 10th-graders for spring's annual round of standardized tests. Their scores are average. A little higher in some places, a little lower in others, but within a handful of percentage points of the state's public school kids.

Most home-school parents find the correspondence programs a good bargain. There's no way to know how many decide otherwise. Janet, who started out with IDEA, has been independent the last two years.

Alaska, she said, trusts its parents to do what's right for their kids. Trust and independence are the backbone of the correspondence programs. Paperwork is minimal. No one looks over my shoulder.

If you allow independence, you allow both success and failure. And you allow people to have a different definition of those than you do. You allow my 7-year-old to learn more chemistry than his scientist parents, Shona's 10-year-old to win a statewide essay contest, and my friend Jenna to miss out on high-school-level coursework.

In Alaska, we build our own houses -- constrained in some places by codes, and sometimes only by the limits of imagination and physics. Home schooling is like that. You can follow a curriculum like an architect's blueprint, or you can be the guy standing in the forest wondering which tree to saw down first. Owner-built homes are quirky things. They can be more beautiful and functional than any cookie-cutter house, or they can be leaky fire hazards. Or both.

We don't all need to build our own. I battled for months just to build a platform to drop a yurt on. In the process, I dropped a beam on my head and never got the floor quite flat. So I'm not quite sure I won that battle. I'm glad I didn't build my own house. It's hard work to do it right. But I'm glad to live in a place where others do.

Even the most slapdash builder has a lot more control than the most regimented educator. Kids are slippery little things -- and if a kid is like a house, he's like a house that rearranges its beams when you aren't looking.

Journeys with ambition, surprise

Maybe home schooling is like river rafting, because the rush of learning and growing is happening whether you like it or not. Just a quick flick of the paddle to guide things, realizing you'll never know what's around the next corner. Prepare to be wet.

I'm prepared to be wet. I'm prepared for a floor ankle-deep in tiny pieces of paper, and a counter invisible beneath the canning jars of chemicals. I'll let my kids sweep me along in their learning as long as they want to keep living this way. We'll run actual rivers. We'll recite poems in the tent, sketch parabolas in the dirt, climb mountains and turn over rocks at low tide. I'll learn the Spanish names of animals, and study molecules until the river rounds a bend and something else seems more fascinating.

We'll have more time to do it than school kids would, but the river braids infinitely -- we'll never learn it all.

I've always liked independence. I like journeys with ambition and surprises. The best of them, like home schooling, are born from having a big chunk of time. So I'll let our home schooling be like an expedition -- thought out, imperfect, careful, unexpected, flexible and open-minded. I'll be happy that a plan for the day or a year is easier to tear out and replace than the wall of a cabin. And if my kids grow up weird, they'll have good company up here.

Maybe they can end up on reality TV.

Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia. She is the author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski", "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska," and "My Coyote Nose and Ptarmigan Toes: An Almost-True Alaskan Adventure." You can find her at groundtruthtrekking.org.

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