Homeschooling in Sarpy County

Homeschooling in Sarpy County
A five-part series
Papillion Times (April 4–May 2, 2002)
By Wendy Townley

Part I: Bellevue family finds success at home

Brittany Zenor, 13, is curled up on the couch, reading a fat paperback by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Her brother, 11-year-old Brenton, and two twin sisters, Kaiti and Kathi, 10, sit near Brittany around a kid-sized table, working on math and social studies.

It’s 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and none of the kids are wearing shoes.

No, these children aren’t taking a day off school.

They’re in school.

The Zenor family has homeschooled four of their five children since 1999.

And they’re not alone.

In Sarpy County during the 2001-02 school year, 240 families homeschooled 459 children.

Sarpy County families homeschool the third-largest number of children in Nebraska, behind Douglas and Lancaster counties, according to a report released last month by the Nebraska Department of Education.

Parents homeschool their children for a variety of reasons.

For Wendy and Steve Zenor, homeschooling wasn’t something they discussed before getting married.

“We never went into our married life thinking that we were going to homeschool our kids all the way through,” Wendy said. “It’s just been circumstances have lead to that.”

Steve, now retired from the U.S. Navy, moved around the country. One of the family’s first stops was in San Diego.

Many of their friends from a local church homeschooled their children, so the Zenors decided to give it a try.

At the time, Wendy and Steve only had Jonathan, Wendy’s son from a previous marriage, now 19, and Brittany.

The nearest school was in one of San Diego’s rougher neighborhoods, complete with armed guards and fences.

“I thought, ‘I’m not putting my kid in a school like that,’” Wendy said.

Steve was transferred shortly after; Wendy moved with Jonathan and Brittany to Iowa.

They didn’t homeschool again until Jonathan was a fifth-grader in Colorado.

During his first parent-teacher conferences, Wendy learned that Jonathan was 56 assignments behind in his schoolwork. He had two weeks to catch up or he would fail.

“I was just a little frustrated that she (Jonathan’s teacher) had not called me when he was 10, 15 assignments behind instead of waiting until 56 assignments,” Wendy said. “I had no idea, and Jonathan sure wasn’t telling me.”

Wendy and Steve decided to take matters into their own hands and, once again, began homeschooling their two children.

“I said, at that point, if that’s the best you can do with my kid, I can at least do as well as you’re doing,” Wendy said. “Ever since then, we have homeschooled.”

Today, Jonathan is enrolled at Metropolitan Community College.

Part I Sidebar: No ‘typical day’ in Zenor home

After moving to Bellevue about three years ago, Wendy and Steve Zenor continue to homeschool four of their five children.

Wendy is quick to point out that there isn’t such thing as a “typical day” during the week.

“First of all this is a home, not a school; so we don’t always have typical days,” Wendy said. “We have a schedule that we try to do, but it isn’t always perfect.”

The direction of each day’s schoolwork depends largely on her children’s attitudes and what needs to get accomplished, Wendy said.

Mornings usually begin between 8 and 8:30 a.m. with math, geography, history, spelling and science. Anything Wendy considers group work takes place before noon.

The four children get a 30-minute lunch break around noon.

After lunch, the children work individually on anything from book reports to science projects.

“That’s their independent time,” Wendy said.

The Zenor family’s school day typically wraps up between 2 and 3 p.m.

“We don’t spend as many hours in school as typical students do because we don’t take recess breaks or lots of bathroom breaks,” Wendy said. “We’re not waiting for other kids to get through; we just keep going.”

Unlike many students, the Zenor children don’t spend much of their evenings on homework. Rather, they each have household chores to attend to.

“We consider those chores part of their schoolwork. Organization and family life and all that kind of stuff is important, too,” Wendy said. “I couldn’t possible give them the time I give them and do all the work in the house myself.”

To prepare for each school year, Wendy devises a notebook for each day’s lesson plans.

“Ideally, that’s what we’re going to do, but we’re not always right on,” Wendy said. “We try to stay pretty close to it.”

