Duke University Alumni Magazine


Photo: Bruce Feeley

In an age of magnet schools and standardized curricula, more and more families are saying no to institutionalized learning in favor of educating their children at home.

evi Ruff will not join the throngs of schoolchildren entering Pearsontown Elementary today. At seven a.m., when most kids his age are waiting for their buses --lunches packed, books in hand--Levi is still asleep. But just about when other kids are settling into their homeroom classes and beginning to concentrate on the fundamental principles of reading or arithmetic, Levi, nine, and his younger brother Christiaan, seven, are wakened by their mother and asked to come downstairs to have their breakfast and begin school.

All the Ruff children, including five-year-old Prescott and three-year-old Eva Grace, are home-schooled.

"Between eight and nine o'clock, I'm trying to get everybody dressed and eating," says Amy Kinney Ruff '89, who educates the children while her husband, Brian Ruff B.S.E. '90, works full time as a civil engineer. "By nine o'clock, I expect Levi to be in his station and going. Christiaan can start a little bit later, being in first grade and having large sleep needs, but they begin with their core subjects [reading and arithmetic] in the morning when they're freshest. A little bit of snack somewhere in the middle there. Lunch somewhere around noon, and then right after lunch is a good time for either my reading out loud to them, which can cover a lot of social studies and science-type things, or some science experiments, which we do together with some other home-school kids."

In the afternoons, the Ruff children are typically occupied with "after-school" activities like private piano and singing lessons, basketball practice, or self-directed reading.

Piano lessons: While brothers Levi and Christiaan tackle workbooks in another room, Eva Grace and Prescott get a head start on phonics by singing their ABCs under the family piano
Photo: Bruce Feeley

For the Ruffs, who met and married during their undergraduate years at Duke, the decision to home school came naturally. "It was like a given," says Amy Ruff. "We just said, 'Hey, these are ours, and we're keeping them,'" Brian Ruff says. "Our basic premise is that you've created these people, you know them better than anyone. Regardless of your own training level, you have the intuitive ability to reach into them, to draw out what their gifts are. If it's a lack of training, you can get it."

he Ruffs are part of the growing number of families who choose to educate their children at home. Whereas Newsweek reported that in 1992 home-school students numbered only 300,000, Patricia Lines, a senior analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, now estimates the number of school-aged children who are learning outside a classroom on any given day to be "roughly half a million." That figure amounts to one percent of the total population of school-aged children--a number equivalent to almost 10 percent of the population attending private schools. Other estimates from home-school research and advocacy groups, like the National Home Education Research Institute of Salem, Oregon, are nearly double, placing the number of home-schoolers at more than a million nationwide.

With a proliferation of resources available to families on the Internet and by mail, home schooling has become an option for more and more children. Although popular resistance to the idea is eroding, the practice is still controversial among some public-school administrators and other educators. In a 1998-99 resolution, the National Education Association asserted that "home schooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience" and --sharpening the lines of separation--that "home-schooled students should not participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools." In 1997, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) re-issued a similar position statement, offering concerns that home schooling may "deprive the child of important social experiences; isolate students from other social/racial/ethnic groups; deny students the full range of curriculum experiences and materials; [and] be provided by non-certified and unqualified persons."

Self-directed learning: Over the course of one school day, the Ruff children cover reading, math, science, and social studies at their own pace with individualized instruction from their mother, Amy Ruff
Photos: Bruce Feeley

Ron Areglado, principal of Charlestown School in Charlestown, Rhode Island, and former executive director of programs for NAESP, helped draft its resolution on home schooling. "Our concern is that it's a bit too simplistic for every parent to think that he or she can teach their children," he says. "Just the fact that a parent has children doesn't mean that they can be an effective teacher--just as they might not be an effective doctor for their children."

