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When home is school: One teenager’s story

The home-schooling Nordstrom family: From left, Kat holding brother Joshua, grandmother Deborah Morris, mother Amanda, father Kurt. Timothy, left front, and Matthew, right front. (Family photo)

Kat Nordstrom is 13. She lives in Fredericksburg, Va., with her parents, her grandmother and three younger brothers. Being a big sister requires patience and generosity. That’s how she treats me as she corrects my ignorance regarding home schooling.

She recently found an old column of mine seeking help on that issue. She offered to school me. Rarely have I had a teacher so quick and complete in answering my questions.

I write a lot about charter schools, which have 3 million U.S. students. But home schooling is popular, too, with 1.8 million kids. Kat is helping me see her education as more than reading some books and answering questions from her mom.

“My curriculum is called Classical Conversations, usually referred to as CC,” she said. “It is a classical Christian home-schooling education program, whose mission statement is ‘To Know God, and to Make Him Known.’ I have done this program ever since kindergarten.”

“From the start, middle-school-level children are doing high school/college level work for many of their educational needs,” she said.

Her courses have recently included mathematics, Latin, rhetoric, persuasive writing, cartography, biology, natural science, logic, current events and astronomy.

That is impressive for someone who would be only an eighth-grader in a regular school. She also has reasons that she, and her family, think home schooling is better for her personal growth. “I am not constantly surrounded by cussing children,” she said. “I am not shunned or ridiculed for my faith.”

I asked her why she thought that would happen in a regular public school. Her education, I learned, has given her research skills. She cited a detailed article on foul language in schools by my friend and colleague Valerie Strauss. I had to concede that cussing has grown more common since I was an eighth-grader in 1959.

Her research on abuse of Christianity was even more interesting. She provided several articles from American Civil Liberties Union websites and from Fox News about clumsy attempts to teach or ban the Bible in schools. I would argue that’s just educators misinterpreting the First Amendment, not shunning Christians. But in a formal debate between the well-educated Ms. Nordstrom and me, I might lose.

Those who say home-schoolers don’t learn social skills are “very, very wrong,” Kat said. She meets weekly with other children using the Classical Conversations curriculum to discuss concepts and schoolwork and play games that go with the subjects. Working at her own pace, she said, she can get much done in less time, leaving more room for “theater arts, martial arts lessons, dance classes and many other extracurricular activities.”

If there were a class in conviviality, Kat would get an A plus. She made friends with all the children in her old neighborhood in Montgomery County, Md., and is doing the same in Fredericksburg. I was just one more stranger she connected with.

Her mother, Amanda, is an independent saleswoman for the child-oriented Usborne Books & More. Her father, Kurt, is a software developer who works at home. Her brothers, Matthew, 12; Timothy, 6; and Joshua, almost 2, are also home-schooled.

About two-thirds of home-schooling families have religious reasons for their choice. Kat’s mother felt that her own public schooling was poor and that she could better pace her kids.

Kat said she wants to be an analytical or physical chemist, but also study robotic engineering, computer programming and astronomy. Her hardest courses have been cartography (“I am not a good artist”) and Latin (“I despised it”). She plans to take local college courses eventually.

For recreation, she crochets or pursues her favorite activity, reading. She has been doing that “since I was 3, and I LOVE it,” she said.

Home schooling is not for everyone. My wife and I could never have handled it. But I have rarely encountered a teenager as happy with her studies as Kat. That is something to keep in mind as we argue how to improve education. Maybe more freedom for families to choose the pace and nature of courses would be worth a try.