- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

When Margaret and Peter Smith moved from suburban Maryland to Lewistown, Mont., in 1991 with a company relocation, they loved the wide open spaces and natural beauty.

Living seven miles from the town of 6,000, they built a landing strip and hangars for the two airplanes Mr. Smith flies as a private pilot, and had plenty of space for their growing family to explore.

However, Mr. Smith’s job in mechanical work often prevented him from spending as much time with his family as he wished. In 1994, Mrs. Smith informed the county superintendent of schools of her intent to home-school, complying with Montana regulations, and began teaching daughters Rebecca and Rose Marie, then 5 and 4. Using an eclectic approach, Mrs. Smith made such good use of the local library that she was asked to serve on its board, representing the home-schooling community.

Since Montana requires only that one keep attendance records proving 180 days each year are dedicated to learning, the Smiths were able to pursue many interests that fit their family lifestyle and their natural surroundings. Snowshoeing, skiing, hunting, fishing and camping were ways the family could explore their environment and learn together. If Mr. Smith went on a work-related trip, the entire family tagged along and used the opportunities to visit museums and historical sites.

The Smiths also involved the children in their interests. Young Rebecca began flying with her father at a young age, and by age 16 she had earned her private pilot’s license. She is now president of the Lewistown Chapter of the Montana Pilots Association, elected by a mostly male constituency whose average age is quite a bit older than her own.

At age 8, she asked her dad how hard it would be to build an airplane. This began a project in which dad and daughter began building a 1930s-style Pietenpol Air Camper together, providing lessons on mechanical and scientific concepts along the way.

Of huge support to the Smiths were the girls’ grandparents, who continually sent packages of books, videos and other educational materials. Mrs. Smith designated one area of the house as the “Bernard and Mary Poppert Library” as a tribute to her parents.

In contrast to many home-schoolers who find themselves defending their educational choice to close family members, Mrs. Smith’s parents were such strong allies that her six siblings sometimes complained they were feeling pressured to home-school their own children.

Education is something of a family passion. Mr. Poppert earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering by age 20, and Mrs. Poppert broke the gender barriers by working as an architectural draftsman at a time when women did not pursue such studies.

Mr. Poppert, a loyal reader of this column who clips and sends it on to his daughter Margaret and her family, attributes the success of his seven children to their habit of “piquing their interests in a variety of subjects in spite of their formal education, just another way of applying home-schooling techniques.”

Today, the Smiths are no longer home-schooling as Matt, their 9-year-old son, prefers the social structure of public school, and Rebecca and Rosie wanted to branch out into the extracurricular activities offered by the school, including track and field and the school-based Future Farmers of America program. Their transition to traditional schooling was smooth, as the children tested and performed above grade level. Rebecca now studies at the University of Montana; Rosie will begin courses in interior design in Eugene, Ore., next fall.

“For us, home-schooling was a great way to raise a family, working together. It gave us time together,” Mrs. Smith says. “Sometimes in our society, we’re in such a rush to get to the next event. I appreciate the time we spent home-schooling because it brought us together.”

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer living in Maryland.

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