If children are introduced to a classroom setting later in their school careers or in college, Areglado worries that they may not be prepared to make the transition. "We have a concern that there's an alignment between what they learn at home and what they would otherwise learn at school," he says. "The other factor that we deal with is that, unless parents are very skillful in making sure that their children embrace a larger population of kids, they may be limiting their exposure to racial differences, gender differences, and religious differences.... You can't manufacture that in your home."

In rare instances, home schooling may even be a form of neglect. As one of his responsibilities as an elementary-school principal in the state of Rhode Island, Areglado visits home-school families and monitors the progress of their children. "I've had to involve child protection services in situations where parents had them home under the guise of home schooling, but they were really home baby-sitting younger children. That's the exception to the rule, but we have these kinds of cases."

ome schooling was, of course, commonplace during the early part of this nation's history when there were a limited number of schools. In Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, David Guterson, a best-selling novelist and elementary- school teacher who home schools his children, reminds us that today's home-schoolers are "following in the footsteps...of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Frederick Douglass, Margaret Mead, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Andrew Wyeth, Pearl Buck, George Washington Carver, and Albert Einstein."

What might be called "the modern home-schooling movement," however, has its roots in the educational philosophy of child-led learning that became popular in the 1970s. One of the most influential speakers and writers on this subject was John Holt, who preached a doctrine of "unschooling." For Holt, who was something of a firebrand, home schooling was a revolutionary act of resistance meant to topple institutional education and uniform pedagogy. In a letter to a like-minded social critic, Ivan Illich, in 1972, he declared: "School has become the planned process which tools man for a planned world, the principal tool to trap man in man's trap. It is supposed to shape each man to an adequate level for playing a part in this world game. Inexorably, we cultivate, treat, produce, and school the world out of existence."

Peer socialization: Shorter school days leave time for "after-school" activities, like this basketball game at a neighborhood church with home-schooled kids of different ages
Photos: Bruce Feeley

For others, home schooling was simply a last resort.

Karen and Ron Jenkins began teaching their sons Drake and Colby (who is now a Duke junior) at home in rural Georgia after exhausting every resource available to them in public and private schools. Karen Jenkins remembers the frustration she felt grappling with a school system that was failing to reach her children: "I went to class with Colby many, many days of his third grade--to the point where the headmaster suggested that I might pay tuition--and even with my sitting in the room, Colby would put his head down and go to sleep. This was not a sick child. This was a child who just didn't have anything better to do. He would not do his work because, he said, 'Why bother? I would make a hundred anyway.'"

At that point the Jenkinses sold their house in town and moved to an isolated plot of land bordered by a lake--a setting that Ron Jenkins compares to Walden Pond. He worked full time as a college English professor while she supervised the children's schooling during the day.

The boys' education was largely self-directed and nontraditional. "I don't think that either one of us ever stood up and taught them as you would in a traditional classroom," Ron Jenkins says. "We would sit on the dock, talking about The Iliad and The Odyssey and all those islands that we could see, and we would imagine being some place the various characters visited in The Iliad or in Odysseus' wanderings."

With individual attention, both boys prospered, each working at his own pace. Karen Jenkins says, "One of the big advantages in home schooling, of course, is they can go quickly in the subjects that they master quickly, and they can go slowly where they need to go slowly, and they don't feel dumb if the rest of the class is proceeding. One-on-one, it's very difficult not to learn quickly."

During what would otherwise have been his tenth-grade year, Colby Jenkins passed his G.E.D. and entered Georgia College as a freshman. Then, wanting to be among students his own age, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy and then Choate, where his brother joined him. Today, he's pursuing his undergraduate major in English.

Kenneth Barnes, who is a sophomore at Duke, also took college courses near the end of his years as a home-school student in Raleigh, North Carolina, in order to tackle lab sciences and higher mathematics. His only experience in a classroom setting had come as a kindergarten student in a public elementary school in Greensboro. His parents, Cynthia Barnes and Larry Barnes M.D. '74, made the decision to pull him and an older brother, Paul, from the public schools after encountering what they perceived as a disregard for their children because they are African American.

