In a class of their own

From left, Levi Wright, aged 11, dad Kerry, Jessica, 16, Carlene, 14, at home nearing the end of their school day.
From left, Levi Wright, aged 11, dad Kerry, Jessica, 16, Carlene, 14, at home nearing the end of their school day.

Stand across the street from the Shepherd house in suburban Hamilton and you won't see anything amiss. A family wagon is parked in the driveway  there's a clue  but you won't hear a whisper from the kerb.

Open the door and head upstairs, clamber over the barrier that's been put up to protect the wee ones from taking a tumble, turn the corner and you will see a very different picture from what you might expect mid-morning on a weekday. It's not school holidays. It's homeschool at the Shepherd house and there are six kids all going about their business.

Not mainstream system

It's not as loud as you might think, although Benjamin, the 10-year-old, is having a piano lesson and seems to enjoy the sound of a single note. Rose, almost 2, has a love/hate relationship with her toys and wavers between elation and full-blown tears. There are two kids at the table hard at work, there's another one playing quietly and Joshua, the eldest, is downstairs in his study.

When kids reach the age of 5, most mum and dads send them off to school to learn maths, English and how to play nicely with others. The Shepherd kids are among about 1300 students in the Hamilton area who are schooled by their parents and not the mainstream system.

Their mum Mary  a nurse  sent Joshua off to school when he turned 5 because she lacked confidence in teaching him how to read. Once he'd learnt the basic skills, she and husband Steve decided to keep him home and the other five kids have followed suit (Daniel, 14, did a year-long stint at school when he was 5 but didn't like it).

Sometimes she asks herself if she's made the right decision. Thankfully, she says, the answer has always been yes.

While the kids follow a normal school day most of the time, Mary doesn't plan lessons but reads to the kids in the lounge and conducts some sort of lesson every day. They all have a workbook to get on with as well.

Today they appear be hard at work  well, at least the older ones  but Mary laughs that they are like all school kids.

"As soon as the phone rings or mum's distracted, they're gone."

Eldest son Joshua is called upstairs to talk about life as a homeschool kid. He says the hardest thing about it is that "you actually have to be motivated a lot of the time  you have to get yourself moving". Then there's the fact that Mary creates lessons out of household chores. "She calls cooking dinners 'life skills' and things like that. [She says] You have to learn how to cook, Josh, blah, blah, blah."

Mary laughs from the kitchen. What about the time she tried to make you learn sewing, asks one of the boys. The house erupts in laughter  that was a failed lesson by all accounts.

The biggest myth about homeschooling

Across town at the Wright household, if you listen carefully, you may be able to hear the sound of pens on paper. It's that quiet. Mum and dad are home with Jessica, 16, Carlene, 14, and Levi, 11.

Karen works part-time as a nurse and Kerry, an architectural designer, has become a stay-at-home dad thanks to the economic climate. Not that he's complaining  the experience has taught him to slow down, he says, as well as "patience, total patience".

The Wrights decided to homeschool for several reasons. They had friends who were doing it successfully, they wanted the children to be able to learn at their own pace ("without getting branded as silly or dumb", says Kerry) and they wanted the opportunity to instil their Christian faith.

The idea that homeschooling kids has a negative impact on their socialisation is quickly dismissed with a communal rolling of the eyes. It's the biggest myth about homeschooling, they say. They list a raft of activities that get the kids out and in the company of others  volunteering for St John Ambulance, hockey, music, netball, part-time jobs at Wendy's, paper runs, lessons with other homeschool kids. "Our kids are living in the real world all the time," says Karen.

Violet Wild agrees it's a myth that children will lack socialisation skills if they are homeschooled. Daisy, 15, and Marvin, 11, are just as busy as the Wrights.

In fact, she believes the homeschooling environment is a more natural form of socialisation.

"As an adult, you don't decide who to associate with based on age  you base friendships on common interests.

"This is how homeschooled children form friendships, too, and at any homeschool gatherings you will see the kids in groups with wide ranging ages."

And when they do enter the "real world"  homeschooling, she says, will have armed them with the skills "to develop strength of character and to figure out their moral code so that when they are in group situations they follow their own heart and mind".

She arms them with the old adage: stand up for what you believe, even if it means standing alone.

"If that is the only thing they learn from me, homeschooling will have been time well spent."

Not for the faint-hearted

Maria Lowe, 53, also has strong beliefs about homeschooling, saying it's not for the faint-hearted and is financial suicide.

You get no time to yourself. You get a lot of flak from other parents. You have to like your kids, because they're glued to you 24/7, she says.

But she wouldn't have had it any other way, although she admits it's not for everyone.

Maria looks back on her years as a homeschool mum and says they have been the best ones yet. Her two kids have grown up and left home, but there are signs of them everywhere  she points to framed pictures of them. Daughter Lydia, 21, in a moment of delight as a butterfly sweeps across her face; Sebastian, 23, peering out behind a viola in a poster for a fundraising event to get him to Norway.

Last week, Maria said goodbye to Sebastian (the fundraising was successful), while Lydia is studying for a master's degree in zoology at Massey University in Palmerston North. She'd rather they had stayed at home forever, but sees their travels as a testament to her success.

"I was never a parent who was wanting to send her child away to school at 5, or itching to get rid of them, but I was always prepared to let them go when they were ready.

"As a parent, I wouldn't have done a good job unless they felt they could leave."

And there's no doubt she did a good job. People often tell her how lucky she is to have two good kids  but she says a lot of work goes on behind the scenes.

A trained primary teacher, Maria had nine years of classroom experience before she decided to give homeschooling a go. She had enrolled Sebastian in a Montessori preschool in Australia and was impressed with the teaching philosophy that promoted hands-on learning. She took a course to train herself as a Montessori teacher but, on returning to New Zealand with school-ready Sebastian, found there was nothing like it in Hamilton.

Shouldn't they be in school?

She describes the soul-searching before deciding to homeschool  she remembers talking to husband David, who had faith in her ability as an educator and was behind the decision.

Of course, there were sacrifices, such as losing her income. "It's financial suicide because you're not bringing that second income into the family."

She also found strangers could be "quite cruel and cutting", accusing her of not preparing her kids for the real world.

"Suddenly people became experts on educational skills."

Other parents said: "If the local school's good enough for my kids, why isn't it good enough for yours?"

Shopkeepers with raised eyebrows during day trips queried her. Shouldn't they be in school?

Each criticism made her more determined, she says. Her soft, polite voice becomes stern as she defends homeschooling.

"I felt that what we were doing was right for our family. I was never, ever advocating homeschooling for everyone and I certainly don't look down on people who chose to put their children in school, because it's a personal thing.

"I've had a great deal of flak from time to time and I'd say, 'I'm not questioning you about where you are sending your child, so why do you think you have the right to question me?' "

The Education Ministry does not hold any achievement data regarding homeschool kids but Maria reports the ones she knows have grown up to become successes.

"There's all sorts  a lawyer, a graphic designer, builders, stilt walkers. And whatever they are, they are all lovely, decent people."

Her own kids, she adds, fit that description.

"They are corker. You'd find a very, very good friend in my kids."

She considers life now that they are grown up and following their dreams. For the past 18 months she has been fighting breast cancer and hasn't been given the all-clear.

Her dimpled smile is never far away and she stays positive. She only wants one thing.

"You start off with your children, and they open up as a flower and then you just want to see what they do with their world.

"I want to see where Seb goes in two or three years time and my daughter, I want to be there just to see for myself the end result of all the hard work."

Waikato Times