In-home education is in style
Sam Zabell, 9, starts his school day reading a history book while sitting on the couch, then bouncing on an oversized ball spelling words out loud to his mom, and building a Lego robot. Zabell is a fourth-grade student in Truckee ” at home in a class of one.
“I can tailor a program to his academic needs,” said Zabell’s mother Karen Sessler. “It lets us do math at a level he’s at and we can progress as fast or slow as he needs.”
Zabell is a student through Twin Ridges, a charter-based homeschool program in Truckee.
While there are no official numbers on how many students in the Truckee and North Tahoe area pursue in-home education, local teachers say interest is growing in alternative education programs.
“I was surprised to see how popular it is up here. Certainly its popularity allows families to ski and snowboard during the week … It does kind of support our mountain community,” said Coldstream Alternative teacher Jill Zapata.
Coldstream Alternative, Forest Charter, Twin Ridges and Creekside Cooperative schools in North Tahoe and Truckee offer just a few of the homeschool and independent study programs available in the area. They vary in the level of parental involvement and the number of hours a child spends in the classroom.
Coldstream Alternative has about 65 students from sixth through 12th grade and operates a cooperative homeschool program designed for middle school students.
Forest Charter School operates an independent study program for kindergarten through 12th grade. They have sites in Nevada City and near Auburn as well as in Truckee and a co-op, Creekside Cooperative, on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore. Between the two local sites, they have about 160 students who usually attend at least one class on campus, but a handful who are solely homeschooled.
And Twin Ridges is an independent study program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The program is predominantly in-home based, but offers students classes one day per week on campus.
“I think there is a growing interest because people want to spend quality time with their child, to create a more responsive environment to their child’s need,” said Twin Ridges program coordinator Jessica Allan.
Education programs designed specifically to the student have many benefits, instructors and parents say, because it offers independence, accountability and more one-on-one time for students.
“Our interest has been more of a smaller classroom and a really individualized approach to learning,” said Kings Beach parent Pat Borders. “What we’re looking at is a smaller learning environment.”
Her daughter, Chloe, is in seventh grade with Coldstream Alternative, where she spends two days each week at home with her mother/teacher and the other three in class.
“I really like that it supports her individual learning preferences and styles and gives a lot of direct emotional support,” Pat Borders said. “And it creates an atmosphere of enjoyment in learning and not just a mastery of facts. It’s more holistic.”
It’s the flexibility of curriculum and scheduling that offers most parents and students the greatest benefit.
“What it lets us do is take advantage of what’s going on in the community and tailor our learning and projects to what is outside the house,” Sessler said.
Missy Mohler is a teacher and facilitator at Coldstream Alternative and a parent herself. She got involved with the independent study programs in the Tahoe area in an effort to provide students and their families with more choices in how they manage their education.
She said because of how education and parenthood has evolved, more people are expressing interest in a variety of schooling opportunities.
“I’m an involved parent who has a certain idea for what I want for my child … and I think there are more of those today than there used to be. There’s more involved parenthood today,” Mohler said.
Many of the homeschooled students also prefer the individually-designed programs.
Chaz Cooley-Rieders, 19, has been homeschooled since sixth grade and graduated from Forest Charter last year. He is currently working for a painting company in Truckee and has plans to go to college at some point.
“It’s much easier to learn ” because it’s just free and not strict,” he said.
But that’s not to say the programs themselves are easy.
“I think some people are going in thinking it’s not so tough … The reality is it’s a lot of responsibility,” Mohler said.
Many families participating in at-home or independent study programs sing only praises of the flexible, accommodating curriculum. But others note a few shortcomings, including limited exposure to team sports and music programs and pressure on the parent as primary educator.
“One of the drawbacks is feeling like you’re floating out there, like your isolated,” Allan said.
But one purpose of a co-op or a charter is to bring together families who have similar academic values.
Others are skeptical about homeschooling students during their high school years.
“High school teenagers are genetically designed to work more with their peer groups than their families,” Zapata said.
Because traditional social interactions are more limited with in-home education programs, the alternative schools and their families have to make extra efforts to keep their children involved in other activities and maintain social connection.
“Within the classroom they have a great deal of tolerance and acceptance of differences ” social, racial, economic differences. And there’s not a splintering of interactions,” Borders said.
Chloe will likely finish middle school homeschooling and go on to enroll in a more traditional high school, Borders said.
“I am very committed to [Chloe] being her own self before she has to negotiate a larger social situation. I think these [homeschooled] children are all very self-assured, very independent thinkers, and they’re also ready to go out into the bigger world,” Borders added.
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