"It was one of the best school systems in the state, and we weren't learning as much as [our parents] thought we should know," says Kenneth Barnes, remembering being passed over by teachers who refused to call on him in class. After repeated visits with teachers failed to improve the situation at school, Cynthia Barnes began to educate the children at home. Because of their expense, private schools were not an option.

Class photo: From left to right, home-schoolers Levi, Eva Grace, Prescott, and Christiaan Ruff
Photo: Bruce Feeley

Finding the books and other resources to begin home schooling at that time was difficult for many parents. In North Carolina, home schooling was not even legally sanctioned until 1985. But by attending regional meetings of home-schooling organizations, Cynthia Barnes developed a structured curriculum of reading, grammar, and arithmetic for both boys.

Kenneth Barnes believes he fared better in a home-school setting than he might have in public schools. "Especially as I got older, I knew that if I went through the public school system, I probably would not have graduated, and even if I had graduated I would not be at a school like Duke," he says. "I think a lot depends on the level of push that a student is given while in school, more than their actual academic aptitude. I don't believe that I would have received the push from the teachers and the administration to go and achieve at the highest level."

Today, Barnes is an active member of Psi Upsilon fraternity and of the larger Duke community, serving as an intern in the Undergraduate Admissions Office and representing fellow students on the Craven Quad Council and the Selective Living Groups' Annual Review Committee. He seems well-suited to these roles in part because of his "people skills"--the ease and readiness with which he is able to make friends of strangers. That trait, which might surprise many home-school critics, served him well during his freshman year. "My first three months at Duke, I would eat with somebody completely different every night in the Marketplace [a campus eatery] because I didn't want to get into a clique," he says. "So I would find someone to sit with, introduce myself, and just start chatting. I think it was one of the best decisions I've made since I've been at Duke because it's given me a broad base of people whom I know and whom I can converse with."

According to Ian Baucom, an assistant professor of English who directs the senior honors program, junior Colby Jenkins is very much like other students at Duke, except perhaps, for a consistent desire to do work beyond what is assigned in class. Jenkins and a roommate volunteered to host a student dinner at Baucom's house, and, Baucom says, "no one has ever done that before." Although he finds it difficult to say whether or not any of this is due to home schooling, he sees in Jenkins a serious regard for intellectual pursuits that distinguishes him from other students. "Colby is not one of those people who think of class as the price you pay for four years of fun."

Successes like these are not unusual at Duke, according to Anne Sjostrom, a senior admissions officer who reads each of the applications that the university receives from home-schooled applicants. And despite the challenge that evaluating a nontraditional applicant presents the admissions committee, home-schooled applicants don't appear to be at a disadvantage in the application process. In fact, Sjostrom says, "I'm sort of concerned this year as I go through and read all these home-schooled applications--the four I've seen so far--that I don't want to make it easier to get into Duke as a home-schooled student. They present such unusual profiles sometimes that they do become more appealing; they're not just that sort of suburban, public high school, top 5 percent of the class, captain of a sport, and vice-president of the student body. Those things are great, but we see them on most applications that we read. So when you come across somebody who's studying botany and mythology and weather, and also taking aviation classes, it's hard not to favor those students."

Duke, like most other universities, asks home-schooled applicants to submit scores for the same standardized tests that it asks of all applicants--although admissions officers might weigh those scores more heavily in lieu of other indicators of high achievement, like grades and recommendations from teachers and administrators. A few universities, however, take a hard line. Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, requires home-schooled applicants to take SAT II tests (formerly called Achievement Tests) in six subject areas, for which it is recommended that they achieve scores comparable to those of the top 40 percent of the school's freshman class. Beginning with the freshman class enrolling in 2001, Georgia Tech will add requirements for SAT II tests in three additional subject areas.

