Sitting at a desk she designed from a discarded box, 5-year-old Heidi Allemann colors pictures, practices writing letters and scribbles in a notebook in her Harrisburg home.
And she does it without any prompting from her parents, Kevin and Elizabeth Allemann.
The chattering blonde hasn’t reached 7 years of age, when state law mandates children attend some sort of school. But her parents already plan to educate her at home.
“Right now, I’m very convinced it’s better for her to be home-schooled,” Elizabeth Allemann said.
The Allemanns’ choice reflects an increasing trend for Missouri families. Among Columbia-area families, there are a growing number of reasons for home-schooling their children . While faith may be a factor, families are also home-schooling their children to be their primary influence, to cater to their individual needs and to give them a quality education that they say can’t be found in the classroom.
The number of home-schooled students reported in Missouri has risen from 2,250 in the 1997-98 school year to 5,092 in the 2004-05 school year, said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
However, the numbers may be higher.
“Families are encouraged to notify local school officials when they decide to home-school their children, but that notification by parents is voluntary,” Morris said.
Parents today are home-schooling their children for a variety of reasons.
“I think that there’s a cultural misconception that everyone who home-schools does it for religious purposes, but that has not been my experience,” Allemann said.
A family physician for 16 years, she has watched other families parent before raising her own child and seen remarkable results from home schooling.
“I want that for my daughter and our family,” Allemann said.
Stay-at-home mother Kellie Haithcoat of Columbia has several reasons for home schooling her eight children, who are ages 3 to 18.
“We had our children for our enjoyment, so we wanted to raise them,” Haithcoat said. “After you’ve raised one and put them in college, you realize how short that time is.”
Her oldest child is now a sophomore at William Woods University in Fulton.
Faith was another factor in the Haithcoats’ decision to home-school their children. The family uses a Christian curriculum, which incorporates Christian principles and Bible verses in textbooks and words, such as “sin” in spelling workbooks. Reading texts also teach good character qualities, Haithcoat said.
Some parents home-school because they want to be involved in every aspect of their child’s life.
“Home schooling today is an awesome alternative for parents who want to raise their children in every aspect,” said Jeanne Burgess of Jefferson City.
Burgess said her children, Ty, 13, and Marissa, 10, are not sheltered — which contradicts what she called a common misconception about home-schooled children. “They know about worldly things like sex, drugs, etc. to the level they can handle,” she said.
Burgess wants to be her children’s primary influence. Another reason was her religious faith. “God gave us the authority to train our children,” she said.
Some parents home-school because they think they can do a better job than public and private school teachers.
“When we moved here, we saw our very bright, outgoing daughter become less interested in academics , and she was just one of many students the teacher had to deal with,” said Mary Dresser of Columbia. She and her husband, Tom Dresser, began home-schooling their daughter, Sarah, now 20, when she was in sixth grade.
Sarah was bored by the classroom experience and had to accept a situation in which the group’s academic needs trumped her higher abilities, Mary Dresser said. Together, she and her husband have six academic degrees, so they felt confident they could give their daughter a quality, one-on-one education.
In other cases, some parents say children are overwhelmed by structured classes. “She really had this fear that she was going to be left somewhere. She felt really anxious,” Ginny Chadwick of Columbia said about her 5-year-old daughter, Aubrielle Maginness.
After assuming she would home-school Aubrielle, Chadwick learned this summer that many of her daughter’s friends would attend public school, so she began to consider sending Aubrielle.
“I thought maybe this would be a good opportunity for her — that I may not be able to provide everything for her in the home,” Chadwick said.
Aubrielle’s first reaction to attending school was negative. But after talking with Aubrielle’s friends, she and her mother chose to enroll at Ridgeway, a magnet school that provides independent guided education and multi-age classrooms.
“There were a lot of benefits we thought would work for us,” Chadwick said.
However, after three and a half weeks of tear-filled lunches, Chadwick began home-schooling Aubrielle in mid-September. Although the teacher was great, Chadwick said, the seven-hour days were a big change for Aubrielle, who had been at home full time until then.
“Quite frankly, she was so traumatized by the three weeks she was in school, she was ready to be home full time,” Chadwick said. “They’ll adjust, but at what cost?”
Parents are reaching out to others who home-school, the Internet and groups to provide their children with a quality education.
For the past four years, home-school parents have been able to take advantage of courses offered at Heritage Academy, a Christian school in Columbia.
The school offers classes for kindergartners through second-graders on Tuesdays; third- through sixth-graders on Tuesday and Thursday; and seventh- through 12th-graders Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Courses include math, language arts, physical education, art, keyboarding, science, social studies and introduction to Latin.
“We’re not a ‘home-school’ school, but a lot of home-schoolers come here,” said Dan Peterson, chief administrative officer of the Heritage Academy.
