Home schooling breeds new culture of learning

In one room, a woman in a floor-length, prairie-style dress used PowerPoint to illustrate a talk about the Trail of Tears. Elsewhere, students played “Pioneer Trivia Bingo” or made recommendations for rebuilding post-Civil War Atlanta to costumed “City Council” members, who recorded them on a whiteboard.

Over three hours, Alyssa, 12, and Hannah, 9, made it to every session of January’s Homeschool Day. And even after the Woodstock pair had polished off pioneer times, they lingered for an impromptu visit to the History Center’s Olympic Sports Lab.

“We come every month,” said Cynthia Wenger, the girls’ mother and teacher. “We can’t get enough of this type of thing.”

The Wengers, along with thousands of other Georgia home schoolers, are in luck. A twist on the student field trip tradition, home school days are becoming increasingly common at metro area museums and cultural institutions. While not a new phenomenon — the Atlanta History Center began holding two or three home school events annually about six years ago, and more recently made them a monthly staple — it’s “reaching a tipping point,” said Joel Walker, education specialist at the National Archives at Atlanta.

Outings important

Is it any wonder? Home educators say regular outings to places such as Zoo Atlanta or the Center for Puppetry Arts are important aids when it comes to teaching their children about science, literature and other subjects. Nor does the chance to socialize with other home schoolers hurt.

Meanwhile, the institutions get to boost their gate receipts (many now offer special home school rates) and attendance figures at times when foot traffic might otherwise be light; both are important considerations at a time when many schools are cutting back on field trips because of the economy.

Even better, some institutions report seeing home school day attendees join their ranks as members or volunteers.

In part, this development can be attributed to critical mass: In its most recent study in 2007, the U.S. Department of Education estimated some 1.5 million students nationwide were home schoolers, up from 850,000 in 1998; the private National Home Education Research Institute says the number may be as high as 2.5 million now. An earlier analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003 found that 40.6 percent of all home schooled students lived in the South, nearly twice as many as in any other region of the country.

In Georgia, 39,207 students were home schooled in 2009, according to numbers compiled by the state Department of Education. The highest concentration was in metro Atlanta, including 3,276 in Gwinnett and 2,942 in Cobb. Fulton’s total was listed as zero, suggesting the overall figure statewide is probably higher.

“We saw there was a real need for this,” said Lani Schoedler, individual and family program supervisor at Zoo Atlanta, which launched its monthly Homeschool Academy in September 2008. “There were a lot of home schoolers and not a lot of programs for them, especially science-related ones.”

It’s part of a trend of home schoolers becoming involved in activities that would have once seemed the antithesis of learning in a private, family-based environment. What began with home educated students making their presence felt in scholastic sports leagues and youth orchestras has spread to cultural institutions.

“Part of what’s happening is that home schooling now is, or is really close to being, mainstream,” said Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. “If you’re a museum, a theater, a library, a team or a community chorus, you’re going to hear, ‘We’re here. Is there some way we can be part of what you do?’ ”

Local institutions are answering “Yes” in a variety of ways:

• Launched last August at the National Archives at Atlanta, “Home School History” is a program held on the third Wednesday of every month during the academic year. It’s designed to teach research skills and take students deep inside the Clayton County facility’s holdings. Some 110 people attended the August session, which covered the Revolutionary War. This year’s final session, in May, will be on the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, said Walker, who estimates at least 80 percent of the students he sees each month are returnees.

• For the first time next month, the Center for Puppetry Arts will offer a pilot version of a workshop open only to members of the home school community. Previously, Home Educator Days attendees have mixed with other patrons during the center’s performances and classes. The pilot workshop is a response to parents who’ve requested home-educator-only events, as well as “a way for us to get to know that audience better,” said Alan Louis, the center’s education and museum programs director.

• Billed as “The Ultimate Arts Field Trip Experience,” four cultural institutions have joined forces twice since last spring for Home School Day at the Woodruff Arts Center. The second one, held in November, let students attend up to four separate events — including an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performance and a special exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius,” at the High Museum of Art — over a seven-hour period, and made study guides and other preparation materials available in advance.

It’s a far cry from the days when Charlene Peavy had to “call and beg” cultural institutions to embrace home schoolers the same way as public and private schools.

“I would get together a group of 10, we’d go to museums and historical places, and they would say, ‘Now who are you and what are you?’ ” said Peavy, spokeswoman for the Georgia Home Education Association, who started home schooling her five children nearly 30 years ago. “They didn’t cut us a break financially at the beginning.”

