Homeschooling: ROOM FOR Creativity

Story by Jeannie Stone

What happens when a mother (who was trained to work hard and make money) and a father (who was raised by a weaver and a musician) have a child? They compromise. Cliff and Tracy Thomas, of Russellville, nurture their daughter’s natural curiosity and creativity. Together, they offer her the best possible learning environment. They home school. 

The latest figures (1999) released by the Department of Education list 9,000 Arkansas children who are home schooled for various reasons. The most cited reason parents give for educating their children at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is concern of the quality of education provided in the public school setting. Additionally, the agency reports that 11% of home schooling parents list the desire to offer a more challenging environment for their children. Cliff, Tracy and Summer, 14, fall into the latter category.

Tracy developed her educational philosophy through her own business experiences beginning as a child when she helped in her family business in Abilene, Texas. Her family encouraged her to join them full time after she graduated from high school at the age of 17, but she struck out on her own and began a plant care business.

“It was very successful, and I made a lot of money for a teenager,” she said, “but I had an ulcer by the time I was 19. The following year, my parents moved to Arkansas, so my father could pursue his dream of raising cattle and living in the country. We were all pretty tired of the rat race.”

Cliff, an artist who owns a sign shop located across a field of wildflowers from the Thomas home, spoke of a National Public Radio interview which greatly influenced him and his wife concerning the merits of home schooling.

The featured speaker was a dean of M.I.T, according to Cliff, and he spoke on the disappearance of creativity in the public schools.

“He said that M.I.T. was aggressively seeking home schoolers because they were incredible problem solvers who had been allowed to develop their own natural patterns of thinking through things. He pictured it this way; babies develop beautiful antennas, always exploring, assimilating, learning, and expressing themselves. But, when they reach school age, the public school puts caps on the children, and it is meant to stunt their individual creativity and growth, and in that, the schools succeed.

The caps only allow some of the antennas to grow, but the others shrivel up and die. M.I.T. was looking for students with beautiful antennas, and, according to their experience, those students were home schoolers.”

“Going to college is not an end-all for me,” Cliff said. “If Summer was passionate about something that required a college degree, I would sell the house to make her dream come true, but I don’t see the point in her pursuing a degree just for the sake of having a degree.”

He is not alone in his reasoning. According to a recent article printed in the San Francisco Chronicle, industry analysts were polled on the relevance of college degrees. Surprisingly, they found that in the fastest-growing industries, like technology, information covered in college classes was already outdated by the time the students completed their studies. Human resource specialists voiced their opinions that more and more CEOs were preferring traits such as hard working and problem solving rather than possessing a degree.

The Thomases were encouraged to give home schooling a try. Their only child, Summer, was a visual learner from the first and thrived on opportunities requiring her to use her artistic side. She and Tracy have taken pottery classes together and, according to her mother, Summer also displayed excellent communication skills.

She is a voracious reader and has already delved into her literature book for the coming school year and is looking forward to reading Romeo and Juliet. “And I love to write,” she said.

Learning is highly prized in the home.

“We both read to her all the time when she was little,” Tracy said. The highest family priority, however, is that each person respects each other and is present, physically and emotionally, for the other. When Cliff has a huge order to fill, Tracy and Summer help in the shop.

“We’re all three together all day every day. We love each other,” Tracy said.

“She was 31⁄2 years old, and she would beg me to play school with her,” Tracy said. “She wanted to learn, and so we enrolled in the Calvert School, an online college-bound program out of Baltimore. When she graduated from that program two years ago, we were surprised that she scored two years ahead of her peers in English and Language.”

They are beginning their second year with Core Curriculum, which specializes in custom packaging according to each child’s abilities. So, a student might use a 10th grade curriculum for Science, but a 9th grade curriculum for Math. Their goal is for Summer to learn at her pace.

“You can’t shield them from the world, but without the peer pressure other kids have, she’s more like a young person than a teenager. Her maturing has allowed us to connect as she’s forming her own world view,” Cliff said.

True to her father’s observation, Summer would rather read than watch hours of TV or electronic gaming. Those activities just don’t hold her interest.

“Most people seem to watch TV as a course of habit,” Cliff said, “or as a way of keeping up with the culture.” He and Tracy have never felt it necessary to restrict her television exposure.

That’s not to say she doesn’t watch TV. Summer’s favorite show is Little House on the Prairie.

“That’s not too cool for most kids,” her father said.

She has a different taste in music as well. In fact, her tastes are very well-developed for her age. Summer likes complicated jazz and classic rock like Pink Floyd, Steely Dan and Yes.

“Some kids think I’m weird because I’ve never heard of the groups they are listening too, but I’m not judgmental. I like all kinds of music. We should all be allowed to develop our own tastes,” Summer said.

They are quick to admit that, sometimes, the world is a bit of a culture shock. Cliff related an experience that happened to him and his daughter during an outing to a mall. Sitting in the food court, they overheard a conversation between girls, around the same age as Summer, at the next table.

“They greeted another girl who approached them, and when the she left, one of the remaining girls said, ‘She’s soooo two thousand and four.’ Summer just isn’t into that scene,” he said.

“She doesn’t define herself by her possessions like other kids do,” Cliff said.

In fact, Summer has her father’s old cell phone and was surprised when her girlfriend made a comment that the phone was not cool.

“It never occurred to her that a phone should be cool,” he said. “She isn’t influenced by what other children think at all.”

Summer may not pay attention to what her peers think, but she is deeply interested in what adults have to say, especially senior adults.

“Older people have more stories to tell, and know more about life. They are just more interesting,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t have individual personalities. They seem to be into what their friends are into. They haven’t found themselves yet.”

Summer certainly seems to have found herself. She easily expresses her goals.

“I have three things that are actually my dream,” she said.

“Number one, I’ve always wanted to be an author. Number two, I’d like to go to beauty school, and number three, I would love to become a dog trainer because I love animals.”

Summer is appreciative of her home learning.

“My mom is a very good teacher,” she said. “Dad used to teach science, but now, he’ll help me with art projects for my lessons. And he is so smart. He is like a walking dictionary. What I love about my parents is they have always been supportive of me,” she said. “I have some friends who can’t say that.”

“We just want her to be happy,” Cliff said.

“I am definitely glad I stayed home for school,” Summer said. “I would be different than I am now if I went to public school, and I like myself the way I am.”

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