Alaskan parents cite faith benefits in home-school

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Increasingly, parents around the nation and Alaska – Catholic and non-Catholic – are choosing to educate their children at home. Supporters of home-schooling say it is a natural progression from a child’s early days learning ABCs and counting fingers and toes at home that later continues in bits during the few hours a child isn’t in a classroom.

“All parents home-school to some degree,” Karin Owens told the Catholic Anchor. Owens, a parishioner of St. Benedict Church in Anchorage who also taught in public schools for 12 years, home-schools her five little ones, ages three to nine.

Many Catholic parents, like Owens, home-school in order to cultivate the Catholic faith in their children. They believe children need time in the nurturing environment of home to develop the virtues necessary to become good citizens and most importantly, to reach heaven.

“You wouldn’t take a budding flower and put it out in the wind, in a storm and say, ‘Thrive,’” Owens explained. “You would want to protect it and fertilize it and give it scaffolding if it needed to climb on a trellis.”

FREEDOM & FLEXIBILITY

Across the nation, about 2.3 million children are educated at home. In Alaska, 11,000 children home-school through the state’s home-school programs — such as the Interior Distance Education of Alaska. Many others independently home-school.

Under state law, parents are free to educate their children at home without registering with the state. With their own funds, they may choose their child’s curriculum, including a religiously-based one.

“Parents are supposed to be a child’s primary educators and our goal is to get our kids to heaven,” Owens noted, referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The curriculum should cover subjects like math and reading, she said, and “allow you to put faith first” — or at least have no influence on a child’s faith and never be a “detriment” to it, like ones featuring kids’ literature that proposes a lack of virtue.

FAITH-INFUSED CURRICULUM

Cindee Eychaner, parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage, hadn’t intended to home-school but when daughter Kate was reading and ready for kindergarten at four, “there were no schools that would take her at that age.” Seton Home Study School said, “‘If she’s ready to start, she can start.’”

For a $500 annual tuition, Seton provides texts, lesson plans, and grading and counseling services. Eychaner, who holds degrees in computer science and finance and an MBA and worked in corporate business, described it as a “very solid” program. “We love the challenging academics and she [Kate] can work at her own speed and ability level,” she said. At four, Kate completed kindergarten in three months.

There’s a text for religion. All the other subjects — from English to Social Studies — incorporate Catholic artwork and history. When Kate, who is eight now, diagrams sentences, they “speak about the faith,” Eychaner explained.

Eychaner noted that home-schooling gives them time “to be together as a family,” to bike to weekday Mass together, to teach manners, to visit their elderly neighbor, to “teach how we are as a family.”

FAITH IN THE EVERYDAY

Owens calls that “holistic” teaching. In her home, it happens at family prayer time and even in sibling confrontations. Instead of appealing to a vague “Golden Rule,” she explains how certain behaviors don’t match God’s Commandments or “‘how you’re not being as virtuous as you can be,’” Owens said. “You can really work on any virtues so much more when you have the kids at home because you have them at home. You just have a lot more hours in the day.”

Faith “permeates everything we do” at home, added Theresa Bird — so much so she wonders how she would teach her children religion if they were going to school outside home. Bird is a parishioner at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage and home-schooling mother of five boys. When they balk at picking up toys, “we can talk about making sacrifices for the family. …we all pitch in, we all have special virtues that we’re trying to work on together,” she said.

When Bird and sons drive out during the day and see people who are inebriated and homeless, it’s a chance to learn and practice Christian compassion. They’ll stop and offer granola bars and juice boxes and a holy card. Bird has explained to her children: “We all have weaknesses…we don’t know how they got there, why they’re in that situation, whether it was their own misdeeds or people mistreating them, but it doesn’t matter. We’re called to see Christ in them and to serve Christ in them.”

In Allison Howell’s home in Wasilla, religion class is once a week. But every day starts with morning prayers — including for “the 14 Ps,” Howell said, including “the Pope, our president, our priest, our papa, our pets, our friends who are pregnant.” There’s a devotional reading, for instance on the Blessed Sacrament. Then her five home-schoolers practice memorizing a Scripture passage and a little aphorism from a saint. Even snack time can be edifying. Once a week, they’re saint-themed. In March, there’s an Italian treat honoring Saint Joseph, historically much loved by Italians. On Saint Therese of Lisieux’s feast day, Howell makes French crullers.

PROTECTING CHILDREN

These parents believe home-schooling isn’t the only way to cultivate Catholicism, but it’s easier because parents aren’t fending off negative influences found outside home — from drugs to materialism to the objectification of girls.

“I don’t know why we would knowingly throw our children into that situation,” Eychaner observed, adding: “Childhood should be a time of joy and wonder and love of learning and love of family, love of God.”

Impressionable children need a “basis” from which to evaluate issues, Owens added. “Initially they need to be protected because you can’t undo something if they’re exposed to it, and then to know what is healthy, and what is healthy is what’s Catholic.” Once children are strong in their faith, she explained, they “have something to approach the world with.” Without such grounding, they’ll be “at the mercy” of the influential adults they encounter.

“It’s my job to protect my child,” explained Rebecca Berry, St. Benedict Church parishioner who home-schools her 16-year-old daughter Ana in Anchorage. “I’m not going to do this — continue reading her books for her and telling her ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ — until she’s 30. I’m going to equip her with the ability to reason and do that for herself. …You don’t let your kid go and touch the hot stove because you really want them to know what ‘hot’ is. …You have to be the parent. You have to be protective.”

SOCIALLY FORWARD

Parents say home-schooling fosters inclusiveness. Owens noted that home-schoolers — particularly in large families — learn to negotiate and resolve conflicts with siblings because they spend a great deal of time together. In fact, Bird believes home-schooling is “great training for civic life,” because “you learn how to care for the little ones, put other people first.”

Moreover, home-schoolers continuously mix with diverse ages at home and in common home-school activities like swimming and art lessons and playgroups.

“You are constantly dealing with people older and younger,” Owens observed. “No home-school family will look askance at a third grader who really likes to play with the kindergartner or a younger child who has the reading interest of the sixth grader. But in a public school, that would be considered very unusual. And you might get teased about it.”

Howell said that her oldest children “don’t see the toddler as something ‘other.’” When the children transformed a broken boat in the backyard into the Dawn Treader of the Narnia classic, the four-year-old served as Reepicheep.

“They find ways to incorporate,” Howell observed.

“Through our Catholic faith, we teach our children that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God,” explained Bird. “God loves each one of us individually and wants each of us to go to heaven. And so we respond to everyone with the respect that is due to God’s children.”


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