Classrooms without Walls: Lake Minnetonka Families Explore Homeschooling

For homeschoolers, learning becomes a 24/7 pursuit.
Zechariah (14), Caleb (10) and Nathaniel Hoffman (3) play with building blogs.

On weekdays between the months of September and June, the Hoffman residence in Minnetonka could be considered a 21st-century version of the old one-room schoolhouse.

In homeschooling their kids—13-year-old Forrest, 10-year-old Caleb, 8-year-old Joshua, 6-year-old Seth and 4-year-old Zechariah—Tim and Cindy Hoffman have chosen a centuries-old method that has been regaining popularity. For homeschooling families who opt out of conventional school systems, learning becomes more a part of everyday living, and the world becomes a classroom without walls.

Nationwide, home-schooling has been a growing movement for a number of years among families seeking a self-directed alternative to public and private schools. In 1993, it became legal in all 50 states. The number of home-schooled kids reached 1.5 million in 2007, up 74 percent from 1999, when the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics started keeping track, and up 36 percent since 2003.

Obviously, schooling kids at home requires a significant time commitment by parents. But local homeschoolers say the benefits make it worth the effort. One of the most often-cited benefits is the ability to customize curriculum and teaching methods to fit each child's individual needs, aptitudes and learning styles to a degree that is typically not possible in an institutional setting.

The Hoffmans were drawn to homeschooling through other members of their church who were schooling their children at home with very positive results, says Cindy Hoffman, who will eventually begin homeschooling 3-year-old Nathaniel and 18-month-old Gabriella.

“Homeschooling seemed like a good way to help our children grow up with good character and good morals,” she says. “And the other homeschooling parents seemed to really enjoy their kids.”

The Hoffmans learned more about it at a Minnesota Christian Home School Association (MACHE) conference, where they discovered “hundreds of curriculum choices,” Hoffman says. They liked having the ability to select the right materials for their children, including seeking advice from other home-schooling parents with kids of similar age, and also the ability to spend some time in prayer, Hoffman notes.

Hoffman also feels her prior experience as a middle school teacher has helped her in choosing the most suitable curriculum for their children, although she doesn't believe a teaching background is necessary to be effective.

She and other home-schooling parents say another benefit is closer families: Parents can develop stronger relationships with their kids, and siblings also become closer and more respectful in spite of age and other differences. The older kids can mentor the younger ones and also take some responsibility for ‘babysitting’ their younger siblings for brief periods, she says. Kids often absorb knowledge in history or other subjects by being around their older siblings, she notes.

When not in “class” or doing homework, home-schooling kids typically participate in the same extracurricular activities available to public and private school students. The Hoffman kids play in community-ed basketball (Tim is a coach) and baseball, and participate in karate and swimming. “They do the typical things kids do,” Cindy Hoffman notes.

Families can take advantage of a statewide network of parent-run co-ops, both religious-affiliated and secular, which offer classes, field trips and social opportunities for kids, support and encouragement for parents, and service projects for kids and parents. There are also informal support groups for parents and families. Truth Academy in Wayzata, Holy Family Home Educators in Minnetonka and the Plymouth/Wayzata Homeschool Group are a few examples of these local co-ops and groups.

To some degree, successful homeschooling depends on achieving the right balance of structure and freedom to be spontaneous. One aspect of freedom is the ability to take field trips with home-schooling siblings of different ages, rather than kids being “split up in multiple directions,” based on grade levels, Hoffman says. Along with day trips to places like museums, zoos and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, family vacations become engaging opportunities for learning.

To some degree, each child’s homeschooling experience is unique. The Hoffmans’ children each have their own reasons for appreciating the home-schooling lifestyle.

Caleb appreciates that when he is finished with one subject, “I can move on to another subject right away instead of waiting for other students to complete their work. And I like the student-to-teacher ratio. I feel that if I need help with something, my teacher is much more accessible than if I were in a public school.”

Forrest likes not having to “go from one place to another changing classes. You can have a lot more free time if you get your school done quickly. It is a friendly environment and it makes you feel secure. You can research more about a subject and spend more time on it if you want to.”

Chad and Kelly Johnson of Excelsior began home-schooling their daughter, Molly, six years ago, when she was 6 years old. Brothers Joey, 10, and Daniel, 7, have since joined the Johnsons’ home “classroom,” with 4-year-old Caleb to follow when he’s a bit older.

Kelly Johnson also appreciates having being able to tailor learning to each child’s pace, within the parameters outlined by the state Department of Education’s required annual skills-testing for each child. “You don't have to push something if they're not ready for it, but if there is a subject they want to accelerate, then you can push.”

Home-schooling can also be ideal for helping kids develop specific interests and talents. Molly loves reading and writing, and hopes to become an author someday.

“My favorite thing about homeschooling is the ability to pursue my creativity,” Molly says. “For instance, I love to read and write. My mom says that if I ever just want to take a week and write a story, I can do that. If I have more practice writing now, I’ll be better at it later. If I were in school all day, I don't believe I would have a chance to do what I do at home.”

It's all part of homeschoolers’ “the world is a classroom” approach to learning.