“What she does here (at the Heritage Academy) gets reinforced at home,” said Terry Colhour of Millersburg, whose 7-year-old daughter, Cassidy, attends Heritage Academy. Teachers aim to assign enough homework for parents to guide students on their days off.
Burgess agreed. Her son, Ty, attends Heritage Academy full time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; and her daughter, Marissa, is enrolled in a language arts class on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
On his off-days, Ty works on homework most of the day, and Burgess is able to help him if needed, she said.
Peter Bermudez, 16, of Columbia also takes math and science courses at Heritage Academy this year. Although he has two older siblings who were home-schooled, this is the first time the family has utilized Heritage Academy.
“He is interested in a math and science career, and we felt he needed a class that met more often and was on a more challenging level,” his mother, Lisa Bermudez, said.
For Peter, Heritage Academy helps prepare him for college by giving organized, hard deadlines to keep him accountable in finishing assignments, he said.
Peter said he spends about four to five hours working on homework for his two classes. “I mostly work independently now,” he said. “I ask for help when I need it or call one of my friends from class, and we’ll help each other.”
Students can attend classes that would be difficult to teach in a home-school setting, such as band or foreign language at Columbia Public Schools, said Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent for student support services.
The district does not record who the home-school students are or what classes they are taking, because they belong to a larger group of part-time students, Barnett said.
Home-schoolers can also take French classes from Lisa Bermudez, who taught on the college level for 10 years before she and her husband, Alex Bermudez decided to home-school their three children.
“The reason I really started (teaching to other home-school students) was to give me the discipline to teach my own children,” she said.
Bookshelves with French books, folding chairs, a dry-erase board, a map of France, a sewing machine, a television, a couch and a desk decorate the room Bermudez uses to teach her Tuesday and Thursday classes. The room doubles as a family room some nights and weekends, she said.
She teaches three levels of French classes. “It’s just like the schools,” she said.
Bermudez keeps grades for the students based on homework, attendance, quizzes and tests. Parents can use grades to generate transcripts and/or portfolios when their children apply to college.
The Bermudez family belongs to the Columbia Home Educators co-op. The group also sponsors monthly activities, such as picnics, cookouts and fishing, Bermudez said.
Co-op members also network and sponsor a history fair, science fair, field trips and a graduation ceremony. Another benefit is a newsletter, with standardized test dates and spelling bees home-school students can participate in.
Between 100 and 130 families, including the Haithcoats, belong to the Mid-Missouri Home-School Co-op of Home Educators, another resource for home-school families. The group offers monthly activities such as music, dance, debate, basketball and choir; field trips; and spelling, geography and vocabulary bees, Haithcoat said.
Both the Columbia Home Educators and the Mid-Missouri Home-School Co-op offer classes home-school students can participate in, too. Jimmy and Lindlie Haithcoat take a language class taught by a college professor and a science class taught by a home-school mother.
Win Grace of Columbia said co-ops would have helped fill in the gaps and give outside influence to her daughters, Ellie and Leela Grace, now 27 and 28, when she home-schooled them. But at the time, they were aware of only one home-school group in the area, and it had an outlook they didn’t share.
Groups also serve as legal watchdogs for home-schoolers. Families for Home Education, or FHE, formed in 1983, is the voice for home-schoolers in Missouri, said Rick Bertel, Region 4 director for FHE.
There is an FHE lobbyist in Jefferson City for the legislative session who is concerned with education bills dealing with home schooling.
FHE also provides support for current and potential home-school families by answering questions and sharing resources and contact information.
Home-school families were quick to trump stereotypes that students miss out on socialization from not attending institutional schools.
“It’s a myth that they need socialization,” Dresser said. Her daughter was involved with many people in many age groups — from participating in classes and social events with a Columbia co-op for home education, to swim team, ballet lessons, piano lessons and her church youth group.
Sarah Dresser, now a junior at William Jewell College in Liberty, agreed. “Some people said ‘Wow, you don’t even seem like you were home-schooled’ when they found out I was,” she said.
Peter Bermudez called the myth inaccurate. “I am extremely involved in my church youth group,” he said.
Both of his older siblings are in college and have adjusted well, and Heritage Academy is preparing him for college life, he said.
At Heritage, students attend class with their peers and can also participate in student activities, like sports teams and service projects.
“It’s hard for home-schoolers to get socialization , but it allows for all those things,” said Colhour, a Millersburg mother.
Although they know they will home-school, the Allemanns don’t have a specific plan for Heidi’s education yet. But they are sure they will use outside sources to help.
“Having resources is pretty important — you can’t know it all,” Kevin Allemann said.
However, the Allemanns have started teaching their 5-year-old a thing or two.
