- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000

Marshall and Sherunda Johnson weren't happy with the lessons their three sons were learning in grade school. The boys had begun treating each other more roughly and their parents less obediently. They brought home not just school books but a new, resentful attitude. When Mr. Johnson told them to do something, they mumbled under their breath, "Why do I have to do that?" Such questions, he says, "got my attention."

Despite their own backgrounds in education he was a certified teacher and she had a degree in psychology and early childhood education the Johnsons didn't know what to do. They had tried three different private schools and then in desperation the local public school. It wasn't working. Not only was there this new attitude problem, the couple wasn't sure their sons were getting the individual teaching attention they needed, to say nothing of lessons in discipline, character and the Christian ideals with which they were raised at home. On a drive with his wife one day, Mr. Johnson said in frustration, "You know, if it were legal, I would consider just teaching them at home."

In fact, it was legal. If you watched the NCAA basketball tournament that concluded Monday, you may have seen one of the beneficiaries of the Johnsons' home-schooling efforts. Then in fourth grade, son Kevin is now a freshman playing for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Last month he played out a dream by competing against teams like North Carolina, whose storied program he had once watched growing by leaps and rebounds. Carolina ultimately knocked Tulsa out of the tournament. Although it's probably no great consolation to him, Kevin went home a winner in his own right: As far as anyone knows (meaning the NCAA doesn't keep statistics like this), he's the first home-schooler ever to play in the tournament known as March Madness.

That makes the 6-foot-7-inch, 220-pound forward and his family part of a burgeoning, if less publicized, movement toward home-schooling in this country. Today as many as 1.2 million youngsters in this country are enrolled in home schools, and by most estimates the number is growing. Concerned about drugs or crime or lack of individual attention from teachers in private as well as public schools, parents are increasingly resorting to an educational environment, administration and classroom they can trust their home.

Just as the classroom setting is no guarantee of academic achievement, home-schooling is no obstacle to success. Quite the contrary. In a study of more than 20,000 home-schooled pupils published a year ago in a scholarly electronic journal, Education Policy Analysis Archives, a University of Maryland researcher found that the "achievement test scores of this group of home school students are exceptionally high … 25 percent of home school students are enrolled one or more grades above their age-level public and private school peers." The author, Lawrence M. Rudner, was careful to say the study was not evidence that home schoolers are necessarily better off than those in more traditional schools because the study was not controlled for that specific comparison. It did show, however, that home-schoolers "do quite well in that educational environment."

The Johnsons didn't know all that when they decided to turn their three-bedroom, Houston-area residence into a part-time classroom. Although they had the time, resources and will to teach them, they worried about whether they were doing the right thing. Would their children's relative isolation, Mrs. Johnson wondered, turn the boys into "social misfits" and uneducated ones at that?

In short order, they found reassurance. They obtained a Christian education curriculum that helped structure the teaching, as well as standardized tests to measure their boys' progress. Mrs. Johnson, who served as the primary teacher, was able to slow down or accelerate the instruction as needed. In addition, the family soon found a network of home-schoolers in the Houston area that provided not just an opportunity for "class" field trips to museums, operas, symphonies but an outlet for athletics.

Kevin and other home-schoolers, helped and ultimately coached by Mr. Johnson, a former football player at the University of Houston and, later, with the Baltimore Colts, began playing basketball against public and private schools in the area. But what started out as fun and exercise turned more serious with each passing victory. The wins were all the more remarkable because every game was a "road" game; they had no home court. The team's success grew right along with Kevin, who sprouted 6 inches during grades nine through 12 into the graceful player he is today. He and his home-schoolers ended up defeating traditionally powerful high school teams and winning a national home-schoolers tournament. Along the way, Kevin became one of the most highly recruited players in Texas.

Kevin also scored well off the hardwood. He tallied almost 1100 on his SAT tests, a figure well above what he needed to take his game to the college level. His parents were firm but fair in their instruction, he says, and today he sees no academic disadvantage to his home education.

Nor do his parents. Mr. Johnson recalls the day that he knew his sons had found the experience as rewarding as he and his wife had. Sitting at the kitchen table, barely in high school, they asked, "Can we go to college at home?" It turned out that wasn't necessary. They had learned their parents' lessons well.

E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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