It could be considered a daunting task, especially with four children: Brittany is in eighth grade; Brenton is in sixth grade; twins Kaiti and Kathi are in fifth grade.

Wendy said the success in homeschooling, however, comes through the flexibility.

“This year, it looks like we’ll need to go a week or two over in math and spelling; but that’s OK,” she said. “We’ve just had to slow down and study more.”

As for books, Wendy purchases books from Florida-based A Beka Book, a company specializing in Christian textbooks.

“I also watch used-book sales religiously to see what’s going for sale,” Wendy said.

The World Wide Web has aided Wendy in finding used books from other parents who homeschool across the country.

“I’m more loose in terms of what I let the kids do,” she said. “I try to find something to interest them so school isn’t so boring.”

Steve is a huge history buff, which bodes well for the four Zenor children.

“Our kids probably have more knowledge of politics and how the government works than most kids in high school because my husband is really into politics,” Wendy said.

The children have viewed State of the Union addresses on TV and went with their parents to view the voting process.

“They even got the ‘I Voted’ stickers,” Wendy said. “It really gives them an idea of how things work.”

Wendy and Steve do give their children a break from school during the summer months. The length of that break is typically determined by how much they accomplish during the school year.

Part II: The story behind homeschooling

Homeschooling, by definition, doesn’t exist in Nebraska.

If that’s the case, how do you explain the 5,000 children who were homeschooled in Nebraska during the 2001-02 school year?

The Nebraska Department of Education identifies homeschools in Nebraska as exempt schools.

State statutes identify these types of educational settings as exempt schools – more specifically, schools that aren’t subject to regulation from the Department of Education or other state agencies.

“Since it’s not in our state statutes, homeschooling does not exist in Nebraska,” said Russ Inbody, administrator of school finance and organization services of the Nebraska Department of Education in Lincoln.

Legislation enacted in 1984 produced Rule 13, which allowed Nebraska parents to provide their children educational opportunities outside of schools approved or accredited by the state.

Homeschooling parents initially filed under Rule 13 with the state, which allowed them to exempt their schools because of “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Rule 13 was amended in 1999 and Rule 12 was added, which allows parents to file for exempt status for other than for religious reasons. Rule 12 also requires parents to comply with the state’s immunization laws, but doesn’t demand proof on behalf of the family.

“People have had to file (under Rule 13) due to religious reasons, even though that wasn’t the case,” Inbody said. “Rule 12 gave people the option, so they wouldn’t have to state that it was for religious reasons if it was not.”

Because this is an exempt situation, parents aren’t required to submit proof of immunization to the state under Rule 12.

“Since this process has been put in place, there have been very few problems,” Inbody said.

The lack of problems could be attributed to the lack of red tape.

For parents interested in homeschooling their children, they must file the proper paperwork with the Nebraska Department of Education 30 days prior to their school year.

As part of the paperwork, parents must identify their exemption status under Rule 12 or Rule 13.

The 2001-02 school year saw 4,659 children homeschooled under Rule 13 in Nebraska, while only 341 were educated under Rule 12, according a report released last month by the Nebraska Department of Education. In Sarpy County during the same school year, 411 children were homeschooled under Rule 13, while only 48 children were homeschooled under Rule 12.

During the 2000-01 school year, 4,470 children in Nebraska were homeschooled under Rule 13, while 189 children were educated under Rule 12. In Sarpy County during that year, 375 children were homeschooled under Rule 13. Under Rule 12, only 24 children were homeschooled.

Does that mean more families opt out of area schools because of religion?

Not necessarily, said Beth Bolte, administrative assistance for the NDE.

Because Rule 12 has only been an option since 1999, not enough families are aware of it when filing for exempt status, Bolte said.

Once families file the proper paperwork with the state and receive notification, their homeschools can begin immediately.

The state doesn’t deny families applying for exempt status, Inbody said.

“Technically, all we do is acknowledge that they’re doing that, so that they’re in compliance with compulsory attendance laws,” he said.

