It was a conversation with a second-grade teacher from the local grade school that convinced Drake Shepard to teach his two sons at home.
"I asked, 'Do you get into history?' and she said, 'That's over their head,'" says Shepard. "It was so condescending and so typical. People are always telling children what they can't do. Of course children are interested in history. Why wouldn't they be? I decided I'd never send my children to that school."
Instead, Shepard gathers his two sons, Colton, 6, and Grant, 4, in the playroom of their Oak Park home each day for four or five hours of reading, writing, science, social studies, and math. After that they're off to local libraries or on field trips to museums, a post office, or an airport.
"My main purpose is to elevate my kids and make them good citizens," says Shepard. "I've worked with people who are functionally illiterate, and I vowed that wouldn't happen to my kids. I'm on a mission."
Though there's no way to know exactly how many children are schooled at home, Chicagoan Dorothy Werner, who has taught four of her six children at home and leads several home-school networks, estimates there are 3,000 such kids in Chicago. Some parents teach their own kids because they want to intertwine religious and book learning. Others want to protect their kids from gangs and drugs. Many, like Shepard, feel schools squelch curiosity and retard development. Like all true believers they tend to be a tad self-righteous and very dedicated to their cause.
"Too many schools [infantilize] kids," says Shepard, 38, who attended public schools in Oak Park. "I know I was bored out of my mind in school. I don't want that to happen to my kids."
Luckily for Shepard, Illinois has few rules or regulations governing home schooling. "In other states parents are required to have their children regularly tested, or they have to clear their curriculum with the local school districts," says Werner. There are no such requirements in Illinois. Instead home schools are treated like private schools: they're bound only on their honor to teach from the same branches of education as the public schools--language arts, math, social science, physical science, fine arts, gym, and health.
Some educators criticize home schools because they keep children from interacting with other kids. Or, as modern parents might say, they don't promote socialization.
"There's more to school than learning to read and write," says one veteran Chicago public school teacher who didn't want to be identified. "It's in a classroom where children learn to take turns and to share and to be accountable for their actions to others. It's in a classroom, particularly an integrated one, where they meet kids from different backgrounds. They also learn to get along with grown-ups other than their parents."
To compensate for the social limitations of his home school, Shepard's sons participate in scouting and recreational Park District activities.
"When people ask me about socialization, and they always do, I often say that it's a base all parents have to cover," says Werner. "Most people with children in public or private schools think they have it covered. But home-school parents know they have to worry about it, so they go out of their way to compensate. You get involved with little leagues or basketball leagues or drama clubs. Home-school children tend to be out and about in the real world a whole lot more than other kids. We have a [saying] that [goes,] 'If I'm a home-schooler how come I'm never at home?'"
Another question Werner is frequently asked is how parents who teach at home can spend so much time with their kids without needing a break. In response, Werner asks why other parents don't spend more time with their kids. "If you love your kids, then you would want to spend time with them--it's just not an issue," she says. "The other question I get is, 'When do you get time to yourself?.' Well, my kids are with me all day. If I want to go out in the evening it's all right with them. If my kids were in school all day they might be very clingy when I go out. Still, I won't kid you, it's a major adjustment to run a home school."
In Shepard's case, it involved walking away in 1992 from a job as an accountant to become what he calls a "house dad." His wife supports the family with her sales job. "I don't feel I've lost anything," says Shepard. "This is what I want to do."
He runs his school on a tight schedule. There's a television in the house, but it's rarely on. "Most children's shows are infantile," he says. "They think kids have a five-minute concentration capacity. They're not worth watching." Classes begin at 8:15 every weekday; there's homework every night.
"I used to think that I'd be the kind of dad who goofs around with his kids, like Peter Pan," says Shepard. "But I learned that's not me. I'm not casual; I'm strict. I believe in discipline. I feel I need structure and sticking to a schedule. I think that's good for the boys."
His sons use the same books and worksheets as students in Oak Parks public schools, but Shepard says they're advancing at a faster pace. "There's so much wasted time in schools," he says. "You have to wait to go to the bathroom. You have to wait while other kids in the class try to get what you already understand. You have to wait while the teacher tells some other kid to quiet down. You miss classes every other week because of some holiday or you miss two weeks because of Christmas or ten weeks in the summer. Why should we keep kids out of school for so long? They don't do that in Japan."
A typical day at Shepard's school begins with Colton and Grant sitting at their desk, doing writing exercises. If they giggle or show other signs of goofing off, he quickly orders them back to the task at hand.
"We have a visitor today," Shepard tells four-year-old Grant on the day I visit. "Let's welcome him by writing a note."
So with his dad sounding out the words and, when necessary, pointing to the right letters on an alphabet sheet, Grant prints: "Dear Ben. Thank you for coming."
"At the regular school they would say Grant's too young to do that," says Shepard. "But all kids want to know; they all want to learn. Most kids at age five can memorize entire videos. Why not put those skills to some usefulness?"
Shepard tries to give his lessons practical applications. "Every day we go to the library," he says. "I think it's important not only that they read, but that they learn how to use a library. . . . When I teach them time I don't just use a clock face; I give them a bus schedule and let them figure out how many minutes they have between buses. For counting exercises, we count with real coins. For multiplication, we work with recipes: 'We're making cookies for 4, but 20 people show up. How do you adjust your measurements?' I believe in getting the kids to deal with real-life experiences. Instead of writing letters to Santa Claus, I had Colton write a letter to Congressman Cardiss Collins."
Colton told Collins of his opposition to a bill regulating food and drug labeling. "I disagree with you sponsoring Bill H.R. 2923, because I want to know what certain pills and vitamins do," Colton wrote, identifying himself as a six-and-a-half-year-old.
Collins responded with a three-page form letter filled with legislative gobbledygook that no six-year-old could possibly comprehend explaining why the bill was so marvelous. One obvious lesson to be learned from the exercise is that Congressman Collins doesn't read her mail. But Shepard chooses to emphasize the positive. "Colton's learning how to lobby his congresswoman."
He's proud of his sons' progress. "Colton's doing math on a fifth-grade level, and Grant is reading well beyond his level," he says. "They're progressing at their own rate."
When the subject of the Ninja Turtles somehow arises, Shepard quickly points out that Colton knows that the cartoon characters are named for famous painters. "He also knows who those painters are and what they did to make them famous. Right, Colton?"
"Right," says Colton.
"What did he paint?"
"He painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel."
"Very good, son."
Shepard says he doesn't know how long he'll home-school his sons, but he suspects it will be for at least the next several years.
"This is a romantic rebellion of the heart," he says. "I have dropped out, and we lead a counterculture life, and some people have a hard time understanding this. It bothers them. They think it's weird. I can't help that. I feel free, and my boys feel happy and they're learning. What more could we want?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.