Home school outside mainstream; Its focus is families, lessons in competence, resilience
RED STAR — As Mary Margarett Harris, a 10-yearold home-school student from Red Star, coasts down a plywood ramp and across a concrete floor, the sounds of her skateboarding and squealing blend in with the buzz at Headwaters School.
It’s midmorning on a Wednesday, one of the two days the Headwaters School, located in Red Star along Arkansas 16, is open each week. About a dozen children ranging in age from 1-14 are simultaneously at work and play in the school’s main room, which is a combination of work desks, a kitchen, an activity table and a large, open floor. While some of the children prepare to go outside for a science experiment involving creating large soap bubbles, others freely rollerblade around the school’s interior.
The school, which is not accredited, is a cross between a one-room schoolhouse and an artistic community center. Headwaters — founded in nearby Pettigrew in the early 1970s — has served home-schoolers for about 40 years. It relocated to Red Star, which is in the Ozark National Forest, in 1997.
Rain Mako, Headwaters’ president and one of the school’s three teachers, emphasized that it isn’t simply for home-schooled children or their parents, but rather for the entire family.
“In home schooling, you see people who begin for religious reasons, or they’re dissatisfied with public education, but also people who see it as an extension of their family life,” Mako said. “There is a focus on family closeness, on competence and resiliency. It’s a choice to invest a lot of time with your kids — passing on your values and beliefs, but also enjoying life together.”
“There’s a common thread to the families that are involved here,” said Mako. “It has to be someone who’s willing to do things that are out of the mainstream.”
“It takes people who are adventurous and resourceful to home school in the first place. To have the less-directed sort of home schooling that works well at Headwaters takes a lot of confidence on the part of the parents,” Mako said.
Sara White, a home-schooler who also teaches at the school, said about 15 home-schooling families have children who attend Headwaters at least twice a month.
The school, which was registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit organization in 1976, runs with minimal funding from the community. Parents pay annual fees of $125 to cover the school’s utilities, phone line and insurance, Mako said. Teachers are paid directly by the parents.
An extended family of community members, many of whom are former students or parents of students, still actively participates in steering the school and planning fundraisers to fund it.
The school hosts home-schoolers each Wednesday and Thursday, although there is no mandatory attendance. Activities normally begin at 10 a.m., and the school day continues into midafternoon, with a break for lunch.
Mako and other teachers do not rely on a set curriculum, but instead design activities that put practical skills and knowledge to use.
While some families live within minutes of the school, others live more than an hour’s drive away. In those cases, the parents tend to stay the entire day with their children and assist in teaching.
The school attracts families from as far away as Fayetteville and Clarksville. Many share a back-to-the-land ethic. Some have homesteads that function without use of rural electrical grids. The religious leanings of the various families differ, and most now involved with the school did not choose home schooling for religious reasons.
“We don’t have any religion-purposed families at the moment,” White said. “We have had religious families in the past, and we all have a tremendous amount of respect for each other. What ties us together is our landscape and our tremendous belief in our ability to educate ourselves.”
The number of homeschooled students in Arkansas has climbed each year for the past two decades. Accordingto the Arkansas Department of Education, more than 16,400 children were enrolled in home-schooling programs in 2012. That’s more than five times the 3,140 number of home-school students reported in 1992.
Bill Ballard, Arkansas coordinator for home-school testing, said that outside of religion, parents typically report one of three reasons for wanting to home school their children.
“They feel they can actually do better for their children,” said Ballard, noting that in some locations, there may be no public school that satisfies a particular parent.
“Parents of special-needs kids often feel very strongly that they can help their children better than a special-education teacher in a public school. A big percentage of home-schooling parents just feel the public schools are an unsafe environment,” Ballard said. “And some of them just get mad at people.”
Kristin Hedges, who home schools her three children, ages 1, 4 and 6, with her husband in Clarksville, said she discovered Headwaters shortly after moving to Arkansas from Arizona in 2010. Although she initially recoiled at the idea of an hour-long commute to the school, her first visit changed her mind.
“After a month of trying to figure out what we were going to do, and feeling really lonely, I came up one Wednesday,” Hedges said. “As soon as I walked in, I let out a breath I’d been holding since we’d moved here — a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.”
Hedges said Headwaters persuaded her in part to commit to home schooling her children because she wanted them to have a learning experience than deviated from her perception of current public school teaching techniques.
“It’s the whole idea of experiential learning,” Hedges said. “It’s not sitting at a desk and hammering facts into kids. It’s learning as we’re actually experiencing the environment, the world, and what’s going on around us.”
Other parents said they focused on curriculum-based teaching, while using gathering spaces such as Headwaters to put those lessons to practical use. Teachers at the school use nature walks through the Ozark National Forest to teach children to identify trees and plants, and use kayak floats on the Buffalo National River to teach about waterways and geology.
“It’s this experiential learning that’s become really valued for us,” Hedges said. “[The children] seem to have a higher value for what they’re learning, as opposed to adults just telling them what to memorize.”
The Arkansas Department of Education tracks reading-comprehension and conceptual problem- solving scores for home-schooled children, although only in the aggregate. While parents are not required to submit lesson plans or adhere to any established curricula, homeschooled children must take tests using the Iowa Basic Skills test criteria each year during grades three through nine. While parents have access to their children’s individual results, the results are not shared with the state, Ballard said.
According to data from the Education Department, homeschooled children in Arkansas scored on average as well or better than did 52 percent to 68 percent of children taught in public or private schools on the Arkansas Benchmark Exam or the Iowa Basic Skills test over the past five years.
Many of the parents interviewed at the Headwaters School said the most common concern they hear from inside their families and out is that home schooling isolates children from their peers and robs them of the opportunity to develop social skills.
White, whose husband and three brothers-in-law were all home-schooled and attended the Headwaters School in their younger years, said she thinks that daily interaction between parent and child combined with that of children of different ages, is more effective at socializing than is the public school system.
“Look at public school’s idea of socialization: ‘sit down, be still, be quiet,’” White said. “I really didn’t want my children to experience that whole public school scene. I wanted them to experience a smaller environment where they would have really close friends that would be encouraging.”
She said there are tangible benefits in the educational style of the Headwaters School.
“I’ve found that kids learn better from other kids. I like the one-room schoolhouse environment where they’re learning from the kids who are older than them,” White said. “That really helps both the older kids and the younger kids — it gives the younger kids somebody to look up to, and it gives older kids a reason to be responsible.”
Originally published April 28, 2013 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette