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Learning Curves

Education is no longer a simple line from "A" to "B." How do students feel about the dizzying array of choices their parents can make?

In his 2005 book It Takes a Family, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum argues that home-schooling, and not mass education, is really the norm.

Santorum has a point. While it seems as if school buses and back-to-school shopping have been with us for eternity, our public education system is relatively new ... about 150 years old. And while mass education is hardly on death's door, it does appear that families are increasingly choosing alternatives to traditional public and private schools: from "cyber-schools" and charter schools to parent-led home-schooling. The National Home Education Research Institute reported this July that there were between 1.9 and 2.4 million children home-schooled nationwide during the past school year, an increase of about 10 percent from the year before. Home-schooling is growing even more quickly among non-white families; about 15 percent of all home-schooled families are non-white.

In Pennsylvania, about 15,000 students were home-schooled in 1995; today more than 23,000 kids are being home-schooled, about 1.2 percent of the state's student population.

Charter schools ... alternative, independently run programs granted government licenses but offered by outside organizations ... may be the more significant trend: Since the Charter School Act was approved in 1997, there have been 117 charter schools established in Pennsylvania, including 11 Internet-based "cyber-schools," for a total enrollment of 50,000 students statewide. That's nearly twice the number of kids in home-school environments.

Politicians, teachers and parents have all weighed in on the implications of these trends. But what do the students themselves think?

In late August, City Paper sat down with five Pittsburgh-area students who have participated in at least one of these forms of alternative schooling: charter-schooling, cyber-schooling, home-schooling and "un-schooling." If the students in our discussion group are representative, we may be witnessing the birth of a new fluidity between traditional and alternative forms of education.

Fifteen-year-old Debbie Alexander has been home-schooled by her mother in Murrysville since she was old enough to learn. For the past four years, she has also attended the Blackburn Study Center, a Christian-themed learning center with regular classes and tutorial sessions for home-schooled kids, located in the North Hills. She likes the musical groups Rush and Jars of Clay, and is interested in pursuing a career in fine arts or graphic design. She'd like to attend Carnegie Mellon or a similar art/design college.

Thea Craddock, 16, started "attending" the Charter Cyber School PA Learning Online three years ago. Thea misses her friends from school, but she finds new social opportunities in her part-time work as a model and an actress. She loves sports, the singer Beyoncé, and she would like to attend college somewhere outside the Pittsburgh area.

Evan Katz, 17, formerly attended Mount Lebanon High School, but now lives in Shadyside and attends Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts school (CAPA), where he majors in technical theater. This year he will take classes at Point Park University and complete an internship at City Theatre. He is hoping to get into New York University for college via early decision, but CMU is his "safety school."

Isaac Longstaff, 16, attends a recently established charter school, City High School, Downtown. From second through eighth grades, he was home-schooled by his mother, Andi Kaufman; before that he attended a public elementary school. He has one brother, a cat named Pepsi, and his favorite band is Saliva. Isaac has his heart set on attending CMU, where he has been playing tennis for many years.

Amber Neszpaul is 14 years old. She has been home-schooled by her mother, Donna Tarkett, since she was 8 years old. Amber tried cyberschool for one semester and didn't like it; today, she says, she is "unschooled," which means that her education is highly self-directed. Her most recent achievement is her participation in the Girls Grantmaking program sponsored by the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania. She hopes to attend college somewhere in Pittsburgh.

CP: For those of you who've been in a home-schooling environment, what do you think the worst or the most negative stereotype about home-schooling is?

Amber: That they don't have any social lives. I hate that, because I have friends.

Thea: One time someone I knew was like, "Are you really slow?" And I said, "You don't have to be slow ... or really smart ... to be home-schooled." Some kids just do it differently.

Isaac: What I hate is that a lot of people think that you can only home-school if you have a really strict religion, where you're hidden away in a sheltered little environment or something.

Amber: Yeah, it's not like we peer out of our little windows at the normal kids passing by.