Because, by Nebraska law, children are only required to be schooled through age 16, the state requires parents to file for exempt status when homeschooling children ages 7-15.

State laws require secondary students to be schooled a minimum of 1,080 hours per year, while elementary students require a minimum of 1,032 hours. This averages to about 175 days.

At the end of each school year, parents are encouraged to keep records of their child’s progress. No test scores or educational information is submitted to the state.

For students homeschooled through grade 12, the only way to receive a diploma is through a GED, or general educational testing. The Department of Education doesn’t issue diplomas.

If interested in homeschooling the following year, families must submit the proper paperwork to the Department of Education to begin the process again.

The Zenor family, who has homeschooled four of their five children since 1999 in Sarpy County, filed under Rule 13 each year.

Wendy and Steve Zenor have five children: Jonathan, 19; Brittany, 13; Brenton, 11; and twins Kaiti and Kathi, 10.

The Zenors don’t want their children learning about subjects such as evolution, at an early age in the public school system.

“They’re going to learn that (evolution) in high school, and they’re going to learn that in college,” Wendy said. “I’d rather, in their formative years, that I be the one to teach them what we believe, and then, they have a basis and a ground in what we believe. Then, they can go on and know more about being able to defend their faith and defend what they believe, and not just swallow what’s spoon-fed to them in the schools.”

The Zenors are members of Brookside Church (formerly Faith Evangelical Free Church) in southwest Omaha.

When families, such as the Zenor family, file for exempt status in Nebraska, they also are waiving any educational assistance from the state. That means the parent assumes all costs involved with schooling.

Parents aren’t permitted to contact the Department of Education with questions about the education of their children.

This is where various homeschooling associations come in to play.

The Department of Education provides information on two homeschooling associations – one in Omaha and one in Lincoln – should parents desire assistance down the road.

These associations aren’t affiliated with the state in any capacity.

“Since these parents are exempting themselves from approval and accreditation laws (in Nebraska), we can’t endorse or recommend any particular curriculum,” Bolte said. “So they’re kind of left to their own devices to research that.”

Part III: Homeschooling and the school district

Wendy Zenor wishes school districts in Sarpy County offered the satellite programs she utilized while homeschooling her children in California.

Before moving to the area in 1999, Wendy and her husband Steve homeschooled their five children in San Diego.

A separate facility provided Wendy with the necessary materials to homeschool their children. Testing and record management funded by the state government also takes place for homeschooling families.

“It’s a cool program,” Wendy said. “I wish they had something like that here.”

While the Papillion-La Vista school district doesn’t offer such resources to families who homeschool in the Papillion and La Vista areas, they do consider themselves extremely flexible.

“If we can help out, then we try to do that,” said Jef Johnston, assistant superintendent of the school district.

The school’s central office receives a list each year from the Nebraska Department of Education identifying those students within the district who are homeschooled.

For elementary and middle school students, the district opens the school’s doors to homeschooled students in the area. The district doesn’t have any requirements for these students.

For example, if a mother homeschooling her son wants him to take a math course at an area school, he can do so without completing other requirements the school has in place for its traditional students.

While the numbers of homeschooled students participating in classes and activities isn’t huge, Johnston said there tends to be a handful of such students each year.

“We’ve had kids taking almost any class you can imagine that we offer, and we’ve had kids taking almost any activity that we offer,” Johnston said. “It’s been our philosophy to help those kids and families.”

High school students interested in pursing an activity or organization at Papillion-La Vista High School have different guidelines to follow than their middle school counterparts.

To be eligible to participate in such school activities, students must be continuously enrolled in 20 credit hours (or four classes) per semester at the school the student represents, according to the Nebraska School Activities Association, a Lincoln-based organization that governs high school activities throughout the state.

“That’s not our rule,” Johnston said. “And at that point, they’re (the students) not really a homeschooled student anymore.”

Minimal cost is involved to the district to provide such services to homeschooled students in the area, Johnston said.

Should five homeschoolers (which Johnston said “wouldn’t happen”) enroll in some of the same classes, and another teacher would need to be hired, cost would quickly become an issue.

