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The Education Liberator, Vol. 1, No. 5, February 1996

Dropouts from compulsory schooling's damaging moral dualism

Incoming tide of teens and parents turn to homeschooling for hope and relief

by Jackie Orsi

In recent generations, we've come to sort all teenagers into two, and only two, groups: good kids and dropouts. We've bought into the supposition for generations now that good kids dutifully attend high school until graduation day. A dropout, by contrast, is a lout, a loser, and quite likely, a reprobate.

These moral extremes don't admit much tolerance for individual needs, for deficiencies in the schools, or for any other variable that might yield an exception, but they are a necessary result of the logic of compulsory school attendance. The thinking goes: if we force children to go to school, then it must be good for them, right? And therefore, if they reject school, they must be bad children, right? So it is that society wags a shaming finger at dropouts while truant officers patrol the streets. All in all, it's a fairly successful formula ? nine parts moral coercion and one part legal constraint ? enabling us to herd the vast majority of kids into the school yards with a minimum of effort.

Of course, we pay a price for this either/or arrangement. The millions of teens who don't fit the high school mold languish and suffer, trying to hang on till their time is up and a diploma is dispensed to them. If we're lucky, they merely grow passive during their captivity. Despite the social pressure to hang on, other kids drop out as soon as the law allows, deciding that the stigma of "dropout" is easier to take than a single day more in a place that is meaningless, suffocating, and humiliating to them. High schools are full of dropouts-to-be, waiting to reach the legal age of liberation and haunting the halls like the living dead, restless and defiant. Shamed for failing or hating school, they league together in a subculture that promises to validate their self-worth, a gang that calls it "cool" to be bad. The cruel dichotomy of diploma vs. dropout has estranged countless millions of our youth.

Until now. There's a blessed new choice on the scene. In my role as a homeschool activist, my phone rings all day long. I'm witnessing an incoming tide of teens and their parents who are turning with hope and relief to homeschooling. Teens are the fastest growing segment of the nation's fastest growing educational movement. Significantly, in the majority of these cases, it is the teen who initiates the discussion by asking mom and dad to please consider homeschooling.

Because homeschooling exists, and because it's gaining stature as a valid educational choice, teens and their parents are sitting down together, communicating, and solving problems in ways that would have been unlikely even a decade ago. Increasing numbers of parents are willing to consider the possibility that their child's frustration/fear/boredom/alienation is not just willful perversity, but might just be an Outcome Based on Education, to use the system's own buzzwords. A growing number of teens are discarding the "dropout" label and calling themselves "unique individuals" instead. Working together, families at all income levels are finding creative new ways for their young person to continue on a learning course, adapting to his or her needs in a way no institutional school, public or private, can.

Take Ben for example. He's a 15 year-old charmer without a scholar's bone in his body. Schoolwork was so meaningless to him that he grew hostile, started to "hang out" and "get in trouble." Now in homeschool, he's studying to pass the high school proficiency exam and apprenticing in an auto mechanics shop. This sensible and challenging plan put together by mother and son has restored Ben's good nature. His mother now says, "I've got my son back."

I hear that phrase often. Homeschooling defuses a lot of anger and salves a lot of psychological wounds. It puts parents back on their kid's side again. America is full of good kids who have sound individual reasons to leave school and go about their own ways of growing up. There's 17-year-old Mark who knows his life's work is to be a classical musician and who wants to dedicate more of his time to that accomplishment. There's Trisha who desperately wanted away from her seventh grade peer group's dive into sex and drugs. There's Laura, a plain 15-year-old who needed release from relentless teasing in high school, and delightedly found acceptance and challenge studying at a museum. There are dozens more I could tell you about, all of them needing out ? and not a lout, loser, or reprobate among them!

Homeschooling is a small door punched in a far back corner of the solid public high school edifice. Kids are leaving one by one. It's a promising start.

An Unqualified Recommendation: The best starting point for the consideration of homeschooling teens is The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to quit school and get a real life and education by Grace Llewellen, Lowry House, 1991.

Jackie Orsi operates Hawthorne Academy, a private Independent Study Program for homeschoolers. She is also a Trustee for the California Homeschool Network.

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