Flathead sees big increase in home-schooled students

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  • Crystal Clark home-schools her four boys, Gideon, 5, on her left, Jubal, 8, at the window, Ezra, 10, in blue, and the youngest Boaz, 2, at their home north of Kalispell on Dec. 6. Clark said the family had a number of reasons they chose to home-school their children, but chief among them is “freedom.” Clark describes the children as “thriving” and having the opportunity to pursue their own interests and gifts. Her eldest, Ezra has a gift for languages and is learning Hebrew along with his fifth-grade studies. Jubal has a gift for math; for Gideon it is his artwork. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Gideon Clark, 5, works on a home-school project that combines letters and art as he and his brothers study together. In the background his brother Jubal works on a math assignment. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Crystal Clark home-schools her four boys, Gideon, 5, on her left, Jubal, 8, at the window, Ezra, 10, in blue, and the youngest Boaz, 2, at their home north of Kalispell on Dec. 6. Clark said the family had a number of reasons they chose to home-school their children, but chief among them is “freedom.” Clark describes the children as “thriving” and having the opportunity to pursue their own interests and gifts. Her eldest, Ezra has a gift for languages and is learning Hebrew along with his fifth-grade studies. Jubal has a gift for math; for Gideon it is his artwork. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Gideon Clark, 5, works on a home-school project that combines letters and art as he and his brothers study together. In the background his brother Jubal works on a math assignment. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The home-schooled student population is surging in the Flathead Valley based on data from a countywide enrollment report released this month.

The number of students reported as being home-schooled was the highest increase among public and private enrollments, according to the 2018 Statistical Report of Schools. The annual report is compiled by the office of the Flathead County Superintendent of Schools using data from an official fall enrollment count taken in October.

When comparing year-to-year, there were an additional 154 home-schooled students in kindergarten through eighth grade — a 23 percent increase. Total enrollment stands at 818 kindergarten through eighth-graders.

At the high school level, there were an additional 49 home-school students compared to last year, a 37 percent increase. The total number of high school students who are home-schooled is reported at 181.

But the figure that stands out is the increase over the past decade. Kindergarten through eighth-graders who are home-schooled increased by 468 students —134 percent. In grades 9 through 12, there were an additional 133 students being home schooled, which translates to a 277 percent increase.

Nationally, in 2016, about 3.3 percent (1.6 million) of all kindergarten through 12th-graders were estimated to be home-schooled. That figure has leveled off from 1999 to 2012 when numbers doubled, according to a 2017 Parent and Family Involvement in Education report of results from the 2016 National Household Education Surveys program.

There are many reasons why families choose to home-school, according to the survey encompassing desires to provide religious, moral or nontraditional instruction; concerns or dissatisfaction with the environment or academic instruction at other schools; to educating children with special needs, or temporary illness.

In Montana, there is minimal state regulation on home-schooling. To home-school, a child’s parents or legal guardians need to notify their local county superintendent of schools on their intention to home-school. While individuals who home-school are supposed to teach basic state content standards, listed with curriculum guides available through the Office of Public Instruction, parents have the authority to instruct children, and be responsible for selecting materials, curriculum and textbooks; time, place and method of instruction and evaluating instruction, according to state statute. Individuals who teach are not required to have college degrees or teaching certification or credentials.

Why is home schooling on the rise in the Flathead?

The face of home schooling in the Flathead has changed in the past decades, defying stereotypes that it is an isolating experience. There are associations, cooperatives, a la carte classes, clubs, athletics, even a band and choir, that provide community and a support network for families in navigating how to best educate their children, which can be a daunting task. Technology has also made it easier for families to delve into online learning options as well as local, on-site courses.

This hybrid, or blended approach to teaching at home and having students meet for some classes at another location to supplement coursework is not unusual.

At Heritage Learning in Kalispell, participating home-school students meet once or twice a week.

“We provide pretty much any subject and all the core classes. Families can take a whole course load or a la carte classes,” said Jane Turner, director and owner of Heritage Learning, which offers tuition-based classes based on the classical, Christian education approach.

Turner said groups such as Heritage Learning strike a balance between public and home-school models in regard to following instructions, time management and being with peers. It may also serve as an avenue for parents who may feel a specific subject is beyond their expertise.

“I think the biggest reason people join these groups is for the community. And there’s a certain amount of accountability,” said Turner noting that the staff of 25 will grade and give assignments.

In its ninth year, Heritage currently serves 175 students, according to Turner. The instructors have varied backgrounds — some are certified educators while others are teaching in their field of expertise such as Turner, who has a science degree.

For parent Crystal Clark, flexibility, from scheduling the school day, to incorporating personal values and beliefs played a key part in the family’s decision to home school. The Clark family includes four boys and a baby on the way. In addition to teaching her children, she also teaches group classes.

“It’s nice in Montana that we’re allowed to choose curriculum, but more than that I like that we’re allowed to teach our children our own beliefs,” Clark said.

Clark said the decision to home-school stems from her experience pursuing a teaching degree.

“I saw the problems of having children in the classroom too long, especially for little boys,” she said. “It was not a bad experience. I just realized it was not what I wanted. I finished my degree in early childhood education and saw the value of play and schoolchildren aren’t getting the needed amount of play through age 8.”

At home, school is in session for a couple of hours in the morning, followed by an afternoon break where the boys eat lunch, play and do chores.

She said home schooling provides freedom for her children to pursue their passions.

“Each of our children is gifted in a different way. My 10-year-old is really passionate about the written word in any language. He’s studying scripture in English and Hebrew. He likes learning anything about writing and likes to write stories,” Clark said.

Her second son is advanced in math.

“I let him go as far as he wants in math until his brain can’t handle it,” she said. “And he likes handicrafts. He knits.”

The children also participate in Jiu Jitsu and the three oldest boys are in cross-country.

Clark said she realizes there will be a point when her mathematically minded son is advanced enough that he will need a teacher with more advanced knowledge of the subject matter.

“In just a few years he’s going to need a higher educated math teacher when he’s surpassed my knowledge in math and I will go ahead and put him in class with another teacher,” Clark said, “With that, I still have control of those studies and how much time is spent.”

Selecting curriculum suitable to age and ability is a lot of trial and error she said, which is where groups such as the Flathead Home Educators Association are helpful. School resumes for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Clark has also shares her home-school experience through social media in hopes to give a leg up to new families.

“For two years now I started a Facebook page of our own home-school journey [at Heirloom Schooling],” she said, where families can share how they run their day. “It can be confusing how to make it all fit, especially with multiple subjects.”

And that journey, which began six years ago, will continue on with the birth of her fifth child.

“We’ve always known that we would home-school,” Clark said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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