The back-to-school season is upon us. For many parents, this may conjure up images of weeks spent frantically scouring Target for a three-ring binder in the correct shade of magenta, buying new shoes and clothes, waiting in the LifeTouch line for what seems like hours just for your child to sneeze the second the camera flashes — until finally the kids have boarded the morning bus and you’re free to momentarily relax in front of the TV with the dog.
This hectic scenario isn’t a reality for all families, however. While homeschooling certainly presents its unique challenges, many feel it’s the best way to meet their and their children’s educational needs.
“The idea of homeschooling was introduced to me very early and for whatever reason, it just really struck as something that was very important to me,” said Rachel Madrigal, a St. Croix Falls content creator and ghostwriter who homeschools her four children, who are between the ages of five and 12. “The plan is to homeschool through high school.”
Madrigal directs the Classical Conversations homeschool community in Dresser, which she started last year. Classical Conversations is a Christian-based classical curriculum that is used nationally and is gaining traction internationally.
“The classical model has not been used in the public schools for many, many decades,” she said. “It’s actually how many of the greatest thinkers of the last several centuries have been educated. What the classical model does, is it utilizes the strengths of each phase of development, to make education its most effective.”
Much of classical education centers around the “trivium” of grammar, logic and rhetoric, each comprising a different stage of a child’s educational development. The grammar phase, which most of Madrigal’s children are currently in, focuses primarily on memorization and recitation, as young children such as five-year-old Caleb and eight-year-old Aria are apt to rapidly take in and retain information like multiplication tables or poetry.
“We make use of that, because they’re automatically geared to soak things up at this age,” Madrigal said. “We put a lot of emphasis on memorization and memory work, to fill them up with a lot of good stuff.”
The kids also learn Latin, and read books set in the classical era, such as “The Bronze Bow” and “Detectives in Togas.” Madrigal selects literature to study related to a school year’s theme, last year’s being Ancient History and this coming year’s focusing on the medieval and Renaissance periods of Europe. As they move into their teens, students will delve deeper into Greek epics like the Odyssey and Iliad, as well as Shakespeare’s plays.
Julia Mederich of Osceola is interested in educating her sons through Classical Conversations eventually, but right now they are one and three, and she is preparing to begin homeschooling the elder boy, Jett, this fall as he begins the pre-K years.
“These short childhood years are meant for playing and spending time outdoors in nature,” Mederich said. “We go outside every single day for at least an hour — rain, shine, snow, whatever it be… a big part of that is, if I want him to care about the earth, we need to start being outside and exploring nature together.”
This hands-on philosophy is a major catalyst behind Mederich’s decision to homeschool.
“Having a school within four walls and learning about nature isn’t as beneficial, I think, as going outside physically every day and being able to take our time going down trails, looking at different things,” she said. “We don’t have 20 to 30 kids that we’re trying to keep together… He can just be on his own, be exploring, asking questions and we’re talking about it one-on-one.”
Mederich says she never imagined before her children were born that she would homeschool them, but as a stay-at-home parent, the idea began to appeal to her. She stayed with and observed a homeschooling family of five children for a week, did research on the topic at the library, and sought out community and curriculum on platforms like Instagram.
“We’re not trying to copy what they’re doing in school, we’re just tailoring [Jett’s] education to what he is interested in… if you’re reading out loud to your child, and getting him outside, for preschool that’s really all there is to it,” Mederich said. “As he gets older, I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more homeschoolers pop up. It’s becoming more and more popular.”
For the Rinkenberger-Nienaber family in Scandia, the choice to home-educate was made at a similar stage. It began when Ann Rinkenberger, whose daughters Sophia and Olivia Nienaber are now going to be a college freshman and a high school junior, respectively, was having fun complementing Sophia’s preschool education with additional instruction at home.
“She had ‘graduated’ from preschool, and they said she had covered really everything she needed to know, and some of the information in kindergarten,” Rinkenberger said. “I was enjoying homeschooling at the time… and thought that would be a good track to continue on.”
Over the years, the girls have used a hodgepodge of curricula, including Waldorf, Rod and Staff and Sunlight publications, and attended courses through Home Educators Resource Association (HERO), a co-op in Forest Lake.
“I’m grateful that they’re home, because I can choose where they’re involved, and [they have] been around a good group of kids growing up,” Rinkenberger said.
Rinkenberger added that she “without a doubt” wishes that she could’ve been homeschooled as a child, but it was not legalized in Minnesota until the 1980s.
“At the time I was growing up, that was not even an option,” she said.
