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Learning at Home
The number of homeschooled children in the U.S. is on the rise. According to the Department of Education, 1,770,000 American students were being homeschooled in 2013, up from 850,000 in 1999. Nearly one-third of homeschoolers come from rural areas. Farm families may find this option especially attractive since kids are able to help on the farm during traditional school hours.
When her oldest daughter, Maggie, was about to enter kindergarten, Julie Steinkamp and her husband, Doug, weighed their options. They grow corn, soybeans, and popcorn; run a 60-head farrow-to-finish swine operation; and feed out 120 cow-calf pairs near Wall Lake, Iowa. “We prayed about it and decided to homeschool through second grade. It was a really good fit for our family and farm life, so we just kept going,” she says. “It’s not that we want to separate ourselves from the rest of the world. For us, it’s about family and faith.” They currently homeschool from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Maggie is now 17 and a senior at Kuemper Catholic High School. Kevin is 15 and a sophomore at East Sac High School, the local public school. The family’s exchange student from Thailand also went to East Sac. The homeschool class consists of Levi, 12, grade 7; Laura, 9, grade 4; and Luke, 7, grade 2. Zach, age 2, is getting a good start listening to his siblings read.
Steinkamp says there’s really no typical homeschooling day. “It varies a lot, especially when they’re young. Schoolwork doesn’t take as long then, so there’s more time to help on the farm and spend time outside. When they’re older, the work takes more time.” Older kids can do more work on their own but do require extra help for subjects like algebra.
Steinkamp says her kids are learning all the time. Since she is so in tune with what her children are studying, she’s ready to discuss related topics when they pop up. “Teachable moments can happen any time,” she says, “not just during school hours.”
Steinkamp also enjoys being able to bring faith into the classroom. “I can talk to my kids about God in any subject,” she says.
With two of her children now in high school, Steinkamp says the transition has gone extremely well academically. Maggie scored very high on her ACT test.
Socially, the transition can be a bit tougher. Even though the Steinkamps know many local kids through 4-H, it can be hard to become part of an already established group at school. Kevin has become very involved in FFA, which has helped him make friends with kids who are interested in farming.
Joining a homeschooling group has given Steinkamp a support network. She and other moms compare lesson plans, share what’s working and what isn’t, plan field trips, and host a spring gala, where all the kids showcase their artwork and academic achievements from the school year. “That’s my best advice for other parents considering this,” she says. “You’ll definitely want other homeschoolers to talk to.” She also attends a Catholic homeschooling conference each summer.
The kids have enjoyed farming while being homeschooled, from harvesting crops to weaning pigs. “It makes them feel attached to the farm, and they want to keep farming,” she says. “They have developed a special bond with their grandpa, too.” However, Steinkamp warns, “It’s really hard to hold a boy’s attention when there’s a farm right outside the door.”
While homeschooling won’t work for every family, Steinkamp says, “We’ve really enjoyed it. It has kept us close as a family. The kids really are each others’ best friends.”
Not for Everyone
Betsy Wright tried homeschooling, but the demands of managing several young children and working on her family’s sixth-generation Newark, Ohio, farm, led her to give it up.
“I liked the flexible hours, making God the center of subjects, and fewer hours sitting,” she says. “My oldest son also has some special needs. I was very nervous about public school, and some of my decision to homeschool was fear-based.”
She homeschooled her oldest child in kindergarten, with three younger kids at home. The following year, she had two kids to homeschool, plus their younger siblings to care for. The Wrights are currently expecting child number six.
When her father-in-law’s cancer progressed so he could no longer work on the farm, something had to give. “My husband needed help. I was frazzled and began to resent homeschooling,” she says. “The stress was stealing a lot of my joy.”
After one particularly frustrating day, she drove to school and signed the kids up. “My days became less chaotic, the home became more peaceful and joyful, I was better able to focus on my little ones, and it felt so wonderful to enjoy my time working alongside my husband instead of feeling guilty.”
Wright’s fears about public school are gone. “I have met so many moms and teachers who share our values and love our children, and I feel like we became more a part of this wonderful, close-knit community we are blessed to live in,” she says.
“Homeschooling can be a great choice and so can local or private school,” Wright says. “It’s up to each family to weigh the pros and cons and decide which is best.”