Unschooled in Nebraska: Independent learning finding a place in private, public schools

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July 24, 2012 - 7:00pm

Editor's note: Read part one of this series here.

Lincoln unschooler Michael Landreth is not public education's number one fan.

"I want to go on record to say that the idea of a school system is corrupt to the core!" Landreth said.

"It cannot be good because it is bad in of itself! Children were not meant to be taught by a bureaucracy, we are meant to go out into the fields and learn the trade," he said. "When did that stop happening? I'll tell you when: the industrial revolution!"

Photo by Lindsey Peterson, KVNO

Children in Montessori schools are encouraged to engage in independent play and learning.

Photo by Lindsey Peterson, KVNO

A Montessori student practices geography.

Photo by Lindsey Peterson, KVNO

"Sandpaper letters" are a Montessori staple for learning how to read and write.

Landreth is now attending community college studying philosophy, but he has many qualms with the structures of standardized education. He said pressures outside of learning motivate students to find shortcuts and circumvent lesson plans.

"You don't learn things when you're forced into a system. You learn how to cheat the system," he said. "You're thinking because of credits, these arbitrary rules we've placed."

Twenty-two-year-old Landreth and his family have been on-again, off-again unschoolers. Unschooling is what some would call a "radical" form of homeschooling. No tests, no curriculums and no formal teaching. Parents are required to fill out an annual form that cites either religious or philosophical interference for their decision to keep their children out of an accredited school. The state does not issue a diploma to exempt students, but home learning students can receive one from either their parent, a homeschooling network or by taking the GED test.

Most of the Landreth children, whose ages range from five to 24, have spent sporadic time in the public school system. Some have attended, or still attend, individual courses at a local high school classes like pottery, Japanese and speech to supplement their at-home or "life experience" learning.

Unschooler Carl Mowry, 17, currently attends Metropolitan Community College in Omaha to take general education courses. He said class sizes deter him from public high school.

"There's like, one teacher to a ton of kids I've had friends in public (schools) and private schools, for that matter, and they don't really pay attention."

For the Landreths and Mowry, their unschooling philosophy best suits their core principles of life learning, self-sufficiency and freedom of choice. While critics might find their methods to be radical, their philosophies can be found in both public and private institutions.

LaVonne Plambeck, director of Montessori Educational Centers in Omaha, brought the Montessori teaching method to Omaha nearly 45 years ago. It was originally seen as a daycare, but now, the centers are a licensed private education system.

"The problem is, through school, they are just so structured. This first grade, second grade," she said. "You know, it doesn't work like that anymore, people."

Much like unschooling, Montessori schools focus on what the child wants to do. Children explore interests with spurts of guided learning. Plambeck called it "freedom within limits." Children are encouraged to learn from each other and share new knowledge with their peers in mixed age groups.

"Montessori is a philosophy where you're really building the character of the individual, teaching them how to think. Who are you? Think for yourself," Plambeck said.

In a suburb of Omaha, Millard Public Schools has also caught on to the idea. MPS has two elementary schools and a middle school that implement the Montessori philosophy. But the Millard Public Schools' Montessori is free and open to the public, whereas private Montessori schools can cost upwards of $8,000 a year.

Dr. ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent of Omaha Public Schools, said public education is the backbone of society.

"Public school is the great equalizer. It is the opportunity for young people to be more than what they could've been," she said. "It allows young people to have a successful future academic career in college, university or the world of work. Public school allows young people who have little resources to have the same toehold on the future as a family that is highly resourced."

For Kehrberg, structure is beneficial in a district that serves a majority of students in the Omaha metro; it ensures all children receive a quality education across the board. She agrees that "doing" is the best form of learning - a philosophy shared with unschooling. OPS has career centers to foster talents and interests where students receive a core education in all subjects, utilizing lectures, hands-on experiments and group projects through a scheduled curriculum. Unschoolers, however, do not use any learning schedules.

"We define, Here is what every child should know and be able to do in 4th grade, 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade,' and then we said, This is what they need for math, science, social studies,'" Kehrberg said. "Those are called content standards, and the state gives those to us. In the absence of content standards, if I'm unschooling, well, I might love statistics, but I might never engage myself in geometry."

Kerhberg said some home learning children entering the public school system are strong in a few subjects but have "holes" in many others.

"What we guarantee is that when you graduate high school in the Omaha public schools, you've gotten a balanced array of all the core subjects."

But for some unschoolers, the public school system is failing students. And those notions are backed by federal data, which has listed high schools throughout OPS and Lincoln Public Schools as failing by federal testing standards. Kehrberg said public schools are open to entire communities with students across a spectrum of backgrounds and abilities, and that diversity makes those federal standards unobtainable.

For Jessica Freeman, a Lincoln unschooling parent, that is the irony in criticisms of home learners. She takes issue with the suggestion that home learners need to be more supervised.

"If the public schoolers who take the same test don't pass this test, what happens to them? I mean, they're still in the same system they don't get thrown out into home school," Freeman said. "What kind of double standard is this?"

Currently, home learning students are not tested by the state. Freeman said legislation to do so has been proposed in the past, but has not made it into law.

The end game for most public schools and home learners is getting kids to pursue secondary education to enter the workforce and become successful, productive adults. Despite the hesitation to join a traditional school system, many unschoolers do attend community colleges and universities to get the diplomas they need to find jobs. However, Freeman said pushing kids to college is missing the point.

"Like Occupy Wall Street: those kids went to school, they followed all the rules and they have no jobs. And they're like, We have to do something to change this! Those kids can't get jobs and they went to school - see? You really need a college education!" Freeman said.

"You don't need a college education. Because a college education, at this point, has become more of the same sometimes it's useful, but sometimes it's not."

At its core, personal accountability is paramount for unschoolers. Rather than a college degree, Freeman said, personal motivation is what stands between success and failure. Unschooler Carl Mowry agreed.

"If you get someone who really doesn't care about what they learn and what they do, they're probably not going to be as prepared. And I've met other guys in homeschooling that don't really give a damn," he said.

So what does a successful adulthood look like to those students?

"Well," he said, "they're probably going to be in their parents' basement for awhile."



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