Challenges remain

While those attitudes mostly have changed, home school events still present challenges for museums. Unlike a traditional school field trip featuring 100 fifth-graders and a handful of teachers, home school events attract dozens of families — including children of all ages and parents functioning as chaperones/teachers/students.

“Part of the thrill of home schooling is learning things I never knew or relearning them right along with my kids,” said Stephanie Coker, who spent the Trail of Tears session at the Atlanta History Center with her 10-month-old son Grady on her lap, while her other three children, ages 3 through 8, filled out the row. When the oldest, Wes, asked several questions about Indian boarding schools, Coker decided to learn more about the subject on her own.

“Anything you can do to supplement their learning with different points of view and interactive experiences is important,” said Coker, who drives her family from Thomaston to the History Center every month for Homeschool Day.

Now that museums have opened their doors wide to home schoolers, they should take care not to get run over, said Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute.

“The people that make these experiences available should recognize that the children are used to a lot of interaction,” said Ray, pointing out that most home schoolers learn in very small classes with personalized curriculum and undivided attention from their instructors. “That doesn’t mean they’re rude. But it does mean they’re not used to waiting in line for 20 minutes and always having to raise their hands to participate.”

It’s a minor quirk in what most institutions regard as a satisfying experience.

At Zoo Atlanta, rather than homogenize their curriculum to appeal to all ages, Homeschool Academy is divided into four separate, grade-appropriate tracks. During a recent session for students in kindergarten through second grade, 17 youngsters sat bolt upright on their floor mats inside a rustic cabin as instructor Francine Gebus introduced them to Harrison, a 9-year-old lop-eared rabbit.

This group is spending the semester studying senses — January’s topic was eyesight — and the students were quick to note that Harrison’s eyes were large and located on the sides of his head. Their appreciation for Harrison — and their questions — only increased when Gebus explained that his eyes were crucial to detecting potential threats from other animals.

“This is like the purest form of learning,” Gebus, a former school science teacher, said afterward. “Everyone is here because they want to be here, not because they have to be here. They’re not doing it to pass a test. They’re doing it purely to gain knowledge.”

Upcoming home school events

Metro museums, Zoo Atlanta and other institutions draw droves to events tailored to home schoolers.

Atlanta History Center: “Homeschool Day — Struggles and Strides: 20th Century,” 1-4 p.m. Feb. 9; $5 for children of members, $7 for nonmembers, adult members admitted free; 404-814-4018, homeschool@atlantahistorycenter.com. Additional information online .

Gwinnett Environmental & Heritage Center: “Homeschool Programs,” 1:30-3:30 p.m. Feb. 9 (additional programs run throughout the month); class prices vary, advance registration required; 770-904-3500. Additional information online.

• Zoo Atlanta: “Homeschool Academy,” 1-3 p.m., Feb. 10; $12 for members, $17 for nonmembers; reservations and payment required at least 7 days in advance. 404-624-WILD, education@zooatlanta.com. Additional Information online.

• Center for Puppetry Arts: “Home Educator Day,” 11:30 a.m., Feb. 12; includes performance (“Rainforest Adventures”), museum admission and 1 p.m. Create-A-Puppet workshop only for home schoolers; $10; 404-873-3391. Additional information online.

• Tellus Science Museum: “Home School Tuesdays — Geologic Time Scale” (grades 6-12), 1-3 p.m., Feb. 16; $8 for students, $12 for adults; registration required at least two weeks prior to event; 770-606-5699. Additional information online .

The National Archives at Atlanta: “Home School History — A Time of Beginning: The Early Civil Rights Cases in the Holdings of the National Archives at Atlanta,” 10 a.m. and “The Time is Now: Civil Rights Cases from the 1950s and 1960s,” 1 p.m., both on Feb. 17; free, no reservations needed, although advance notice of attendance is appreciated; 770-968-2530, joel.walker@nara.gov. Additional information online .

• Imagine It children’s museum of Atlanta: “Home School Day — Cyberchase: The Chase Is On!” 1-4 p.m., Feb. 23; $8 for students, adults admitted free; 404-527-3693, reservations@childrensmuseumatlanta.org. Additional information online .

• Fernbank Museum of Natural History: Special admission prices and field trip opportunities are available to qualified home school groups. Information and reservations: 404-929-6320 or fieldtrips@fernbankmuseum.org.

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