GUTHRIE — Homeschooled student Giles Shelton sat at his parent’s dining room table on a sunny morning recently and studied biology. Sun rays beamed through a window behind him and shined light on his textbook.
The 16-year-old’s family’s home in Guthrie serves as his classroom. The home is tidy and welcoming with picture frames adorning smiling faces and books spread across the floor.
A piano stands along a wall in a corner room and a pretty decoration hangs in the kitchen with the words “love learning” spelled on it.
“I want them to feel that way,” said Dawn Shelton, Giles’ mother. “I don’t want them to learn for the purpose of acing a test; I want them to learn for the sake of learning.”
Dawn Shelton, a graduate of Oklahoma Christian University and former radio journalist, homeschools Giles and her other children, Lydia, 14, and Grant, 12. Her husband and the children’s father, Stan, is a physical therapist.
Dawn Shelton is not alone in wanting to offer her children an education alternative to the norm.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal entity responsible for collecting and analyzing data relating to education, homeschooling has been on a steady rise in the past decade.
The Shelton siblings are three of 1.5 million students who are homeschooled nationwide, according to a 2007 survey from the center.
In Oklahoma, all it takes to get them there is a letter. As a state with possibly the most liberal regulations on homeschooling, Oklahoma plays a balancing act between protecting the freedom of its patrons and ensuring the safety of its youth.
Some say the virtually nonexistent laws governing home schooling in Oklahoma acknowledge a parent's right to choose but neglect to safeguard children when parents abuse that right. Oklahoma is the only state in the nation with a constitutional provision guaranteeing parents the right to homeschool their children. It’s a fact that state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said speaks to the values of Oklahomans.
“Oklahoma is a state that realizes that the most important education a child can receive is the one they’ll get from a parent,” Barresi said. “We support our parents’ independence and their right to choose what’s best for their children.”
Oklahoma law requires all children in the state between the ages of 5 and 18 to attend 180 days of schooling. The law does not list mandatory curriculum, monitoring procedures or any criteria that a parent should meet to homeschool their child.
To withdraw a student from a formal educational institution all that a parent needs to do is give the school written notice of their intent to homeschool their child. To homeschool a child who did not previously receive a formal education, parents are advised to send their letter to the school district the family lives in.
“The primary intent of the notification is to ensure the child is receiving instruction and to protect the district and the parent from allegations of truancy,” said Tricia Pemberton, assistant director of communications for the state Education Department.
There is no administrative authority governing home schooling in Oklahoma, Pemberton said. After parents give a letter of intent to the appropriate school or district, nothing is done to monitor the education a child receives at home.
For many parents who homeschool, the lack of regulations allow them the freedom to tailor their children’s education to their unique needs and learning styles, resulting in higher SAT and ACT scores and higher college admission rates than those earned by their public schooled counterparts, according to the National Home Education Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts homeschooling research on a national level.
The right reasons
The option to homeschool is a resolution for parents who fear that formal education is not suitable for their children for a number of reasons, including overcrowding of classrooms, the possibility of subjecting their children to a possibly dangerous environment, the need for personalized education due to a physical or mental disability, religious beliefs or general dissatisfaction with the quality of public school education.
Dawn Shelton, who teaches a homeschooling co-op class once a week, let her students explain the pros and cons of being homeschooled and what led each of them to the nontraditional approach of learning.
“My mom decided to homeschool me because she wasn’t happy with what we were learning in public school; which was basically nothing,” said Gillian Andersen, 14. She said her favorite school subjects are Latin and soccer and hopes to be a professional soccer player when she grows up.
“You probably can’t tell now but I was born with dyspraxia, a minor speech issue,” Andersen’s co-op classmate, Issac Ballweber,14, said. “The individualized attention I get in home school helps. As a child who had difficulty with speech I’ve never had to worry about shouting out to be heard in a classroom if I needed help.”
Ballweber said his favorite subjects are logic and math. He hopes to be a writer when he grows up.
For the cons, the students listed not feeling prepared to deal with peer pressure, often feeling isolated from the outside world and having to deal with the stigma associated with homeschooled children; mainly that they are unsocial and have been brainwashed, they said.
The students use the popular homeschool model and learning guide Classical Conversations to study history, geography, math, science, Latin and grammar, among other subjects.
The program provides lesson plans, projects and homework for each school year.
Classical Conversations creators claim the program offers a classical method of learning with a biblical worldview. But student’s stress that they are free to explore secular views as well.
“We learn about creationism but also about evolution; the point is to be able to know enough about each to make up your own beliefs,” Andersen said.
For Dawn Shelton, the concept of free choice is what led her to home school in the first place.
“Neither my husband nor myself were homeschooled,” she said. “We never thought we would home-school. We thought we would become very involved public-school parents. But then we found this other option. Sure it’s different; it’s off the conveyor belt. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
A dangerous place
But for some, so-called homeschooled student’s reality is a far cry from the picturesque scene of care and learning that thrives in the Shelton home.