For the Love of Learning

School.

Did an image just pop into your head with a group of students seated neatly in rows listening to a teacher?

Wake County has a strong public school system, but local parents are increasingly considering alternative avenues for their children’s education. The image of a traditional classroom may wane as differing styles of education pick up steam.

Do-It-Yourself

For the past four years, Cary mom Theresa Klose has taken her children’s education into her own hands. Now president of Cary Homeschooling, she wears both “mom hat and teacher hat” for her 13-year-old son, Tyson, and 11-year-old daughter, Vanessa.

Photo: Teacher Rahel Hanadari-Levi directs students in a science club class at the Learning Arbor.

While most people are pleasantly intrigued by her decision to homeschool, Klose agrees there are lingering misunderstandings about the methodology.

“The biggest misconception is that the kids aren’t socialized,” she said. Quite the contrary, some parents lament there’s too much potential for socialization. The open parameters — parents don’t even have to set an official curriculum to homeschool — mean any type of educational opportunity is fair game. Between art and music lessons, co-ops, museum trips, outdoor activities and plentiful other opportunities in the culturally rich Wake County, the choices can be difficult to narrow down.

Each Wednesday, Klose and several other homeschooled families convene at the Learning Arbor, a co-op that fosters socialization while capitalizing on parents’ varying strengths. Each parent involved suggests a course or selection of courses to offer for the upcoming session, and the families discuss which ones would be of the most benefit to the children. The curriculum changes each 5- or 6-week session, and classes are limited only by imagination.

“I’m not a writer. Don’t ask me to be creative,” Klose said. To offer her kids the best of both worlds, she offers her instruction in science (she holds a PhD in toxicology) and lets another parent in the co-op handle a class on writing.

“It’s nice to have someone else other than your parent talking to you” added Amy Belote, a committee member at Learning Arbor. Class sizes are limited to about a dozen children, and most students who participate are between 7 and 12 years old.

Photo: Bryson Mackie, 12, faces off with Wade Lee, also 12, during a comedy/improv class at the Learning Arbor, a co-op dedicated to homeschool families who weekly for classes and activities.

The reasons for homeschooling are varied. Some parents cite frustration with the public school system’s fluctuating schedules, or programming that doesn’t fit a child’s needs. “Homeschooling used to be considered extreme on either end of the spectrum, but the bell curve is growing,” Klose said.

And here it’s growing fast. In the 2010-2011 year, Wake County had 4,269 registered home schools with about 8,033 students. That’s more than double the next closest county in North Carolina.
“This isn’t just for extremes,” Belote said. “It’s normal people just like you.”

Pick Your Pace

Fostering independence, curiosity and a thirst for learning, Montessori schools allow students to learn at their own speed.

“All classrooms worldwide are set up in curriculum areas with an age range and progression of ‘lessons’ for children in a three-year age span,” said Sue Daniel, director of Cary’s Heartwood Montessori. “That way children can progress at their own pace. The idea of allowing children to practice with concrete objects designed for specific skills until they understand the concept gives them control over their own learning.”

Typically, Montessori classrooms are divided into groups of students aged 18 months to 3 years, 3 to 6 years, 6 to 9 years, 9 to 12 years and 12 to 15 years. Heartwood also has a transitional class for 5- to-7-year-olds.

Mixed-age classrooms create a sense of family at the school, Daniel says. Teachers get to spend three years getting to know students’ individual needs, and the students develop a sort of sibling dynamic as they progress through the cycle of youngest to oldest in each room.

Younger students often observe the older students and subconsciously model themselves after their independence. Middle children work through social issues. The oldest children model mature behavior and become role models for those looking up to them. And all students are presented with a wide range of learning opportunities to pursue as they see fit. “In my 34 years of teaching Montessori, I have not noted any drawbacks to mixed aged groups,” Daniel said.

“The teaching materials themselves are what makes Montessori so unique,” Daniel added. “The math, grammar, geography and sensorial equipment is especially memorable, plus the moveable alphabet.”

The methods and materials were developed by medical doctor and scientist Maria Montessori, who sought to appeal to children’s natural desire to learn. The approach seems to work, as Montessori children are often lauded for their time management skills and independence.

Blended Learning

Wake County has quite a few schools devoted to children with special needs. White Plains Children’s Center has been educating special needs children for 30 years, but it follows a slightly different model.

Photo: Ryder Pitek, 3, is handed a hermit crab as classmate Payton Allen, 4, looks on during “center time” at White Plains Children’s Center in Cary.

As an inclusive day care center and preschool, White Plains classrooms are a mix of roughly half special needs children and half typically developing children. The goal is to foster an environment of understanding and mutual growth, in which children can learn from each other.

“A lot of people think in the early years the focus is on ABCs. But in the first years children learn so much through their play,” said Ruth Miller, the executive director of White Plains. All primary teachers hold the North Carolina Birth-Kindergarten license, and classrooms are structured to provide guided playtime that maximizes learning opportunities for both groups of children.

“My son who was a student at White Plains in its second year of operations,” said Kathleen Carter, chair of the board of directors for White Plains. “He is now a professor and got his PhD at Duke. He will tell you that to this day, because of his experience at a young age, he doesn’t see race, ethnicity, handicap or any other factor. It helps you as a child to be exposed to a diverse population from a young age.”

Photo: White Plains teacher’s assistant Erin Craig helps 5-year-old Ty Barr with a puzzle in the school’s learning center.

White Plains is an agency for the Wake County Public School System. Children who are identified with a disability are entitled to care through the public system at age 3. Typically developing children do not register through the public school system.

For information on other area schools, see our  Preschool Directory.

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