CP: What are some negative stereotypes about public schools?

Evan: They can be kind of out of control a lot of time. It can be chaotic because you have so many different age groups and so many different kids with so many different backgrounds. Some kids want to be there, some kids don't want to be there, [but] you throw them all into a building and say, "This is what everybody has to do." And we all learn at different levels ... that can make it difficult too.

Isaac: Illegal stuff. That's the big stereotype I hear. When we talk about other schools it's like, "Who's selling crack there?" and "Who's going to jail?" It's like all public school kids have to be bad.

Evan: But there's even a difference between public schools. If you compare CAPA, a performing arts high school, to, say, Peabody ... they're completely different schools. There's genres of public schooling, and how we perceive other schools is really different.

Isaac: I know CAPA is big for home-schoolers ... a lot of my friends have gone to CAPA from home-schooling.

CP: Amber, I'm curious about "unschooling." What is it?

Amber: Unschooling is basically taking your education into your own hands and learning through life, and experience, and exploration. ... You go out and you explore your interests and get involved. I've been interested in photography for a long time and I love to write, and so writing is a big part of my education. I've actually written a few books, and I write poetry and I write creative non-fiction.

CP: Debbie, can you tell me about opportunities you've had to form relationships with kids your own age?

Debbie: A lot of it has been through my church. My family is close with other families, and so I see a lot of those kids. Also, among the home-schoolers, a lot of the families get together and once a month we get together and read each other's work.

CP: What about those classic gathering places, like the mall? Do you go to the mall with other home-schooling kids?

Debbie: I can't drive yet, and my family is really busy so I don't really get to go to the mall. I guess my friends aren't really into that, either. But we do get together at each other's houses, or after church. I will have get-togethers with my friends from Blackburn, too.

CP: Thea, I know you have said that you miss your friends from school. Why did you leave public school for cyber-schooling?

Thea: When I started ninth grade it was weird for me because none of my friends went to my school, which was City High School. Then during Christmas break I got the chicken pox, and it was the worst case that my doctors had ever seen. After I started to get better a lot of the spots were still there and I felt really self-conscious. I said [to my mom], "I want to be home-schooled" because I didn't want to go back to school with those spots all over me. It's probably not how most of you got into home-schooling.

CP: Isaac, you were one of the only Jewish students in a larger Christian home-schooling community. Can you talk about that?

Isaac: It wasn't that bad for me. As far as I know, I was the only Jewish student in a group called Cranberry Christian, on the South Side. They had a lot of actual classes that they got people to teach for home-schoolers, but it was much more relaxed than school. What was hard for me was only knowing one or two people there, so I wasn't very comfortable. But it wasn't because I was Jewish. I'm used to being one of the only Jewish guys in the room. Right now at City High there must be 10 Jewish people in the entire school?

CP: Evan, you're going to be a senior this year, but I understand you won't really be in school.

Evan: I transferred from Mount Lebanon, and Mount Lebanon moves a lot faster than many public schools. I came to CAPA and I was taking 11th-grade classes in 10th grade, and there's not going to be anything for me to take next year. So, my family and I looked into dual enrollment with Point Park [University]. I also decided to get an internship with City Theatre, so essentially I won't be at the high school. I'll be there twice a week for two hours a day, but one of the great things that CAPA offers is the internships and then also being Downtown. It's a big difference from being in "the bubble."

CP: What is "the bubble"?

Evan: Mount Lebanon is known as the bubble, because Mount Lebanon people ... this is a stereotype ... don't tend to leave Mount Lebanon. ... You'd be surprised how many people in Mount Lebanon have never even been to the South Side, or just to hang out there. I think a lot of the drug problems happen because there's nothing to do.

When I went to CAPA, everyone there comes from different places. It really does open up your eyes to the different kinds of people: religion, ethnicity, everything. I've been to a lot of places and met a lot of people I wouldn't have met otherwise, and that's been a really good experience.

CP: What would you say are the biggest advantages to home-schooling?

