- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

Paige Peterson has a full slate of graduation activities scheduled for this spring. The 17-year-old from Sterling Park will participate in a graduation ceremony and dance at her boyfriend’s prom.

“I can’t wait to march down the aisle and turn my tassel,” Paige says.

What is different about Paige’s graduation plans is that she does not attend school with the 16 other graduates. Paige is home-schooled, and she also has been taking courses at Northern Virginia Community College for more than a year.

Nonetheless, these typical rites of passage will mark the end of one part of her educational path. Paige and other members of HEARTS (Home Educators Association for Responsible Teens and their Siblings), a network and support group of Fairfax and Loudoun County home-schooling families, will be marking an important milestone, says Mary Ann Boyleston, HEARTS graduation coordinator.

Paige and 16 other home-schoolers will be graduated Saturday at Christian Fellowship Church in Ashburn.

“It is important in a lot of aspects to finish an event with a reward or ending,” says Mrs. Boyleston, an Ashburn mother of two home-school graduates and a third child who will finish next year. “Certain aspects of our graduation are especially meaningful. We provide an opportunity for each graduate to speak. We ask them to share their vision of the future.”

Many times, home-schooling parents are graduating along with the children. At the HEARTS ceremony, for instance, the grads will present their mothers with a rose and thank them for home-schooling them.

“The students aren’t the only ones who graduate at a home-school ceremony,” Mrs. Boyleston says. “Next year, I will not only be graduating, I will be retiring from home-schooling.”

In traditional school, a certain number of years or state-mandated requirements and tests must be completed before a teen can graduate. In home-school, the finish line may be a bit fuzzier. Some home-schoolers adopt a certain curriculum, which guides them in graduation requirements. Other families use age or the passing of a atheir child’s maturity to decide when they are done.

“It really depends on the kids themselves,” says Manfred Smith, a home-schooling father of three and president of the Maryland Home Education Association. “Home-schoolers tend to graduate a little earlier, such as 16 or 17. They may be ready by then. Many dual-enroll at community college. Some might not be ready to graduate until 19, though, and they stretch it out a bit.”

Alison McKee, a home-schooling mother of two from Madison, Wisc., and author of the book “From Homeschool to College and Work: Turning Your Homeschool Experience Into College and Job Portfolios,” says she took the lead of her children when deciding when they were finished with home-schooling.

Her daughter, Georgina, now a senior at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore., was done “when I saw how she could manage her life,” Ms. McKee says.

“After that, she took college classes and moved in with friends,” she says. “As parents, we just had a gut feeling.”

When her son Christian was younger, Ms. McKee decided he was finished with home-schooling in a similar manner. Ms. McKee’s children followed the unschooling method, which meant they were allowed to have experiences and pursue interests, rather than follow more formal instruction.

“Christian said he was tired of explaining,” Ms. McKee says. “People would say, ‘You’re not a student, then what are you?’ He would say, ‘I’m me.’ That’s when I said to myself, ‘He’s got it. This kid has graduated.’”

Christian, now 23, recently graduated from Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Mich., and is working in Portland, Ore.

About 65 percent of home-schoolers immediately go to college, says Chris Klicka, senior counsel for the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, an advocacy group.

Many families keep college in mind when deciding when their children are finished. Mr. Klicka advises parents to check with their state’s department of education to find out what number of units are required for graduation in traditional school.

While a home-schooler does not have to follow that curriculum to the letter, he or she may have a better shot at getting accepted into college if they can document that they have done the work, he says.

“Some universities like to know that you did solid work, not just tested for it,” Mr. Klicka says.

College, high school work

By the time many home-schoolers are applying to a four-year college, they have already done course work in community college. When Paige Peterson enrolls at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond in the fall, she expects to transfer more than 30 credits from Northern Virginia Community College.

“I have probably saved about $15,000 by doing that,” says Paige, who plans to major in journalism. “NOVA has been incredibly accommodating,” she says, to students who are dual-enrolled — or enrolled in high school and college concurrently.

Paige has been taking classes at the college since she was 16. Dual-enrolled students must meet with a counselor and are limited in the amount of credit hours they can take at one time, she says. Still, she has done very well. Paige was a finalist in a recent all-school speech competition, where she gave a presentation on boxing, which is one of her passions.

Charlottesville home-schooler Emily Wilson, 17, has been taking classes at Piedmont Community College in Charlottesville for nearly four years. She plans on earning a degree in nursing, and eventually, a graduate degree in sociology or psychology.

Emily did not participate in a graduation ceremony because she has been learning in college, high school and the world around her all at once, she says. Emily says she passed a GED practice test at age 13, so her family gave her the leeway to pursue whatever interested her.

“I have never been comfortable with the concept of finishing school,” Emily said via e-mail from Honduras, where she is spending three months learning Spanish and doing volunteer work. “I never was in a school environment. The world was my classroom, and one is always in the world. Because I never saw an end to learning, the thought of having a graduation party never entered my mind.”

Moving on

While many home-schoolers move right into college, some prefer to make the transition slower.

Stacy Gleason, a home-schooling mother from Washington state, said she felt her daughter, Tasa, now 24, was ready to leave home at 17. Tasa went to live with her grandmother in Northern California for one year. She took dance classes, worked part time and lived in a family situation before enrolling in college in Seattle the year after.

Robert Mitchell of Herndon finished up his home-schooling in January. He then left for the Honor Academy, a one-year combination boot camp, ministry and Bible study experience in Texas.

“I am in favor of learning by experience in an environment that is somewhat safe,” says Robert’s mother, Ritzia Mitchell. “My son has a lot of experiences. That way, if college is what he ultimately wants, that’s great. I am not sure that college right out of high school is the best choice for everyone.”

Still, Mrs. Mitchell marked Robert’s transition from home-schooler to Honor Academy intern and whatever comes next in a big way. In January, she threw him a combination 18th birthday/graduation/bon voyage party.

“He turned 18 in April of 2003,” she says. “But I determined when he was done with school by credits and readiness.” After a few more months of school and acceptance to the Honor Academy, Mrs. Mitchell, who is also home-schooling her 15-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, said she felt ready to celebrate. She invited 130 people to her home, including Robert’s first swim coach and former baby sitters. She did a slide show of photos of her oldest son. She presented him with a diploma, a mortar cap and a cake.

“Robert shared where he was going,” Mrs. Mitchell says. “We prayed for him and sent him out. He was really blown away. I think a family event was the way to acknowledge this rite of passage. As many times as you tell your kids, ‘You are great,’ until something is done in a public forum, I don’t think they really believe it.”

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