That degree of increased scrutiny toward home-schooled applicants is far from the norm, however. David Illingsworth, a Harvard admissions officer who evaluates home-schooled applicants, says, "We try not to evaluate students on background but on what they've done with their background. We don't give extra credit for going to the most wonderful high school, nor do we deduct from those who went to terrible high schools."

lthough admissions officers at Duke, Harvard, North Carolina, and Stanford--and at small private schools like Antioch in Ohio and Oglethorpe College in Atlanta--all sense a growing trend toward home schooling, they're still not seeing the bumper crop of applicants one might expect. All report receiving only about a dozen such applications each year. By comparison, Bob Jones University, a Christian college in Greenville, South Carolina, yearly receives about 250 applications from home-schooled students, according to admissions director David Christ (pronounced "Krist"). Of these, some 200 are admitted, making up between 20 and 25 percent of any year's freshman class.

Those numbers would seem to confirm the assumption that many families home school for religious reasons. In fact, in North Carolina, 74 percent of home-schooling families are registered with the state's Division of Non-Public Education as operating "religious" schools.

Bob Houston, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Kentucky who has been completing a study on factors influencing the decision to home school in ten states, says it's not that simple. "The purpose of my study is to say, listen, obviously religious affiliation is going to have something to do with this. When scholars study the decision to send kids to private schools, they always find a correlation with Catholicism. But not all families who go to private schools are Catholic, and not all Catholics go to private school. Similarly, religion has an impact on home schooling, but there are going to be other determinants."

Among these other determinants, Houston's preliminary findings indicate that the quality of the public schools and the demographics of the school district play some role in a parent's decision to school at home. For instance, where more money is spent per student in the public schools, fewer parents make the decision to home school. Further, the more diverse a school district is in terms of ethnicity and family income, the more likely it is for a family to choose home schooling over public schools, but the less likely it is for a family to choose home schooling over private schools. Houston suggests that one explanation for these findings is that peer diversity is perceived by parents as advantageous in a selective, private-school setting but detrimental in the public schools. This may further explain why, in some states, home schooling seems concentrated in urban areas, which tend to be more ethnically and economically diverse. In urban areas, Houston points out, those families that do decide to home school are turning down the opportunity to educate their children at religious schools that offer an emphasis on values similar to what might be found in a religious home.

Amy Ruff, who is the chair of a support organization called the Christian Home Educators of Greater Durham, says she does teach Christian values in her home-schooling practice, but not to the point of short-shrifting core subjects like reading and math. "Education is a matter of excellence. It's not necessarily a matter of religious conviction for us," says Brian Ruff. "We do combine the two, but that's a personal thing. Our goal is for them to be good at what they're doing when it comes to education. And, in fact, we've seen examples of religious schools that do a poor job of combining the two."

"One of my goals is that they would be National Merit Finalists, like Brian was, because, why not?" says Amy Ruff. In addition to an accelerated math curriculum, the Ruff children learn Greek and Latin roots to enhance their vocabulary, and they study Spanish and ballet. "It's so little effort for you to feel so good about yourself and accomplish something. The truth is, we could just kind of play at this, or we could just put in a little more effort and do it really well."

If home schooling began with the failure of traditional schools, today it more often reflects the willingness of parents to explore other options. Janice Dargan, who is a member of the Ruffs' support group, says she began home schooling her two sons, James, fourteen, and Paul, nine, after James demonstrated a gift for music. "We felt that not only would we be able to devote more time to his academic upbringing, but he would also be available to practice at times when he normally wouldn't in a traditional school-day setting."

With less time spent on school, James can practice violin for three hours each day, with additional time spent traveling to performances and offering private lessons to younger children. With luck, he's headed toward a conservatory to complete his training as a concert musician.

The hope for the Ruff children, however, is that they're headed toward college, and, even sooner, that they will attend middle school. "Our goal is really to just instill excellence, have fun, get to know our kids, and retain control of the formative stage of their development," says Brian Ruff. When Levi gets to be twelve or thirteen, he says, they'll re-evaluate that goal and investigate the possibility of putting each of the kids in school. In the meantime, both parents are enjoying the extra time with their children and the chance to structure their lives as they see fit.

