Cassandra Olsen pulls back the sliding glass door, strides out into the bright August sunlight, and dutifully pounds an antique iron triangle with great gusto.
Kids of all ages come running from everywhere, cackling like the hens ranging in the yard across the driveway as they funnel through the door of the welcoming red barn. Some are still covered in hay from jumping back and forth across the round hay bales in front of a large paddock containing a horse, two secondhand donkeys, and a substantial number of assorted heritage-breed cows.
The large aluminum and steel structure that once housed their family—Cassandra, her husband Todd, and their four kids aged 16, 14, 13, and 9—after they lost their home to fire has been given a new lease on life. It has become the Luther Academic Barn (LAB for short), a homeschool cooperative comprising families with kids from kindergarten to high school, who come from as far away as 30 miles. The barn now houses seven classrooms and a half basketball court for wiggly kids on stormy days.
Classes including medieval and state history, three languages (English, Latin, and Greek), government, economics, a smattering of sciences (botany, physical science, chemistry), and math up to Algebra 2, are all taught by co-op mothers and fathers two days per week. Last year was LAB’s first year for 35 families. Word spread. This year members of 54 separate families walk through the sliding glass door each week.
“Co-ops don’t take over a child’s education,” Olsen says earnestly when asked about the difference between a co-op and a public school. “The parents are still in charge of their child’s education. LAB is just a way for kids to be around other kids and get instruction from someone [other than their parents] two or three times a week.”
An Explosion in Education Arrangements
As homeschooling has grown—62 percent in the last decade, says federal data—parents have used their freedoms to come up with models of schooling that explode the conventional, “factory model” of schooling centered on attending the same classes at the same ages and hours in the same progression from early childhood into early adulthood.
Dana Wilson of Homeschool NowUSA says homeschooling is fundamentally different from other forms of education for two primary factors of control: “Who’s writing the check and who’s choosing the materials and giving the grades.”
“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” she admonishes. “When we don’t pay for our supplies and resources, you can be sure our families—our children—are the data being sold to pay for that education. There is no such thing as a free education.”
Wilson and her husband began schooling their five offspring in the late 1990s because local public and private schools couldn’t provide the kind of education the Wilsons preferred for two of their children who have disabilities. Since then, Wilson has spent nearly 10 years assisting Oklahoma Christian Home Educators’ Consociation (OCHEC), the state’s largest homeschooling organization, as well as tutoring within the oldest and largest national homeschooling co-operative program, Classical Conversations. Parents can be ingenious at finding ways to school their children, and Wilson details current methods.
Tutoring: “A parent pays someone to choose the materials, provide the instruction for, and assign the grades to the child.” Not homeschooling.
Blended-model schools: “Students go into a school environment two and a half or three days a week, where they are taught and assigned work which they finish at home. Though parents pay for these schools out of their budgets, teachers choose the curricula for parents and administer the child’s grades.” Not homeschooling.
Cottage schools: “Essentially private, one-room school houses, cottage schools are a for-profit enterprise where adults use space either in a home or a church and educate children that aren’t their own…It is privately funded but it’s not parent-directed—the school director chooses the curricula and grades the work.” Also not homeschooling.
Government-funded online schools: While families can choose a number of private online academies today (such as the Home School Legal Defense Association’s), Wilson often sees parents who fall into the trap of thinking that public schools providing online “academies” are actually providing a way for them to homeschool. Wilson stresses her earlier statement, “Whoever pays the bills makes the decisions.”
Just as in a brick-and-mortar public school, parents can’t control the choice of teacher, grades, or curricula, leaving in play nearly all the concerns parents may have about government-run schools, such as data collection, testing, and Common Core.
“There are certainly benefits to virtual charter schools, and parents are using [them] for valid reasons, but this model is in no way an orthodox, at-home, homeschool education,” Wilson says.
Homeschool Cooperatives: Homeschool co-ops provide parent-taught classes in a common area such as a church, community center—or barn. Shelling out money from their own pockets to cover books, curricula, and parent-teacher fees, parents choose the courses they want their kids to take from among what’s available. Although the parent-teacher may provide students with grades, the child’s parents determine how those will be used.
