Both mother and primary school teacher to her five children, Mary Jane Keagy instructs Josiah, 6, and Rebecca, 2, at home. / photo by Ian Gratz

Both mother and primary school teacher to her five children, Mary Jane Keagy instructs Josiah, 6, and Rebecca, 2, at home. / photo by Ian Gratz

by Erin Grycel
photography by Ian Gratz

Alarm clocks ring, water rushes out of the shower nozzle, and the aroma of burnt toast lingers in the kitchen. In a last minute effort, a child searches for his favorite T-shirt to wear to school, while his father looks for a misplaced set of car keys.

Finally, the garage door automatically shuts, the children run out the door, and the house is quiet — empty until 3 p.m. — when the children return from school, bringing the house back to life.

That is, if the children attend a traditional school. For home school parents, the home transforms into a classroom environment even before the last bus has passed by their house en route to the local elementary school.

In an attempt to instill morals and return to a back-to-the basics style of teaching, networks of parents throughout America are turning to home schooling as an alternative to public education.

Lephuong Eichenger, San Dimas home school parent for 10 years, holds her opinion. “I saw public education going downhill; it was dysfunctional.” She adds, “I thought, if I stay home and teach, the only person to blame is myself if my child is not learning correctly.”

The school house attitude inside the Eichenger home is one of time on task: As Timothy Eichenger completes his phonics worksheet, he says, “I am done, do I get an A?” Correcting the paper, Eichenger realizes that her son still does not understand short and long vowel sounds. “The idea is not to finish everything but to understand what you are doing,” she explains to her son. Organization is essential in the house in order to have a positive and productive learning experience. Pam Wittkop, home schooling coordinator for the Bonita Unified School District, tells parents who are considering this option that they have to make education and learning a priority in their home. “It is not just something that fits in here and there.”

For Mary Jane Keagy, University of La Verne alumna, the school day begins at 6:30 a.m., when her five children wake up. “So much learning takes place all the time,” says Mary Jane. “Each child has a chore to do before 8:30 a.m. when school starts . . . cooking, washing dishes, learning hygiene.” With two desks in the family room and a large dining room table, the girls, clad in dresses, and the boys, clothed in athletic attire, listen intently while their mom teaches them about the Bible. Mary Jane then transitions into a math lesson for an hour. Using the kitchen timer as a school bell, she teaches the children independently in 45-minute time periods. From a student perspective, Elizabeth Keagy, 12-year-old pre-adolescent, says, “I went to public school for a year and a half, and it wasn’t a terrible experience.” Comparatively, she adds, “I enjoy home schooling because I can move at a faster pace. I will already be learning algebra this year, and I am able to be a teacher’s aid, helping my mom teach my younger brothers.”

In order to broaden children’s horizons, home schooling allows parents to deviate from the normal curriculum, exposing children to subjects at an earlier age and applying their knowledge to real-world application.

Eichenger, with her 7-year-old son, not only uses the curriculum provided by the school district but supplements the education with a back-up program. “I satisfy the school system by going under their curriculum as an umbrella-teaching the basic foundations of math and English.” However, Eichenger says, “I have already begun to teach the fundamentals of cursive writing and elementary Spanish. We focus on time limits, neatness, understanding the concept rather than just getting the grade.” Feeling confident that her son will be prepared for high school at 14, she says, “He will be able to make his own decisions by then.”

Every other week, the Eichengers meet with Wittkop at Vista School. During their session, Timothy is tested on his assignments while Wittkop plans the next two weeks of school work for him.

Surrounded by K-8 curricula, Wittkop has an abundance of materials to supply the parents with for teaching, from Holt Science books to Prentice Hall Literature books, to Sing A Song workbooks for elementary age children. “I guide and direct, filling voids in certain teaching concepts, but the actual implementation is from the parents,” she says.

Although the children are surrounded by home furnishings — television, refrigerator, couches and telephone — a classroom environment can still be attained to stimulate the minds of the students. Inside the Eichenger home, there are addition fact tables on the wall, along with a board full of vowels to exemplify the lesson. As the clock ticks and pencils mark the paper, the children are usually free of distraction, focusing on their work. When 6-year-old Timothy Eichenger struggles with number placement, Eichenger says, “Timothy, look at the board. Look at where I put the ones, the 10s and the 100s.” Just like a rambunctious first grader, he puts his hands in the air and shouts, “Oh, now I get it mom.”