Wendy and Steve’s five children, Jonathan, 19; Brittany, 13; Brenton, 11; and twins Kaiti and Kathi, 10, have been homeschooled in Sarpy County for most of their educational careers.

Wendy, a Bellevue resident, hasn’t enrolled her children in any of the district’s classes or activities.

“We do have people ask us why we homeschool,” Wendy said. “It’s just better for our children.”

Johnston said the success of every homeschooled child depends on the family.

“If you have a wonderful parent who understands learning and understands teaching, the homeschooling setting can be a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “They can do things that you can’t do in a classroom of 20 students.”

Field trips and additional projects are in the Zenor family’s curriculum each school year. Wendy said the familial ties between teacher and child, in this case, benefit the student much more in the long run.

“I’m his mother, and no one is going to care more about how he’s doing than I am,” she said. “The teachers might care, but he’s not their kid.”

Larger class sizes also contributed to the Zenors’ decision to homeschool.

“Sometimes I have to spend extra time with him and that’s OK; I’m willing to do that,” Wendy said. “Where, in the classroom, you can’t always do that when you’ve got 30 kids.”

While he wouldn’t say it needs to be true in every case, Johnston believes parents who opt to homeschool their children should at least have graduated from college.

“I think it depends on what they’re doing with their kids,” he said. “There are bright, bright people who did not go to college. But, there has to be a certain level of education and there has to be a certain understanding about how people learn and that (a college education) doesn’t guarantee that.”

Wendy doesn’t believe parents need a college education to homeschool their children.

“Especially at the elementary and junior high levels,” she said. “Most adults are going to know how to add, subtract, multiply, divide, fractions; things you’re going to teach your kid.”

Wendy is enrolled at Metro Community College taking the proper perquisites to apply to nursing school in a few years.

Part IV: Interacting with students schooled at home

If you eliminate the teasing, name-calling and inevitable cliques that form during a child’s adolescence years, what remains is an environment that allows crucial interaction skills to form.

When children are homeschooled for the bulk of the workweek, however, that basic interaction fails to take place.

Wendy Zenor sees that as a good thing.

She and her husband Steve have homeschooled four of their five children since moving to Sarpy County in 1999.

Before that, the couple homeschooled their children (Jonathan, 19; Brittany, 13; Brenton, 11; and twins Kaiti and Kathi, 10) in San Diego.

Brittany was enrolled in a public school in Colorado when Wendy noticed the onset of peer pressure in her daughter.

“She wanted to dress like the other kids, which was normal,” Wendy said. “(While being homeschooled), she’s had more of an opportunity to become who she is and not feel like she has to conform with everybody.”

While conforming does provide children and teens a sense of belonging, experts say the real benefits arrive in the form of conflict resolution and dealing with failures.

“By being with other kids, they’re better equipped going into later adolescence and adulthood if they’ve learned those things,” said Annie Mitchell, a child and family therapist with Children’s Family Support Center, a division of Children’s Hospital, in Omaha. “It won’t be a shock to them if they’re not the best on the team, if they don’t get that first job. They will have learned that early on.”

Mitchell said such interaction can take place with siblings who are also homeschooled, but the benefits aren’t as great as those in a traditional school setting.

Leadership roles and the concept of teamwork are also learned during such formative years, Mitchell said.

“Things like sharing an award or a team trophy,” Mitchell said. “Those are things you can’t get on your own.”

Regardless of a child’s educational setting, experts such as Mitchell agree that interaction among people their own age is crucial.

The Zenor children interact with friends their own age. Many come from other homeschooled families and members of their church in Omaha.

“They have a good mix of people who they’re friends with,” Zenor said.

Building friendships and relationships typically signals a natural progression for teens to seek a peer group.

For those children who have difficulty interacting with other children, homeschooling typically works wells, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said, however, these children need to seek a social group outside the home.

“When a child is homeschooled to avoid the difficulty of socialization, it’s difficult for a kid,” Mitchell said. “When you just can’t match that environment for a child, homeschooling can make the kid happier. But, you still have to have that interaction for the child.”