“The philosophy that appeals to me most is unschooling,” Elizabeth Allemann said. Since the hardest things humans learn — walking, talking and the subtleties of language — they learn by themselves, unschooling presumes human beings learn without having to be taught, she said.
Unschooling also includes the idea that children learn all of the time, she said. So, while the Allemanns may not have a structured school environment for their daughter yet, she spends times with her parents while they are cooking, gardening, playing music, sewing or fixing things around the house, learning along the way.
Unschooling also appeals to Ginny Chadwick, although she has not done a lot of research on the method. “Teaching goes on every day in every form. It doesn’t stop in the classroom,” she said.
For instance, after their cat, K.B. Rachel, recently had kittens, Aubrielle learned about reproduction and lactation. “She really guides herself in what she’s interested in and then we explore that,” Chadwick said.
Home-schooled students are also using computers and the Internet to learn. Harrison and Billy Haithcoat, 3- and 5-years-old, use a “Reader Rabbit” computer program in the corner of their basement study room.
“It’s for preschool and kindergarten age,” Kellie Haithcoat said. “It teaches colors and matching.”
Peter Bermudez uses the computer to take an Internet literature course through the Potter’s School, offered to home-school children around the world. “My children have mostly taken their writing classes [on-line] because that’s a hard thing to do at home,” Lisa Bermudez said
The writing intensive class includes writing several essays and answering questions to pieces of literature. Right now, Peter is reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Last year, he took a composition class.
The Internet also allows Peter to do research and connect with his friends.
“I talk to my friends over messenger,” he said. “It’s nice because I’m not necessarily seeing them every day at school, but I still get to talk to them and catch up.”
Like students attending high schools, home-school students may also participate in Advanced Placement, or AP, exams to receive college credit, said Jennifer Topial, a spokesperson for The College Board, which administers the program.
While high school students typically take a class to prepare for the exam, home-school students have several options.
“Sometimes they will take an online AP course, offered by third-party companies such as Apex Learning, and some students prepare for the AP exam by doing independent study with a teacher or a professor at a local college,” Topial said. Parents may also teach their children, she added.
And there is no required amount of work. “The grade comes from the exam,” Topial said. However, The College Board recommends AP students prepare for the exam to be sure they know all the material.
While home-schooled students don’t receive a state diploma or external verification or validation from Missouri, that is not an issue for most college-bound students. Home-schoolers can take the GED, but ACT or SAT scores are usually enough, Morris said.
Getting into college was no big problem for Sarah Dresser. She took the ACT and SAT, and Mary Dresser generated a seven-page transcript for her daughter, including books read and used, course content, evaluation methods and extra-curricular activities.
“It spoke more of her achievements than probably any high school transcript,” Dresser said.
Ellie and Leela Grace “definitely got a really, really good education,” Win Grace said. She and her husband were well-balanced on the teaching front, because she was good at math and language arts, while Paul Grace was proficient in science, history and physical education.
Both of their daughters received full scholarships to Columbia College and scored high on the ACT and SAT exams, Win Grace said. Ellie Grace was a National Merit Scholar, while Leela Grace received the highest GED score in Missouri.
There are 40 MU students with home-school backgrounds, admitted based solely on their ACT scores, said Christian Basi, a spokesman for MU. Students who graduate high school are admitted based on a combination of their ACT score and class rank, but because home-school students aren’t ranked, they must have a minimum ACT score of 24 to be admitted, Basi said.
At Stephens College, admission requirements are the same for home-schooled students as for high school graduates.
“We find that home-schooled students are particularly diligent and inquisitive,” said Samantha White, assistant director of admission at Stephens. “They adapt well and are especially suited for the small-school environment.”
The transition is easy for home-schoolers at Columbia College, too. “They’re accustomed to being a little bit different,” said Regina Morin, director of admissions. “So it doesn’t bother them to go into a new environment. We find that when they come here they adapt very well, and they’re very successful.”
Home-schooled students seeking admission to the college need to have a 2.5 grade point average, ACT or SAT scores at the 50th percentile and a portfolio of their work, Morin said. This portfolio includes a listing of courses, similar to a transcript, including some writing samples.
Terry Smith, executive vice-president of the college, and his wife, Jane Smith, home-schooled three of their four children, Morin pointed out. “That makes (home-school) parents very comfortable.”
For Kellie Haithcoat, these days are quite hectic. She begins class with her three younger children in the morning, working on handwriting, spelling words and math problems, while her older children work on their own. She works with 8-year-old Robin, 13-year-old Louisa and 15-year-old Jimmy following a mid-morning break until lunch and then again after lunch. Lindlie, 17, “works mostly on her own in her room,” Haithcoat said.
But it is all worth it for Haithcoat.
“There’s more flexibility, and it affords more opportunities for learning,” she said. “The nice thing is that you can gear it to many of the kids’ learning levels.”