Long journey home

Home schooling and its good results

At his high school graduation celebration, Gus Ferré played the fiddle and sang “Long Journey Home” with his band. It had been a long journey indeed, 12 years of studying, and this fall he is attending Butte College.

What makes Gus’ story different than most is that, except for a short stint in a traditional first-grade classroom, he’s done all his schooling at home.

“I am pleased with my education,” Gus says humbly. In fact, he is a multi-talented person, one capable of holding interesting conversations with his peers or adults of any age. He can swing dance. He has excelled in academics and physical activity. He has his own band, called That Bluegrass Band. He has proven himself college material by completing 55 units of concurrent credit at Butte Community College before graduating from high school. And he has a cumulative grade point average of 3.93.

Home schooling, in other words, has worked just fine for Gus Ferré.

Home schooling is an almost invisible phenomenon, and yet it accounts for a significant part of the education system in Butte County. In fact, more than 100 home-schooled students graduated from high school this year in Butte County. More than a thousand students have gained their education independently in the past decade, and the numbers are increasing each year.

Gus is living testimony that, under the right conditions, including highly committed parents, a child can obtain a good education at home.

Gus and his family live in a large home on a tree-covered lot on the west side of Chico. When I arrived there to interview him, he was studying physics. This was unusual for a young man his age, especially one who’d graduated from high school but wasn’t enrolled in classes at the time. Gus was studying physics simply to be knowledgeable in the subject, so that he could pursue and meet his own educational goals. When you see that in a student, you know his schooling has been a success.

While Gus and I talked, his three younger brothers constructed some kind of a perpetual-motion machine with a ball, some string and dowels. They were busy trying it out in the dining room, where we were talking until Gus’s mother, Julia, asked them to test their creation outside. She seems to have an enviable camaraderie with her sons.

Gus started his education as a first-grader at a public school, explains his mother, but he was very restless there. So she began home-schooling him. She found that she was able to combine such academic subjects as science and history with physical activity and keep him interested. She has been his and two of his brothers’ main teacher since then.

There are four boys in the Ferré family. The youngest, John, is enrolled in a charter school program, which he attends on a regular school schedule. The older three boys have been home schooled, and two of Gus’ younger brothers continue in the Hearthstone program. Gus’s father, who incidentally plays in his band, writes and publishes books on macrobiotic diet and philosophy. Julia helps with the family business but has definitely been the moving force in the boys’ home education.

The Ferrés practice the macrobiotic vegetarian lifestyle, and all are slender, active and energetic.

Gus says he still thrives on physical activity, and that it is key to his happiness and well-being. He’s glad that his parents solved the problem of his education at a young age and took on the challenge to keep him active and learning at the same time.

SUCCESS STORY Gustave Eric Ferré is one of 41 students graduating from a unique local school that supports home schooling. Gus sings with “That Bluegrass Band.” He also plays guitar and fiddle.

Photo By Debra Moon

The goal at Hearthstone, the supporting home-schooling charter for Gus and his family, is to provide individualized, or personalized, education. All students are unique, so their educations are tailored to meet their needs, abilities and interests. The home-schooling charters are all accountable to state standards but have the flexibility to assist students to reach those standards using a variety of approaches.

Flexible does not mean easy, however. The students soon learn that they must perform in the program or opt out. There are no students who slide by undetected at this school, since funding is based on performance, not attendance.

Apparently the system has worked well for Gus and helped him to develop good habits. He says a difference he notices between himself and many other students may be that he doesn’t procrastinate, or put things off until the night before. “I start when I get the assignment,” he explains simply.

Sensing something different in the way that Gus interacts with his mother and his siblings, I try to pin it down, but of course there are too many variables. Maybe it is that Gus has been educated with much smaller doses of peer pressure than most students encounter, but he seems stronger, more able to enjoy relations with people because of it, or because of something.

I watched him at a dance, a work party and his home. He seemed well adjusted, which is hard to verify, but for sure he is happy. His grades and transcripts show he is well educated.

Gus and his mom agree that at about ninth or 10th grade, Gus had to go ahead on his own initiative in his studies, since she was very busy with his younger siblings. Julia says he learned music by ear, which was important to him. So, he was given instruments and time to practice on them. Now he plays well enough to entertain a large audience frequently. Julia had a big job, but she claims that Little League, Boy Scouts and the curriculum and teachers at Hearthstone really helped with the education of her sons.

“Sars Clifford was our teacher from Hearthstone for years,” Julia says. “We depended heavily on him to help provide for the boys’ education. He was really good. Our teacher now is Kathy Faith, who has also been excellent.”

Hearthstone got its start 22 years ago with the Butte County Office of Education. Noting that a growing number of families were schooling their own children, the office hired someone to head up a program. These original parents and a handful of teachers shaped the organization of this school, which is now the oldest independent-study program in Butte County.

Many of the first teachers were home-schooling parents themselves, and now they are credentialed, experienced teachers for home-schooled students. It’s fair to say that Hearthstone is an example of some idealistic and visionary people actually doing something.

Presently Hearthstone has 17 teachers and about 420 students. Camptonville Academy, another independent-study program—it serves four counties, including Butte—has 350 students just in Chico and more than 600 students altogether. Both programs are K-12.

The credentialed teachers that Hearthstone hires to monitor students and support the parents as teachers in the home may visit students at home or at one of the charter school’s centers in Oroville and Chico. The program is free and open to the public, but it is not for everybody. It works only for those who can make and follow a plan.

Tina Brennan, a teacher in the program for 12 years, points out that America’s founders all were home schooled. Home schooling started on the East Coast, she says, and was actually a class status symbol when schooling became compulsory.

Today, here on the West Coast, a variety of factors can make home schooling a choice for a student or family. Obviously, a commitment to the child’s education is a big one. Another factor is that the home schooling educational plan is carried out via a partnership among parents, students, teachers and the community. Home-schooling charters make use of community resources and also provide enrichment opportunities, field trips and some classes.

Gus Ferré is not a typical home-school graduate, simply because there is no such thing. But there are more and more home-schooled children each year. Gus sometimes wonders how he will do competing in college, but that’s normal even for kids who’ve come through the public-school system. For Gus, and home schooling in Butte County, we can say: so far, so good.