Isaac: You get to be more self-sustaining. As an example, I just started putting together a feature-length film, and we're getting set locations and actors and trying to get money to make this happen. I don't think I would have had the drive to do this myself if I wasn't home-schooled, if I hadn't learned how to take my work into my own hands.

Evan: Being from public school I don't know that much about home-schooling, but do you guys want to go to college? How will you be prepared for the SATs? How will you adjust to college life?

Amber: By the time I'm ready to go to college, I'll be ready to have more structure, because I haven't had a lot of "Do this and this and this" in my life. I actually think it might be easier because I won't be exhausted from 12 years of it.

Thea: At the school I go to the whole focus is on getting you ready for college. One of my courses is an SAT prep course, and they sent me an SAT study book in the mail.

Isaac: For home-schooling it's required by law [that] you have to take a standardized test up to a certain grade, so the state knows you're keeping up with the work you have to do.

Evan: I can see that home-schooling would work for kids who are really motivated. But aren't there kids who are doing home-schooling to be lazy?

Debbie: I don't think so. Also, our parents play a big role in motivating us. My parents really had to be excited about the idea of home-schooling in order to decide to do it. As a result, I feel excited about it too. I love school.

Thea: My mom doesn't play a huge role in my home-schooling. She doesn't really need to do anything. I just log on and do what I need to do. She can go online and check my grades or my work sometimes, but she doesn't have too much to do with my home-schooling.

... You have to be really self-motivated to get your work done without a teacher standing over you all the time. The first year I went to cyber-school I slacked off and all my work caught up to me until I was sitting there, thinking, "What am I going to do? I don't want to fail!" So I had to learn to be really motivated and get myself together.

Evan: Do you think you guys would feel unhappy at regular schools?

Debbie: As far as I can tell ... I haven't ever been in public school ... I wouldn't like public school. I feel like I'm getting a little bit better of an education, from what I have seen, than I would at the public school I'd be going to. Also, with home-schooling, my parents can really focus on integrating Christianity with every single thing I learn, and I can see how God works through history, even through mathematics ... and so I think I wouldn't be happy to leave that, and I wouldn't be able to get it at a public school.

CP: Debbie, that raises a question that I wanted you and Amber to comment on. Do you worry that ideas are being taught to you that might be too one-sided?

Debbie: You could say that I'm getting a sort of biased education through Christianity, but I wouldn't say that there is anything wrong with that. I really believe in what I'm learning, and in public school they teach evolution but they don't teach the rest of it, the creation story. In my home-schooling, I do get the other side.

Amber: My mom and I have talked about that a lot actually. I am a Christian as well. There are a lot of different sides of things that I learn. My dad is fundamentalist Christian, and my mom is, well ... she's not. And I have a large variety of friends, like gay friends and straight friends and public-school friends, so I see a lot of different types of people. I don't think that my education ... or my life ... is very biased.

Thea: It's interesting to see that religion plays a big part in your schooling because I'm home-schooled too, but it's just me and the computer and my teachers and the work. Religion is very private for me. It's not part of my schooling.

CP: One criticism of public schools is that they're "one size fits all." What do you think?

Evan: If you go in and you're like, "This is my education, I want it my way," you're never going to get that at a public school. ... [But] I just think in general, if the school's doing their job, they will supply you with things. Like, Tuesdays and Thursdays after school you can stay around until 4 and there's tutors. There's also student tutors, and you can apply to be one and take classes, so there are resources available.

Isaac: The diversity at City High helps me learn, because so many people go there. There's a lot of emphasis on knowing how to work as a team. I've gotten paired up with the really smart people, and the ones who don't want you to be anywhere near them. I mean, I'm shocked, there are people in my grade who can't read yet. It gives you a full experience of how to work with people who know more than you, and also with people you have to kind of guide to get the work done.

Evan: And in the real world, that's the way it's going to be: There are going to be people who are smarter than you and people who aren't.

