Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series; tune into NET Radio tomorrow for part two, and Friday for part three. The NET News documentary "Home School Nebraska" premieres Friday, April 13 at 7:30 p.m. CT on NET-1/HD. It repeats Saturday, April 14 at 9:30 p.m. CT on NET-2; Sunday, April 15 at 10 p.m. CT on NET-1/HD and Monday, April 16 at 9 p.m. CT on NET-1/HD.
"Now let's do our Greek cards."
As Deb Badeer tells one of her students - who are also her children - it's time for another subject. She teaches 16-year-old Gideon and 12-year-old Autumn at their home south of Lincoln.
"I wake up, I get my chores done, eat breakfast, take a shower, then I'll usually start on one of my own subjects," Gideon explained. "Then, after a bit, we'll come down into the schoolroom and then we'll do group schoolroom time."
That routine includes limited time for classroom instruction. It's when Deb checks to make sure Gideon and Autumn are on track with assignments.
"I find it's an accountability system for them, and for me, to get going and stay focused if we start together in the morning," Deb said.
Gideon agreed, saying that working independently has many benefits.
"Homeschooling is extremely flexible," he said. "If I want to excel in one subject and stay back in another, I can do that."
Over the last few years, the flexible schedule allowed Gideon to focus on subjects like math, then spelling and more recently teaching himself to play piano.
"I was able to go from pretty much zero up to where I was happy extremely quickly," he said.
When his mom saw Gideon immersing himself in the instrument, it became his music curriculum. And that's a different kind of flexibility that Deb said home schooling offers: "You can actually nurture and encourage them in the direction of their interests.
"If that interest changes, you can redirect. But it really gives them time to pursue more than just a surface approach to lots of different subjects," she continued. "We've got the benefits of one-on-one tutoring when it's needed. We have the benefits of directing the curriculum to the gifts and strengths and catering to the weaknesses."
If anyone has an idea of how home schooling works, it's Deb. Gideon and Autumn are the last of eight children for Deb and her husband Dan, and all have been home-schooled. Yet Deb and Dan were not home-schooled, and that wasn't always the plan for their children.
"I pictured six hours of the grueling, sitting at the desk and forcing the child to do something, cramming the pencil in the hand, and tears, you know, and thinking, How in the world am I going to do my daily things with six hours of school?'"
In Nebraska, home schools are called "exempt schools," and laws governing them were passed in the mid-1980s. There were less than 1,000 students then; today, there are 6,800. More than 75 percent of home schools in Nebraska fall under Rule 13, where families want their children exempt from traditional school for religious beliefs. The other exemption is called Rule 12, which covers exempt schools established for non-religious reasons.
Not everyone thinks the home is the right place for formal education.
"I think the training from institutions is very critical in teaching you how to be a teacher," said Nancy Fulton, president of the Nebraska State Education Association. Prior to taking the top spot at the teacher's union, Fulton taught in public schools for more than 30 years in Nebraska.
To be a certified teacher in Nebraska, you need a bachelor's degree and classroom experience.
"They have to reach certain certification and licensure in Nebraska to become a teacher, to basically demonstrate that they have the skills necessary to be a teacher," Fulton said.
Deb took some music education courses in college, but didn't graduate. That makes her typical of home school teachers nationwide.
At Adams Elementary School in Lincoln, one of the kindergarten teachers is helping Addy Palmer spell the word "here": "H, E, R, E there you go, don't let that trick you." That's a more common educational scene in Nebraska. With about 98 percent of Nebraska children in traditional schools, Kristin Palmer of Lincoln is in the majority.
"We are very fortunate to have a public school as strong as we do," she said. "LPS is full of wonderful teachers, great administration."
Addy's brother Brock is a third-grader. He loves to read, and Kristin said the school is flexible enough to accommodate.
"They group those kids, to have a core reading group to really strengthen those abilities," she said. "It just really helps to pull on those strengths that he has and challenge those strengths."
Twelve-year-old Michael Bates doesn't have far to go for school in Hastings.
"Walking for school is basically getting up, getting dressed and then sitting back down," he said. "Because I like to leave my books in here overnight."
The Bates family has been home schooling for several years. Mom Angi said she worked closely with Michael and his 14-year-old sister, Mariah, during school time.
"When they're younger, they think I'm really smart. Because I got the answer key," she said. "And so I really liked that."
But things have changed. With a 5-month-old now part of the family, the two older kids are studying independently. For Mariah, it's quiet in her downstairs bedroom. It looks like a typical teen's room, filled with posters, stuffed animals and awards for sports and academic events.
"This is my lessons plan book," she said. "Basically, it tells me what I have to read every day and my assignments for the week."
Angi reviews schoolwork at least once a week.
"They had a really good foundation before we got to this more independent study," she said.
It might seem like the Bates' approach to school is too independent, but Angi said methods are in place to make sure the kids learn.
"What I do a little bit differently, is like, they take a math test and I grade it and they miss four problems, I give it back to them and I expect them to correct those problems," she said, "because I'm more interested in them learning it then getting a test done and getting a grade."
Like Deb Badeer, Angi doesn't have a four-year college degree, a prerequisite to teacher certification, but Angi's husband, Tim, isn't convinced that makes for a better teacher.
"Nobody's going to care about my kids' education as much as I do," he said. "You can have the best teacher in the world, but they got 30 kids, 25 kids. You know, they do the best that they can."
State Sen. Greg Adams is chair of the Nebraska Legislature's Education Committee, and retired from teaching government and economics at York High School.
"You can have a PhD in all of that stuff. It doesn't make you a good teacher," he said. "It's the art of teaching.
"Now, am I going to sit here and say, Well then, let's just scratch the teacher ed programs'? I would not go that far," he said. "Because there are things within the science of education that need to be learned."
Fulton with the teacher's union said it's too easy for Nebraskans to remove themselves from traditional schools.
"I think requirements need to be placed so that even a child that is home-schooled needs to meet the same accountability standards that a public school student needs to have as they progress."
Paperwork, stating who will teach, what curriculum will be used and agreement of core subjects that will be taught is about all it takes to be allowed to home school in Nebraska.
Deb said she thinks the system works well for Nebraska families and includes a level of oversight for the state.
"We are considered a lower-regulation state, and they have the right to visit the home," she said. "They also have a right to test the students if they suspect a problem, and so I think that's reasonable for both sides; and at the same time, we have the freedom to go ahead and teach from the curriculums that we choose for our students."
Neither the Badeer family near Lincoln nor the Bates family in Hastings has ever been contacted by the state Department of Education for visitation or testing to check on the children's academic progress. The department is not required to visit or test and does not keep records on how often either of those is conducted.
Sen. Adams doesn't foresee any changes to state law at this time, and said the education priority is elsewhere.
"I simply have said to myself anyway, I'm going to put the (roughly 280,000) students we have in public school and focus on them."