For the most part, Erica Kasson seems to be your typical teenage kid.At 15, she hangs out with her friends, has her own telephone, and is interested in about as many things as she can get her hands on.
But when Erica hangs out with friends, they're often doing volunteerwork. And as for the telephone: She built it herself.
The biggest difference between Erica and most other 15-year-olds across the United States is that Erica hasn't been to school in six years. Her family is part of a new breed of home schoolers that subscribe to a philosophy of "unschooling." It's based on the philosophy that children have an innate desire to learn, and will naturally study the subjects that fascinate them.
"We pursue literally what she's interested in that day," says dad Michael. "As we come across information that we need to survive, then we go pursue that."
Public schooling wasn't completely foreign to the Kassons. They initially sent Erica to the same Denver Public School system that dad Michael had attended in the 1950s. Although she started school in a program for gifted and talented kids, she knew right away that the system wasn't meeting her needs.
"I didn't really pay attention very well and it was kind of hard to handle," Erica says. "I didn't like sitting at a desk all day and being told what to do."
So, when she was in the third grade, Erica's parents made the decision to leave the system and start doing the teaching themselves.
While requirements vary in each state, most don't require parents to have a minimum education level to teach their kids. Many states do want to keep tabs on the progress of home-schooled kids, and they do it in a variety of ways. In Colorado, where the Kassons live, parents must keep track of the child's attendance and academic progress. Every two years, kids must test into or above the thirteenth percentile of their schooled counterparts.
Erica says having Mom and Dad as teachers has enabled the family to tailor the learning experience to Erica's needs – and build a close relationship.
"One of my problems [with public school] was I had to wake up early and didn't get to sleep in late," she says. "I do my best learning at night. At this little coffee house my dad and I go and do math until late at night. We sit and drink coffee and do calculus."
While calculus isn't a favorite, it's a bit of a necessity. But Erica devotes most of her time to learning about subjects she enjoys. Her main interest is art, and she's considered becoming a fashion designer. She also has a love of forensics and proudly says she's learned more about forensics than most adults she knows.
"She's a real kinesthetic learner," says Erica's father. "She has to pick it up, turn it over and look at it. And it's a difficult kind of thing to measure."
The Social Stigma
"We joke about this," Michael says, laughing. "One of the questions people say is, 'That's a great idea. What about her socialization?' all in one breath."
It's a question put to home schoolers around the country by nay sayers, child psychologists and school officials alike. After all, home schoolers likely won't appear at a homecoming game, prom dance or student council convention, where many children learn to interact with their peers.
"Socialization to me is going to the grocery store and being able to communicate with the cashier," Kasson says. "Socialization is the Girl Scouts."
Erica has her own group of friends, some of whom are home schoolers, some of whom are not. She even belongs to a community service organization run by other home-schooled kids.
"Besides," says her father, "I don't think the public schools are the best place to have your child socialized."
The State of the Schools
For a growing cohort of parents, faith in the school system is eroding. And it's not because they believe schools have fallen victim to social ills – they believe the problems are far more fundamental.
"Everything revolves around rewards and punishment and there is no self-directed learning in school," says Elizabeth Bernard, who"unschools" her 14-year-old daughter Virginia in their Louisiana home. "They teach you for the purpose of giving you a test, not to learn."
A year ago, Virginia's desire to learn had dried up. After attending a strict private school through the eighth grade, her mother decided it would be a good idea for Virginia to attend public high school. But months into the school year, a progress report in the mailbox notified Virginia's parents that their daughter was flunking everything, save choir and physical education.
"I discovered that she had had too much structure in all her academic life," Elizabeth says. "She had no interest to do anything, no motivation."
Virginia left school in the winter and came home to start the process of "unschooling." It wasn't an easy start; at first she was interested in little more than watching music videos. But after a few months – a breakthrough.
"She started to make decisions for herself for the first time in her entire life," says mom Elizabeth. "She started calling around to find art classes, horseback riding lessons, guitar lessons, she joined Habitat for Humanity. A year ago this child would have never, ever done that."
Now Virginia has control of her own education. And under the safe roof of home where her parents can still guide her, that feeling of self-responsibility is having an effect.
"It's more fun," says Virginia. "It makes me want to learn."
"When you decide to home school you're free of the system," says home-schooling dad Michael Kasson. "But freedoms come with responsibility."
The biggest and most obvious commitment is time. But home schooling parents say energy and a love of learning are equally vital.
"You have to really like to learn and accept the fact that there are going to be times when you're going to have to learn along with your kids," says Elizabeth Bernard. "If my kids ask me about the origins of the universe, I'm going to have to learn that myself. If you aren't ready for that, unschooling isn't for you."
Indeed, home schooling isn't for everyone. Some parents simply are unable to provide their children with a good education, either because they lacked one themselves or work full time.
Moreover, home schoolers are quick to point out that many students excel in public schools.
"If they didn't," says Elizabeth Bernard, "the schools wouldn't exist."
For those who decide to take up the task of educating their children, there is a vast and growing network of support. The Internet is a resource-rich place for home schoolers, with online curricula and advice. Often, home-schooled kids can take side classes at local junior colleges.
In the meantime, Virginia is busy learning about what it will take to get into medical school if she decides to become a psychiatrist. And after an audition, she recently was accepted into a professional performing arts program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Virginia spends four hours there every afternoon studying vocal music, and the rest of the day in self-directed unschooling. Mom Elizabeth says whatever Virginia decides to become – psychiatrist, singer or otherwise – it's not college that's paramount in the Bernard household.
"I would like for her to go to college," she says. "But the most important thing is that she has motivation to do something. Since I have pulled her out of school I have seen a desire to learn that has not existed since she's been 8 or 9 years old."
To learn about your state's laws regarding home schooling, visit the Web site of the Home School Legal Defense Association.
For more information on getting involved in the Parent Teacher Association at your child's school, visit the National PTA home page.