Amy Ruff recalls a conversation with an older friend about college-age children that put her in mind of her own years as a scholarship student at a high-pressure boarding school, an experience Ruff likens to being on a "gerbil wheel." "My friend said to me, 'Did you know how much they're having to do and all that they have to put on their application to get into college?' And I was like, 'Where have you been, Jane? Of course I know, I just came out of it! I feel like it was yesterday.' I would love for my kids to have a little more breathing room."

That's not to say that home schooling doesn't present its own challenges. Amy Ruff recalls butting heads with her oldest son, Levi, over the way she exerted her authority as a teacher. "There's a willingness to wage war, to conflict, and I wanted to get us to a place where it wasn't conflict, it was compromise." Reaching that balance took time, reflection, and no small amount of prayer, she says. "But he needs it; his ego needs it. And until I succumbed to that reality, I was trying to, if you will, boss him around too much. He didn't need that. So we're in a great place now, but I think some don't overcome those problems. They can't figure it out, and they say, 'Well, we just have a conflict and I can't home school.'"

Levi's younger brother Christiaan presented a different problem: a hesitancy to learn, which the Ruffs believe might soon be diagnosed during annual testing as a learning disability, perhaps dyslexia. "With him, I was like, 'Okay, do we pound our head against the wall?' Because it's not 'b,' it's 'd.' And furthermore, it's not 'p.'" Ruff says she used every ounce of ingenuity she had to reach Christiaan, devising a method that he could use to decipher the appearance of letters on a page. "I really labored with him," she says, but today she believes she's offered him training comparable to what he might have otherwise been offered in an institutional setting. Now Christiaan is reading at an advanced grade level.

n the surface, the McClure family has a lot in common with the Ruffs. They live in the same school district, just a stone's throw away, and they faced similar problems in home schooling their own four children, who are slightly older. Like the Ruffs, Veronica and her husband, David McClure, wanted to instill good values in their children, and that led them to home schooling. "We did it because we wanted to build character in our children," Veronica McClure says, "and we felt that was our responsibility in the younger years. That's the whole reason that we chose to home school."

And, like the Ruffs, the McClures always intended to enroll their kids in school before they reached their teenage years. But that time came sooner than they expected when illness and the stress of teaching four individual grades led them to explore other options. One of the first things they did was to visit Pearsontown Elementary, the same institution the Ruff children would attend if they were to enroll in public school. Pearsontown is a year-round school in Durham that serves more than 900 students, grades K-5.

They were surprised by what they saw. "We thought the kids were just going to be running wild," says Veronica McClure. "You know, you hear how bad the schools are, and so I had this fear that we were going to walk into the school and it was going to be chaos, that the classrooms were going to be so noisy that the kids could not hear or learn anything. It's not at all like that."

Instead, she says, they found a large, modern facility, filled with caring teachers and orderly children enjoying structured, productive days. They also found in Audrey Boykin a principal who was willing to offer them a chance to become highly involved in their children's education. McClure says, "I sat down with Ms. Boykin within a month of my kids entering Pearsontown and I said, 'I want to walk side-by-side with you in the education of my children. I do not want you to be the one who is solely responsible, and I do not want to be solely responsible, but I think if we walk side-by-side as adults for these children then our efforts will really benefit them. And they're going to achieve.' "

Within two months of enrolling her children in school last January, McClure was elected president of the Pearsontown P.T.A. Today, she invests the four and a half hours a day that she would otherwise have spent home schooling by volunteering at Pearsontown. "One of my big fears was that I would just be sending my kids off and that would be it; I wouldn't see them for eight hours. And it doesn't have to be that way. The teachers want the parents in the classroom, and the principal wants the parents here."

That degree of involvement was particularly crucial for her youngest son, Nathan, six, a slow learner who entered first grade unable to recite his ABCs. "I think I was not concerned about the fact that he was behind, except that I was concerned that he'd get lost, and he

didn't. They didn't allow that to happen," McClure says. Instead, Nathan spent time in a program at school called "Reading Recovery" that concentrated on basic skills. Today he has caught up with his classmates. "Part of that is because I'm very involved," McClure says. "But I'm not just involved for my kids. I make sure the kids in my kids' classes don't get lost for the parents who aren't able to be as involved."