Thea: I think there should be a student here from, like, a really public school, a Schenley or a Peabody or something. All the schools we go to are based on people trying to help you to do something individually. There should be someone here from a school where there are thousands of kids.

Evan: If you look at the five of us, we all have an interest in something that we found early on, and I know that research studies say that kids in the arts tend to be more motivated. One thing that is important about a CAPA or a home-schooling system is that you dictate your education. And I think now, going to college this young, I now have the upper hand professionally.

CP: I'm going to throw out an idea from Senator Rick Santorum. Last year he wrote, "Mass education is really the aberration [while] home-schooling is really the norm. It's amazing that so many kids turn out to be normal considering the weird socialization they get in public schools." What do you think?

Debbie: I tend to agree with Rick Santorum. I mean, overall, throughout history, parents have been more involved with their children's educations than they are now. And I think that in the public schools it really isn't as good, because kids don't have those good relationships with their parents. They're sort of forced to get to know only the people in their school.

CP: Have any of you experienced any sort of "weird socialization," as Santorum says?

Evan: I totally disagree because going back to my Mount Lebanon days, when you see high school movies, like Clueless and stuff like that, they're so wrong. I mean, sure you have the mall but, like, the cheerleaders aren't the popular ones at all, they're pretty much big ... I mean, it's life, and that's also what's going to make you learn.

If Rick Santorum went into a public school today, I think he'd be surprised to see how inaccurate these stereotypes are. Bullies, for instance ... I didn't see much of that, and I don't think students are as concerned about being popular, I think it's more about finding your group of friends.

Amber: I have a friend who goes to public school and sometimes she just comes home and is like, "School sucks, I hate the cliques, I hate that stuff," and she's so overwhelmed. So sometimes, yeah, it's a total stereotype, but other times it's still true.

Isaac: Cliques are a huge part of my school. We compete against each other all the time. Like, you get your certain group of friends and, you randomly sit down in someone else's clique and you see what they do. You wait for them to look at you like you're insane and it's really funny. You don't go into other cliques.

CP: Is that an example of 'weird socialization'?

Isaac: I guess, yeah, but it's pretty normal to me because I've seen it for years.

CP: Thea, do you miss your social life in school, now that you're in a cyber-school?

Thea: Yeah, definitely. None of my friends are home-schooled, and they talk to me about things I can't really relate [to].

Evan: I think one really cool thing about [CAPA's] location Downtown is that just being thrown into society is really neat. To get to school, I have to take the "T" with people who are going to work, and we have the Cultural District right there. That's part of growing up: taking yourself Downtown and figuring out which buses go where and checking up on the schedule. And I know one thing we do at CAPA is the students will go and do their homework at the PPG fountain.

CP: Amber, I want to get back to "unschooling" for a second. Could you describe a typical day? What time do you get up?

Amber: Well, it used to be 11, but lately it's been 9:30 or 10.

CP: And what's your first education-related activity of the day?

Amber: Like, today?

CP: Is today a school day?

Amber: I don't know, what day's today?

CP: Friday.

Amber: So, yeah, yeah. Basically some of it is sitting down and reading stuff and doing actual curriculum-ish stuff. Like ... economics. Today's Friday so I wouldn't be doing it today, but I do it most days: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. That includes economics, history, current events, and stuff like that. I sit down and read about it and talk about what I've learned with my mom, and other times, since I'm really into photography, I'll take up a whole day taking photos, or writing.

CP: What about math and science?

Amber: I do a lot of reading about science, and I'll research it on the Internet. For math I've been working with a college student who's a math major because my mom and I, neither of us like math very much.

Isaac: I consider myself lucky because [my father] teaches classes here at CMU, and my mom used to teach third grade before she became a stay-at-home-mom and taught me. She liked teaching me English and my dad would do math and science, so I got a good all-around experience.

Evan: When I read a book in class, when we have a discussion, I get to hear the different ideas. I'll come in with my attitude on it and then I'll hear other opinions and I'll kind of shift. I know you can talk to your parents, but how do you have discussions about what you are learning?