“People think you just goof off when you stay at home for school,” says Lynette Hermasillo, 13. “I see my mom as a teacher. She is strict with us, and we have to be very mature about school.”

A common misconception of home schooling is the idea that the children are sheltered, unaware of the real world. “We are not just all Christian fanatics completely oblivious to what is going on,” says Irene Hermasillo, mother of three, full-time teacher of two.

“Every morning we watch the news, and if we see graffiti on the streets, hear about drugs or have questions ranging from prostitution to designer clothes, we talk about it.” She continues, “I do not want my children to go out there being ignorant.” Religion is crucial in most home school households. “If I weren’t involved in church,” says Hermasillo, “I would not be very active [socially].” Through Calvary Chapel in Pasadena, Lynette is involved in Shine, a Youth Outreach Program. “We go to convalescent hospitals and talk to the patients. I also take part in Little Women through Sonrise where we learn how to cook, do arts and crafts. It is like Christian Girl Scouts.”

For the Eichenger family, home school is the main school at their church. “A majority of the families home school their children at St. Peter’s,” she says. “We are a very tightly knit community, and we are following God’s way.” Certain members in the church teach Shakespeare, drama and art throughout the week. “I used to transform my garage into a classroom, teaching geography on the weekends,” Eichenger replies.

Often times, family members are unsupportive of this new approach to teaching. “My relatives would offer to baby sit Hernand,” says Hermasillo, “to test him on his reading to see if he was learning. They always wanted to see how he compared to a [traditional] school child.” Keagy explains further, “You have to make sure this is a joint effort between yourself and your husband. You need the support from one another to maintain stability.”

Typically, mothers do the majority of the teaching. “My husband does all the record keeping of the grades, and he tutors the children,” says Keagy, “but he works a full-time job. It varies from home to home . . . some dads do all of the teaching.”

“It is a constitutional right for parents to home school their children,” says Margaret Redman, associate professor of education at the University of La Verne. “If people want to do it, there is a way we can make it work.” Analyzing the American society, Redman states the main reason why there has been an increase in home schooling. “Expectations in society are higher; thus, parents turn to home school to increase academic excellence.”

Through charter schools, independent schools, curricula such as A-Beka and ACE and the Star Program through Biola University, the resources are endless for individuals in search of teaching methods. From an academic standpoint, the drawbacks seem minute, almost obsolete. Nevertheless, Susan Brown, principal at Roynon Elementary School, says, “The children are missing out on teaching strategies that [professional] teachers are trained in, which contrasts to the moms that are [actually] educating the children. A lot of times the moms do not have that bag of tricks that a teacher has . . . they miss out on that delivery.” As a former teacher, Keagy says, “I went to ULV to educate children, but I do not feel any better qualified [as a home school parent.] Some of my friends do not even have high school diplomas, and they are fabulous teachers.” Through experience, she says, “I thought everyone should have a degree, but my views have changed.”

In order to become a certified teacher, the state requires an individual to have a bachelor of arts degree and a teaching credential. Regardless of what the state requires, home school educators firmly believe that the most important thing is for an individual to be interested in children’s education. Keagy says, “A parent will do just fine if she keeps this in mind and uses the resources available.”

Financially, the school district still receives the allotted money, $4,012 per year, from the state, based on the child’s attendance. Wittkop says, “The work samples that the children complete every two weeks is sent to the District, which calculates their attendance.” Thus, the District does not lose financially to this educational alternative. “My biggest concern is not financial repercussions but socialization, interacting with peers,” says Brown. “Education is not just about academics. The special services that the child will never take part in such as school assemblies, chorus, band; that is the downside.” To counteract this common stereotype, Lynette says, “There are so many people to socialize with, along with functions and field trips. We are always doing something.” She adds, “We cannot attend all of the activities because we still have to focus on our studies. I think it is opposite . . . you miss out on so many things if you attend a traditional school.”