All told, however, the transition from home school to public school is not easy for every child. McClure regrets that she didn't stress timed tests in both writing and math while home schooling. She says her children were ill-prepared for the time constraints of traditional school. The social demands of peer interaction were also difficult to master. McClure recalls one instance during the first few weeks at school when her son Joshua, ten, got in trouble for repeating profanity he'd read on the school's bathroom wall. "Well, Joshua had no idea what that meant, because we call everything by its proper name," she says. "You 'suck' a sucker. That's not a bad word to him."

That sort of confusion, short of embarrassment, can be easily ironed out, but what about the larger question of depriving kids of peer socialization? Aren't home-schoolers missing out when it comes to interacting with a variety of other children in a competitive classroom setting? That all depends on the parents, says William Coleman, associate professor of pediatrics at the Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Coleman, who also trains medical students in behavioral pediatrics at the residency program at Duke, says, "I've worked with one child who was doing very well academically but was definitely missing out on the social aspect of school--who was a little lonely and adultified.... But some parents do a very nice job of keeping them involved with their peers. That's especially important in the sixth or seventh grade when kids need a lot of peer feedback and a lot of other people to help them identify who they are."

Amy Ruff agrees. Her children's need for peer socialization influenced the family's decision to move a year ago to an affluent neighborhood in Durham on a cul-de-sac where there were eleven other kids. The Ruff children participate in team sports and have opportunities to interact with other home-schoolers on regularly scheduled field trips through the support organization to which they belong.

That kind of extracurricular activity requires extra commitment on the part of parents and a great deal of effort from all concerned. "I still have lots of friends that home school, and for a lot of them that's not the norm," says McClure. "Now, a mom will tell you, 'I love home schooling,' but if you're a fly on the wall of a group of home-school moms, that's not what you hear! You hear, 'This is the hardest thing I've ever done in my entire life. I don't know if I can continue to do it.' That's what you hear. And it is very, very hard, and you have to be extremely dedicated to it to do a good job and continue."

"I do not think that everyone should be home schooling," says Amy Ruff. "Maybe I used to think, oh, anybody could do it. But I've seen some friends become really burned out, really coming into difficulty in their relationships with their children." For those parents, Ruff supports the decision to enroll the children in traditional school.

Boykin, the principal of Pearsontown, emphasizes the importance of considering different opportunities for every child. "The beauty of the Durham Public Schools at this time is that there are so many options, and I really think that if people knew, the way I know, the principals at these schools, many of the employees at these schools, and the offerings at these schools, that they could find a place for their children, and most of our kids could be very well educated within the public school arena. That was not the case six or seven years ago."

"But even at that, there is no utopia for every single child," Boykins adds. "And we do have children who fall through the cracks because you can't give them that very, very individualized attention, although we say we individualize, and I tell teachers that's the expectation. Very, very rarely do I want to go into a classroom and see whole-class instruction. I want to see differentiation and variation.... Ideally, I want every child's needs to be met and to take a child, where they are, where they come to us, and then move that child, using that child's learning style, and let that be the focal point. That's impossible with the tax base being what it is in most areas of the country. I mean, if we could have our dream schools, we could have a school where everybody would want to come. I think all over the country educators know what to do and how to do it, but with the resources that are available they're just not able to do it."

Ron Jenkins advises parents, "If I were a parent who loved learning, I would be inclined to regard my child as a candidate for home schooling when I saw a failure of the love of learning developing in the child. That's the whole point of being an educator: to develop a life-long desire to learn. And that's killed off in our children quite early."

Areglado in Rhode Island says he hopes that those decisions are made in partnership with public schools. "When it's handled well and we have full and ongoing conversations with each other, it only enriches the child's life. And that's what it's fundamentally all about," he says. "That should be the common vision that we all share."

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