Every child in the United States is guaranteed a free public school education. But many families choose to pay for a private school, and about 750,000 children nationwide are taught at home. Critics of home-schooling question the quality of that education, and express doubt over home-schoolers' ability to compete in the "real world." But children who learn in a "home-based" environment continue to excel.
Kathryn Klopfenstein has never been in a traditional schoolroom. The 13-year old has spent her entire academic life being taught by her parents in her home. Although some people wonder if "home-schooling" actually works, Kathryn says she has no doubts that she is well-educated. "I really like doing it here. I do think I'm better off here because I get a lot more one-on-one time."
One of the reasons for Kathryn's confidence may be her ability to spell, and the fact that she was one of 10 finalists in South Dakota's spelling bee championship this past weekend. Home-schooled students often compete in the top levels of state spelling bees, and frequently advance to the finals in Washington.
Using a curriculum obtained through an on-line education organization specializing in home schooling, Kathryn's mother has taught four of her five children for the past 13 years. Susie Klopfenstein says that there's a variety of reasons for making that choice.
"Probably the primary reason we home-school is the development of the character of our children...who they are becoming," she explains. "The academics are good, they get a really good education here. We can concentrate one-on-one with their learning style. ...how they process information." Statistics show the average home-schooled 8th grade student performs four grade levels above the national average, reinforcing Susie Klopfenstein's decision.
Many school systems are making efforts to incorporate the "one-on-one" teaching style that's a hallmark of home-schooling. Although the Rapid City, South Dakota, school district as a whole declined to take part in this story, principal Jeanne Burckhard was anxious to show off her North Middle School's "outside-the-box" approach to educating its students.
She stresses the small class size. "Our classrooms run 15, 17 kids per class. Most of our classes have two teachers in them, especially reading, English and your math classes. So there's a lot of help for the kids."
Burckhard explains that the lesson plans include a lot of interaction. "Our teachers are really taught how to teach their kids how to think. So if you go into our classrooms they're not straight rows, there's a lot of group work being done, a lot of interaction with the kids. The kids really are leading the classrooms."
Having a student population that's classified as high on the poverty scale, Burckhard adds, makes the need for "non-traditional" learning even more vital. "We really can't run our operation like a traditional school with the kids that we get, because we're constantly trying to get these kids caught up and on track." Many of the students do not stay at North Middle School for the entire year because their families move often.
Traditional schools must adapt to the changing needs of students if they're to succeed in the education process, according to Marilyn Herz, a literacy coordinator for the Rapid City district. "I think when I first started teaching, we were more or less told that you have to teach to the middle and hope the two extremes get it," she recalls. "Now we are much more student-centered, and we're trying to help everybody understand how to try and meet those individual needs within a classroom setting."
Given the proper educational guidance and attention by their parents, Mark Baron says home-schooled students can do well academically. But the University of South Dakota education professor has another concern about the independent education process.
"One of the questions that I always ask myself is whether or not these children are able to begin to mature socially, so that when they find themselves in a diverse social setting, do they have some experience to draw on in order to function well? And I think that a traditional school setting provides a much more ready environment for children to develop socially, irregardless of their academic development."
Back at the Klopfenstein house, 17-year old Scott points out that he's combining classes at the local high school with his home-schooling for the first time this year, and he likes it. "It's kind of the best of both worlds... kind of." He says the other students don't point him out because he's taught at home. "They don't kind of look at me as different. I'm just... kind of, Scott," he adds with a laugh. Kathryn Klopfenstein adds that she and her brothers have extensive social interaction through their church and through the home-school group their family belongs to. She also has the opportunity to interact with other students at spelling bees.