Although homeschooling has been legal nationwide since 1993, laws regarding its regulation vary from state to state. In Minnesota, parents must file a letter of intent to homeschool with the superintendent, submit their child to annual standardized achievement tests administered by a third party and keep detailed records of their child’s academic progress in all required areas. For subjects that are taught by someone other than the parent, that instructor must meet one of a list of qualifications, such as possession of a bachelor’s degree or successful completion of a teaching competency exam, if they are not a certified teacher.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, does not require annual standardized tests of homeschoolers, nor does the state demand to see progress reports or coursework. Per year, 875 hours of documented instruction are mandated and parents must file a form stating they agree to comply with that law, but the state does not require proof of that documentation be submitted, so Madrigal is largely accountable to higher levels of Classical Conversations management.
“I opted not to [administer standardized tests], particularly because my autistic [12-year-old] doesn’t take tests well,” Madrigal said. “I might have my other kids do it just to see, but I guess I also feel like I really have a good handle on where they’re at. Doing a standardized test would be for my benefit, and at this point, I don’t feel it’s necessary.”
Nationally, homeschooling regulations have been the subject of recent scrutiny. Because of lax rules in many states, critics feel that homeschooling could be easily manipulated as a cover for abuse. This debate has landed in the hot seat recently with the case of the Turpin family, in which 13 siblings were supposedly homeschooled but were in fact being malnourished and abused by their parents even as several of them were well into adulthood. In California, all father David Turpin had to do was file his home as a private school and list himself as principal in order to appease the state, with no testing or record-keeping requirements. The facade ended in January 2018, when a 17-year-old alerted authorities to the siblings’ plight. Earlier this year the parents were convicted of 14 felony counts involving abuse and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years.
A month after the Turpins’ discovery, debut author Tara Westover released her memoir “Educated,” about her isolated upbringing in a fundamentalist Mormon family with a piecemeal homeschool education. She was forced to take charge of her own instruction if she wanted to move on to the post-secondary level, and did not learn what the Holocaust was until college. Her harrowing tale was received with great critical and commercial success, and waitlists remain for library copies even more than a year post-release.
While homeschoolers typically score better than their public-schooled peers on standardized and college-entrance tests, and have a 16% higher rate of college graduation, off-the-grid homeschoolers like Westover may not have access to such opportunities at all.
To prevent such cases, a group of homeschool alumni advocating for the interests of homeschool children, The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, has suggested common-sense laws that respect freedom of choice in education but have standards that ensure the wellbeing and educational success of children. According to the coalition, many parents choose homeschooling for legitimate reasons including “the desire to provide rigorous or innovative academic instruction, holistic religious instruction, or instruction individualized to a student’s special needs; concerns about the environment in public or private schools; and a need for family flexibility.”
For those who wonder whether parents are qualified to teach advanced-level subjects such as high school math and science, co-ops like Classical Conversations and HERO provide a community that can pitch in to combine skills and responsibilities.
“[Students] get a lot of help and support from people in the [Classical Conversations] community that we’re a part of as they advance in those levels,” Madrigal said. “In the high school years, they do biology labs and chemistry labs. The people who direct those programs at the middle school and high school levels are trained in those programs, so… in the areas that I’m weak, other people are strong, and in the areas where they’re weak, I am strong. That’s the beauty of community.”
At HERO, Sophia Nienaber took a social entrepreneurship class in 11th grade and from it established her own charitable organization, Give Life Give Hope. Through it, she has coordinated several blood drives with the American Red Cross. Olivia, meanwhile, coordinated Washington County’s Barn Quilt Trail when she was just 12 years old, designing several quilts and soliciting funds for the project by herself. Barn quilt trails, featuring colorful quilt patterns painted on the sides of barns, can be found nationwide.
Classical Conversations and HERO also offer opportunities for homeschoolers to obtain college credit while in high school. Sophia took several PSEO courses through the co-op, in partnership with Crown College and the University of Northwestern, and has earned roughly a year’s worth of credits to be transferred to Bethel this fall. In Classical Conversations, the final three years’ worth of coursework can potentially be worth college credit, through the Classical Conversations Plus service.
“Classical Conversations has contracted with public universities on the East Coast who have recognized their programs as AP-level or college-level,” Madrigal said. “The final three years can basically be the first 50-some credits for college.”
The parents sought to combat misconceptions the public may have about homeschooling, such as that homeschoolers are socially isolated. 4H, hockey, dance and beekeeping are just some of the extracurricular activities the children have participated in.
“People think that if you’re not in a group of 30 kids your own age, you’re not socializing, but nowhere else in your life are you going to be surrounded by 20 to 30 people your own age,” Mederich said. “You start homeschooling your children the day they’re born… If you’ve potty-trained your child, that’s homeschooling.”