As Wilson puts it, “Parents delegate some responsibility for the teaching of their children to another parent, but retain full authority for that child’s education.” Definitely homeschooling. Wilson notes that homeschooling families are flocking to this kind of arrangement because it provides social opportunities and accountability.
An Idea So Cool, Even Celebrities Are Doing It
Sam Sorbo would agree 100 percent with Wilson’s excitement over homeschool co-ops. The wife of actor Kevin Sorbo (“Hercules,” “God’s Not Dead”), mother of three boys, and homeschool parent, Sam has also been a model, actress, and radio talk show hostess. It’s a vocation about which she’s so passionate that she’s written a book, “They’re Your Kids: An Inspirational Journey from Self-Doubter to Home School Advocate.”
The Sorbos never considered anything besides public school for their kids until their oldest son hit second grade. That year, their son was writing and turning in book reports, but none were returning home. During one of her regular classroom volunteering periods, Sorbo asked the teacher what she thought of her son’s book reports.
“Not good,” the teacher said.
“Can I see a good one?” she asked.
“She showed me a good one and I thought, ‘Wow, his really aren’t good, but why did she wait so long to tell me?’” Sorbo laments. “I thought you dropped your kid off at school and ‘they’ had it handled. ‘They’ knew what to do.”
The next pivotal moment in the Sorbo schooling saga came during an extended family trip to Hawaii. They took make-up homework on vacation with them, and it struck Sorbo as poorly constructed make-work. So Sorbo began researching homeschooling and convinced herself it was worth a try, but her husband was skeptical. She got him to agree they would try it for a semester.
“I did it for the first semester and never looked back,” Sorbo declares, following with a laugh as she contemplates the trials surrounding that first part of her journey. “I will say, looking back, it’s a tough transition, but that’s why I wrote my book—to make it easier for parents.”
Today, all three Sorbo kids attend a Classical Conversations (CC) campus, where Sam tutors her son’s seventh grade class. She’s met many an unwilling homeschool convert, a couple of whom she rats out to make a few salient points.
“They are too afraid to homeschool their children because they feel inadequate, but they send their kids to a system that is arguably worse than the one which produced them,” she says with a sigh. “They’re not willing to try with a third grader because ‘What about calculus?’”
The Classic Entrepreneur’s Story
Classical Conversations, the homeschooling structure the Sorbo and Wilson families use in which families meet once a week for classes structured by a North Carolina company, began in a family’s basement in 1997. Leigh and Robert Bortins, who both have aerospace engineering degrees, were not impressed with the quality of instruction in local public and private schools. As their sons grew towards high school, Leigh invited ten other families to join them in a class at her home to provide discussion and friendship opportunities.
The next year, there was a waiting list to get into her class. So Bortins contracted with and trained one of her friends to teach the curriculum she had developed while she moved on to developing the next year’s curriculum. This process continued on until four years of high-school-level material were complete and the Bortins boys graduated from the program now called “Challenge.” As more families expressed interest, Leigh began developing curriculum for younger ages, so CC now spans K-12.
Enrollment across the country more than doubled from 2012 to 2016, from 48,000 students in 2012 to more than 101,000. Parents contract with CC to teach classes according to their blueprint, earning approximately half of the tuition parents pay, which ranges from approximately $500 per year for elementary-age children to $1,500 for high school.
“The differentiating factor between CC and other types of co-ops is our focus on empowering parents and equipping them with the learning tools they need to fulfill their responsibility of educating their children. The system today is not set up to make the parents responsible—it’s set up to take the responsibility away from parents,” asserts Robert Bortins Jr, the company’s 32-year-old CEO.
“People inquire about socialization, but what they should be asking about is civilization,” he says. “Lots of animals live in social groups, but civilization is unique to humankind. The only way to civilize your kids is for them to be around people who act the way you want your kids to act.”
Bortins believes home education will continue to grow and develop new education arrangements as millennials hit childbearing years.
“Younger families are naturally gravitating toward homeschooling because they see it as a credible option for the education of their children as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago when parents had to take a leap of faith,” Bortins says. “Homeschooling has now been established as a credible way to educate children and raise them to be productive members of society, and the amount of help out there now makes this very doable.”