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.
Some parents use homeschooling and the state’s lack of oversight as an excuse to neglect or abuse their children, said Sherri Snyder, executive director of Children’s Advocacy Centers of Oklahoma. The center works with the state’s Department of Human Services and law enforcers to safeguard children from abuse and neglect.
Instances like the deaths of 10-year-old Marcus Holloway and 12-year-old Cheyenne Wolf leave Snyder and child advocates wondering if the extra eyes and ears of a teacher are needed to protect Oklahoma’s most vulnerable residents.
On May 5, 2011, Marcus died of apparent starvation by his mother, Candice Holloway, and her boyfriend, Cornell C. Williams. Williams was a U.S. Army private at Fort Sill, where the family lived on base.
The couple were charged in Oklahoma City’s federal court with first-degree murder. Testimony in the case showed that on the day Marcus died he weighed 44 pounds, about 26 pounds less than what a healthy 10-year-old boy should weigh.
It’s alleged that between January through May of 2011 Marcus was fed only rice cakes and water and lost close to half of his body weight.
Candice Holloway claimed she homeschooled Marcus.
Equally tragic was the death of Cheyenne, whose stepmother, Denise Wolf, withdrew the 12-year-old from public school in January 2008 to homeschool her where they lived in Bokchito.
Cheyenne suffered from spina bifida, a birth disorder of the spine that caused her to be incontinent and wear leg braces for the duration of her short life.
Instead of offering her stepdaughter an education, Wolf tied Cheyenne to a chair and routinely beat her, authorities said.
It’s believed that Cheyenne died of a concussion in 2008. Wolf was sentenced to five life prison terms.
“I don’t see risks with parents who actually homeschool their children,” Snyder said. “But there is a risk of neglect or abuse in cases where parents withdraw their children from school and only claim to homeschool them.”
Snyder said she has seen cases where parents claim to homeschool their children but neglect to do so.
“Home school can be a wonderful place for families to provide their children with a viable and strong education, but we need to know which parents are choosing to homeschool their children for all the right reasons and which parents are using home schooling to harm their children,” Snyder said.
DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said Oklahoma teachers are required by law to report suspected abuse.
According to a DHS statistical summary for the 2012 fiscal year, 9,842 cases of substantiated child abuse and neglect were reported in Oklahoma. Of those reports, 906 came from school teachers or administrators.
Yet Snyder and Powell agree that a teacher should not bear the sole responsibility of safeguarding a child from harmful parents.
“Teachers are not the only people who see kids on a daily basis,” Powell said. “Everybody from grocery store clerks to postal service workers, neighbors and relatives need to take a proactive stance against child abuse and report it even when they just suspect it. Often, it takes a collaborative effort to stop it.”
Thinking about change
Homeschool parent Jay McCurry believes the same mentality can be said for educating Oklahoma’s children.
“We don’t homeschool our children because we’re against public schooling. I have a great deal of respect for our education system and the teachers here in Oklahoma,” McCurry said.
McCurry is director of corporate enterprises at Central Rural Electric in Stillwater and a former Edmond school principal. His wife, Kelly, previously taught music at a public school in Moore.
“Even the school will stress that a child’s education is the product of a partnership between the school and the parent,” he said. “Believing you can just drop your kid off at school and that their education is the responsibility of the teachers alone is setting your child up for failure.”
The McCurrys use Classical Conversations to educate their four daughters, Abigayle, Aliya, Adah and Ari.
“There are several factors that led us to choose this route for them,” Jay McCurry said. “When you look at a typical classroom setting there are about 26 to 27 students, all with different backgrounds and learning styles. So one of my girls would be one out of 26. With Kelly, they’re 1 in 4.”
“Before they came along, I used to think that when the time came for my children to go to school I would have my days back. My house would always be clean and I would have free time to spend with my girlfriends,” Kelly added with a laugh. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way now. I love being with them.”
Neither the McCurry’s nor the Shelton’s believe home schools should be monitored, but say something should be done to protect children from parents who abuse the system.
“Every year within our state legislature there is someone who wants to put regulations on home schooling. Some want to create the case that public schools are not performing well and others are concerned about the welfare of children,” Baressi said. “It’s true that there are a few individuals who for all the wrong reasons try to hide what they do within their home but that’s no reason to track down good parents.”
Baressi said preventing child abuse and neglect can be done through strengthening the state’s law enforcement. She suggests that judges who place parents on parole specify in their parole plans that the parent’s children must be enrolled in a formal educational institution and not be homeschooled.
Snyder suggests that parents who want to homeschool their children register to do so with the state Department of Education within 30 days of withdrawing them from public or private school or within 30 days before the child’s fifth birthday, when the education of a child becomes mandatory by state law.
“If a DHS worker came across a case where the parent claimed to be homeschooling their child, all they would have to do is check if that child is registered. If the parent turns out to be lying about their child’s registration that would be grounds to suspect educational neglect and would lead the DHS worker to wonder what else they’re lying about,” Snyder said.
Dawn Shelton pondered the subject on that same March morning as her children studied nearby.
“You should get to know these kids,” she said referring not just to her children but to all home schooled ones. “They are so bright. I have confidence that they’ll be the next generation of movers and shakers. I hate to think of any child being hurt by their own parents. I honestly don’t know how to solve that problem. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
She looked both lovingly and admirably at her children. “But I bet they will.”