Thea: Well, in my school, we have an online class and all the students log in and you have your headphones on. You can write stuff and all the students talk to each other.

Amber: I won't have a group discussion type thing, but I'll talk to different people at different times. Like, if I've read a book, I'll talk to some of my friends about it or to my mom, or my sister or a bunch of different people.

Evan: If you guys don't feel like learning one day, can you just not?

Thea: Yeah, home-schooling is great because you can take a break.

Amber: But it doesn't mean I'm going to take off whenever I feel like it. It just means that maybe once every couple of weeks, I might take a day off.

Isaac: That was a hard part of integration to City High for me. I would have those days when I'm used to being able to just take a break ... once a month or once every two months ... when you have that day when you don't want to learn, and you're not going to anyway. And on those days now I still have to go to school, and if I don't do my work, something goes wrong and my grade drops.

In [public] school, you learn how to deal with other people ... and when you're home-schooling, you learn all about yourself because there's no stereotype that you have to live up to. There's no image you have to put on to go to school every day.

Evan: That begs the question of, how much is education the student's responsibility, and how much of it is the school's?

CP: And how would you answer that question?

Evan: I think it's a mixture of both, but when I hear people's complaints about the public schools, I try to refute them by telling them to change it. If you don't like a class, switch out of it or change it. People can complain about home-schooling in the same way. So it depends on the kid.

CP: Would you agree, Debbie, that home-schooling is not for everyone?

Debbie: Yeah, except overall, I'm still against the public school system. I don't believe that it's the government's job to educate the kids, but it's not really the kids' responsibility either. It's the parents'.

Isaac: I disagree. I think that it's entirely the student's will to learn, because what the government does, or what they should do, is put the resources out there and those who want to learn, they're going to learn. All the problems I see are with kids who don't take initiative, who won't do their work, who won't get to know the teachers.

With home-schooling you don't really have to take initiative. I would fall straight back into my parents, and they would make me, and I would never miss out because they'd be there. When I got into school, there wasn't anyone to fall back on anymore. I had to take the blame for doing my work or not doing my work, and I had to lose the grade.

CP: A lot of kids have a few teachers that changed their lives. Who are your role models?

Amber: My mom is my role model, and my dad, too.

Evan: And where is that divide between, like, classroom mom and mom-mom? If your mom gets mad at you for something you did in the classroom, can she ground you? My relationship with my teachers is very different; I don't fight with my teachers and I definitely fight with my mom.

Amber: My mom is basically a resource provider and a supporter. We do economics together, but she doesn't say, "You have to do this right now." I haven't ever really noticed the parent-teacher role switching. I don't think of a teacher as somebody who works in a school. A teacher is someone who helps you learn something. My mom helps me learn things; therefore she's my teacher and also my mom.

CP: Debbie, do you think you would home-school your children?

Debbie: I don't have anything against public schools, but the ability to experience what I've experienced I think would be important.

Isaac: If my kids are anything like me, they'd be going to school at least before seventh grade, because I wouldn't be able to deal with me [laughs].

Evan: Another thing I ought to mention: If you home-school your kids, wouldn't that mean that you [couldn't] have a job?

Amber: That's not necessarily true.

CP: It is generally mothers who home-school, and that's controversial: The woman is taking herself out of the official workforce.

Debbie: Well, I think being a housewife is work, and that's something I want to do as a career. But if I can get into fine art, I think I could do that too.

CP: Evan, would you home-school your kids? Has this discussion opened your mind at all to the possibility?

Evan: I think I would want to public-school them, largely because I wouldn't want to be my kids' teacher. I've had a good experience in the public schools.

CP: What about you, Thea?

Thea: Well, actually, I can't see having kids until like way, way later ... like when I'm retired or something.

CP: Retired?

Thea: It depends what I'm doing, but I'll probably look for the best school possible. It doesn't matter what that is, whether it's home-school or public. It just depends on where I live and what's best.

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