Children with low self esteem, whether homeschooled or in a traditional educational setting, can and do gravitate towards any group of friends that will take them.

But when parents can monitor the friends their children are associating with, any chance of problems can typically be eliminated, Mitchell said.

“As long as children have some kind of consistent group of peers that they see on a regular basis, they’ll do all right.”

Part V: Papillion teen a homeschooling success story

Julie Murray wants people to know that children and teens who are homeschooled don’t live in closets.

“People seem to think there are no opportunities for homeschoolers,” Julie, 17, said.

She should know. Julie is the product of a homeschooling family in Papillion and a recent graduate of Metropolitan Community College.

Not many 17-year-olds have earned an associate degree, but Julie has. She is one of the youngest students ever to receive such a degree at Metro.

Julie said educational achievements at such an early age are due largely to her family’s decision to homeschool for nearly all of her school career.

“A lot of the opportunities that I’ve had would not have happened if I was in school during a certain number of hours, five days a week,” Julie said.

Attending Metro is obviously one of those opportunities. Julie began taking classes at Metro when she was 13.

Patty Murray, Julie’s mom, began homeschooling her daughter because it allowed her to use the curriculum of her choice. It also provided opportunities for Julie that she might not experience at a traditional school, such as visiting students at the Nebraska School for the Deaf.

Patty wasn’t always a fan of homeschooling. In fact, after finishing her teacher training at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she opposed homeschooling.
But after student teaching – and evaluating Julie’s potential from a teacher’s perspective – she and her husband Gray decided to begin teaching their daughter at home.

“I wanted to challenge her potential,” Patty said.

Patty worked with Julie for several hours each day on schoolwork. As Julie got older, however, Patty assigned Julie a certain amount of work she needed to complete each week.

“There was more of a work-at-my-own-pace as I got older,” Julie said.

Which occasionally drove Patty a little crazy.

Not because Julie didn’t get the work done, but because she did it at the last minute.

Julie, however, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I work best under pressure,” Julie said. “If she (Patty) tells me I need to have it done on Friday, I’m likely to wait until Friday morning to get started on it.”
Call her a procrastinator, but don’t call her unproductive.

“I always turn out my best work when I have only so many minutes or so many hours left to get it done,” Julie said. “It still drives my parents insane when I do that.”

After being homeschooled through eighth grade, Patty and Gray offered Julie the option of enrolling in a public high school. But Julie liked the flexibility homeschooling offered and decided to stick with it for another four years.

“I liked the fact that my mother got to choose the curriculum and so we were working with material that my mother approved of and that I found interesting.”

In addition to taking classes at Metro towards an Associate of Arts degree in Liberal Arts, Julie has also worked at the Sarpy County YMCA for the past two years. She works as a lifeguard, swimming instructor, swim team coach and water aerobics instructor. She also volunteers for the Sarpy County Teen Court.

Julie is headed to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln this fall to study pre-law with a major in psychology and a minor in French.

While homeschooled, Julie said she’s never had any problems interacting socially with her peers enrolled in traditional public schools.

“I’ve always had the option of doing various activities and meeting people,” she said. “I’ve never found any problems socially. I know some (homeschooled students) have problems with it, but I don’t know if that’s due to homeschooling or due to their natural personality. Most of my friends who are homeschooled are just as social – if not more so – than some of my friends who attend public schools.”

Julie sees herself as a typical teenager. She enjoys shopping, listening to music and reading mystery novels.

“I don’t feel different,” she said.

Finding balance and being relaxed are a few pieces of advice Patty offers to families considering homeschooling their children.

“The first year is usually the hardest,” Patty said. “It’s about getting to know your teaching style and the children’s learning style.”

For parents who may consider homeschooling as an option, Julie said the motivation should come from a desire to help their children.

“If the parent is looking at it like, ‘My child is obviously brilliant and they’re (the school) not noticing that, therefore I’m going to homeschool and prove it to the world,’ that’s probably not the best motivation.”

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