COLUMBIA — Michelle “Rocky” Wolken has been home-schooled since the time she could read her first Dr. Seuss book.
Out of bed by 7:30 every morning, dressed and filled with Froot Loops by 9 a.m. and learning English, consumer math and physics from the world’s most loving teacher — her mom — Wolken seems to have the home-school routine down pat.
But Sunday was the beginning of uncharted territory for Wolken and 10 other students from the Mid-Missouri Co-op of Home Educators, one of the main home-school groups in Columbia.
Sunday was graduation. The ceremony began at 3 p.m. at Grace Bible Church.
Display tables were set up in the lobby to showcase the accomplishments of the graduates. Items including Boy Scout badges, a rainbow of ribbons from equestrian races and baby pictures with pets as old as the graduates were featured.
“They grow up so fast,” said Tammy Willis, mother of graduate Jennifer Willis. “No regrets though.”
“It seemed like it would never really come, and now it’s here,” said Jennifer Willis. “I’m graduating today.”
“This can’t go fast enough," Wolken said. "I’m so ready.”
The home-schooled group, which has more than 100 member families, hosts an annual graduation for home-schooled seniors that is open to any of its families.
The group meets monthly during the school year for various activities to allow students to meet other home-schoolers in their area. Activities include a fall festival, pool party and costume party, which Wolken says is a type of Halloween celebration “without the negative connotation.”
And, of course, there’s graduation to look forward to in the spring.
However, unlike typical graduation ceremonies, the main event was not the reading of a list of names. Mike Bradshaw, who was behind much of the graduation planning, said this ceremony is more personal because of the size of the graduating class.
“Since the number of graduates is small, we are able to provide focus on each student,” Bradshaw said.
During the ceremony, each graduate was given time to showcase his or her individual talents. Bradshaw’s son, Grant Bradshaw, played excerpts from a Bach cello suite on his violin. Graduate Tyler Wood read a poem he’d written for his little brother, and Wolken sang “Our Time” by composer Stephen Sondheim.
“I like the personal feel,” said Tammy Willis. “We know most everybody here, and it’s nice to be able to celebrate with close friends and family.”
Graduates also prepared a slideshow of important events throughout their lives to present to the audience. One by one, after each slideshow concluded, two familiar faces had the honor of handing each graduate his or her diploma.
Diploma presentations by parents are reflective of what the home-school process is like, Bradshaw said, noting that it is centered on the family effort rather than just the work of the student.
“Graduation is also a time to honor our parents who have taught us our entire lives,” Wolken said.
Come fall, Wolken will be off to Avila University in Kansas City to major in musical theater and to live in a dorm with “zero parental supervision.”
“What I really would like to do is be part of a traveling group that does a show, tours the country,” she said. “Someday I would like to run my own theater company.”
Jennifer Willis plans to attend college in Columbia or possibly Moberly next year — she has yet to decide where. Her mom, Tammy, said she is confident her daughter will succeed in the upcoming years.
“She’s already taken some classes in community college, so it makes the transition easy,” Tammy Willis said.
James Biswell, 20, graduated as a home-schooler two years ago and attended Moberly Area Community College after graduation. He is transferring to MU next year to study mechanical engineering. Biswell said he also found that home-schooling did a good job preparing him for college — he said the transition was “fairly simple.”
“I found community college a lot easier for the most part,” Biswell said. “I would say it’s probably about a third as hard as it was in home-school. “
He said the independence he developed in home-school was key to his success after graduation.
“My mom would make a schedule out for the month to have a certain amount done and I could do it on my own time,” he said. “And I think it helps when you carry it over into college because college is so independent. If I get a bad professor, I’m not lost. I can just learn it on my own because that’s what I’m used to.”
Most families follow different schedules and types of curricula to get all the necessary work completed.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires 1,000 hours of instructing from parents during the home-school academic year. At least 600 of these hours must be in basic subjects: reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies and science. Additionally, 400 to 600 of the hours of schooling must occur in the home.
But how do these hours transfer over to create credits and transcripts to apply for college? One hundred hours of course instruction at home counts as one completed credit toward high school graduation.
In addition, parents must record grades and turn them in to the state in the form of a daily log. Parents also are required by the state to keep a portfolio complete with samples of student work.
Upon completion of the necessary credits, students take the high school equivalency exam to earn their General Education Development certificate. Aside from these rules, the state does not have the authority to regulate private home schooling.
For example, not all families who home school choose to participate in a traditional graduation ceremony.
Sally Wilson home-schools her three children, Nina, Jonah, and Ryan. Wilson said she and her husband decided to home-school mostly for religious reasons.
“My husband and I are very strong Christians,” Wilson said. “We felt that home-schooling them would allow us to discipline them and to educate them in a godly way as opposed to giving that authority over to someone else.”
Wilson said there is a low student-to-teacher ratio and a teacher that’s very invested in each child’s success.
The Wilson family also takes a more private approach to home-schooling. Come time for graduation, Wilson said they planned to have a ceremony in their home with family and close friends.
“We’ve been our own small school for 12 or 13 years,” Wilson said. “The people that invested in my kids and have been a part of their lives are the people that will honor my children as they graduate from home school and graduate to whatever’s next.”
Wilson said she and her husband wanted to align their children’s schooling with their Christian beliefs and values. She also said home-schooling allowed her children to develop a stronger bond than one they would have built in public school.
Wolken said she struggled with the decision of whether to attend a public high school.
“The typical home-school stereotype is that we’re antisocial,” Wolken said. “We’re one of eight children, we can’t watch anything but PG movies, and the only friends we have are our siblings.”
Wolken said a huge drawback was not being able to see her friends throughout the school day. Ultimately, however, she said she chose to remain where she was because she enjoyed the freedoms and independence home-schooling offered.
“There’s always that what if,” Wolken said. “What if I would have gone to public school? How different would my life have turned out? But I think for the most part, it turned out better for me in the end.”
“I don’t resent my parents for their nudge in the home-school direction," Wolken added. “Now that I’ve hit my senior year, I realize that everything my parents did was not to hold me back but to make sure I stayed out of trouble. It was for my benefit, as much as I didn’t want to see it that way."
Wolken said home-schooling and her mom taught her a lot about discipline. She said she was happy to have a teacher who was concerned about her and her success.
“My mom cared about me,” Wolken said. “She taught me how to be self-sufficient, and when I go to college, I’ll take that with me.”
Everything her mother did, Wolken said, “she did for me.”
“She wasn’t just a teacher that was there because she had to be,” Wolken said. “She was so much more than that.”