Through Sonrise Christian School, an independent Study program in Covina, the parents are provided with a list of student phone numbers to coordinate excursions to the IMAX, Los Angeles County Museum and Los Angeles Mission to learn about California history. There is Park Day twice a month in San Dimas where more than 100 families come to participate in organized sports. “I am learning how to swing dance, and Hernand is learning Kim’s Hapkido from one of the moms in our group,” notes Lynette.

Eventually, the children will transition into a traditional school or work environment. “As a freshman in high school, my son was ready to go to a public school,” says Eichenger. Comparing test scores within the school district, she requested an inter-district transfer to Glendora to ensure the teaching was of high standards. “There are different problems now . . . my son has been exposed to [materialism].” She adds, “He comes home from school and says ‘How come other people get a BMW to drive to school?’ I am teaching him about the importance of working and setting goals.” The main flip side to home schooling is exposing the child to many of the atrocities in the real world. “I want my daughter to go to high school,” says Irene, “but on the same hand, I spent so many years of nurturing her . . . what if someone comes in and completely changes her.”

Society has deemed home schooling as a radical alternative to education. Rather, it is a conservative approach to teaching. “George Washington and various other leaders were home schooled by their mother,” says Keagy. “This has been done in the past; it is traditional.”

Overall, the education system has made changes in recent years to allow children more individual attention with the teacher. Eichenger rebuts the state improvements, class size reduction and competency tests for teachers, by saying, “My child would never have one-on-one full-time attention with the teacher, regardless of the new laws.”

Although home schooling is viewed as a pioneer educational approach, “It will increase in years to come,” she confirms. “People are going to wake up and wonder what happened to their child. Traditional schools are not teaching integrity, morality . . . I make sacrifices so my children can learn values.”

At 11 a.m., Timothy Eichenger completes sentences using his spelling list for the week. Surrounded by butterflies, swing dancing memorabilia and an autographed poster of “Sixpence None the Richer,” Lynette Hermasillo studies Biology for an upcoming test in her bedroom. In the Keagy family, five children sit in a circle listening intently to their mother, explaining the science experiment, “How to Make A Crystal Radio.” Each agenda is unique but ultimately each family is striving for the same goal.

“It is easy to make a [negative] generalization about home schooling, but in the end, we all want the same for our children,” says Wittkop. “We want them all to be successful in their education; some just decide to take an alternative route.”

Although there are five desks in the house, Sarah Keagy gets comfortable in the dining room. / photo by Ian Gratz

Although there are five desks in the house, Sarah Keagy gets comfortable in the dining room. / photo by Ian Gratz

Public School vs. Home School

Home school students test comparatively to traditional classroom students; they follow state curriculas, and they fulfill the number of school days, 180, required by the state. However, what actually occurs within the daily school agenda of a home schooled child? Compare, hour by hour, a traditional classroom in the Bonita Unified School District to the Keagy household classroom.

Christina Serra, Third Grade, Roynon School Agenda

8:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. — Early work (journal writing, solving equations)
8:45 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. — Flag salute
8:50 a.m. to 9 a.m. — Story time
9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. — Math lesson,
9:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. — Science, 3 days; Social studies, 2 days
10 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. — Recess
10 :15 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. — SQUIRT (super quiet uninterrupted reading time)
10:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. — Writer’s workshop (Language arts — spelling, grammar, literature)
11:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. — Cursive writing
11:30 a.m. to noon — Physical Education
Noon to 12:45 p.m. — Lunch
12:45 p.m. to 1 p.m. — SQUIRT
1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. — Art
1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. — Guided reading, computers

Mary Jane Keagy Home School Agenda

7:45 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. — Bible study
8:15 a.m. to 9 a.m. — Math: all levels for five children
9 a.m. to 10 a.m. — Girls: grammar and language arts; Boys: health, English (schedule reverses)
10 a.m. to 11 a.m. — History, 3 days; Science, 2 days a week
11 a.m. to Noon — Spelling, vocabulary, phonics
Noon to 12:30 p.m. — Physical Education, (rollerblading, riding bikes, nature walks, swimming)
12:30 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. — Lunch
1:15 p.m. to 2 p.m. — Woodshop, gardening, sewing, cooking
2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. — Guided reading aloud and silent reading

Each day, the agenda varies. The school day always starts by 8 a.m., but the time period for each subject depends on experiments, tutoring, visiting the library, doctor’s visits or taking a field trip.