September 13, 2002

The homeschool experiment

Homeschool proud: (Clockwise from left) Jonathan Neily, Colleen Neily, Tyler Tait-Chegwyn and Kimberly Smith at the Smith home. The kids are among 13 homeschooled students in Nunavut


It’s expensive and time-consuming, but several families in Iqaluit are educating their children at home this year

This fall, several students in Nunavut didn’t return to school. They didn’t drop out, they decided to give homeschooling a try. This week, Nunatsiaq News presents the first of a three-part series about this alternative method of education.

It’s afternoon recess at the Smith house. A group of kids play baseball with thin pieces of lumber outside the grey bungalow in Iqaluit’s downtown core. When time’s up, Kathy Smith hollers from the kitchen and the kids file in, one by one.

The Smiths are one of a group of Iqaluit families that chose to educate their children at home this year. For them, this homeschooling project is an experiment in learning and a chance to spend more time together.

The kids pull off their boots and run through the kitchen into the dining room, grabbing art projects and workbooks. It’s a full house this afternoon.

In addition to Kimberly Smith, 10, there’s Tyler Tait-Chegwyn, 10, and Colleen Neily, 11. Kristopher Smith, still too young for school, toddles around the house, while baby Bret Tait-Chegwyn bounces in the lap of her mother Lolita at the kitchen table.

At least 13 students in Nunavut were registered as homeschoolers this year.

It’s a built-in support group for both kids and parents. "Neither of us was alone," Lolita says. "And our kids have been best friends since kindergarten."

Though it’s only their second week, already the parents are seeing a change. "The amount of work they get done has increased," Kathy says.

"I think, with the amount of resources in the school system, they aren’t able to provide the type of education that we are at home," she says.

As a former teacher and chair of the Iqaluit District Education Authority (IDEA), Kathy is an advocate for a strong public school system. And with two children still enrolled in public school, she has a vested interest in seeing the system thrive.

But she sees the possibilities that homeschooling has to offer. "If this works well, I can see our whole family doing this," she says. "We can do the job that any school can do."

The School of Hope

Homeschooling wasn’t an obvious choice for any of the families. But this past January, when Geralyn L’Heureux introduced IDEA members to the concept of a "virtual school," they discovered that home education didn’t have to be complicated.

L’Heureux is an instructor with the School of Hope, an online K-12 program based in Alberta. The school provides support for families interested in basic homeschooling, in which parents are the sole instructors. But it’s the virtual program that most interested the Smiths, Chegwyns and Neilys.

The eight-year-old program is essentially distance learning for elementary and high school students. It’s based on the Alberta curriculum, the same program schools in Nunavut use.

The full-service program costs about $2,500 per child. Nunavut DEAs are permitted to reimburse families up to $1,000 per child for the cost of homeschooling.

The Iqaluit families were sent a box of materials for the entire school year and matched up with a teacher in Alberta.

The teacher is available to answer questions by phone, e-mail or fax, and manages 40 families, or between 40 and 50 students, from as far away as Mexico or Indonesia.

L’Heureux, who teaches Grade 9 and 10 science, can handle a class of up to 250 students. It’s not as bad as it sounds, she says. Because the programs are self-directed, not all students are working on the same thing at the same time.

"You get to know the names very well and you get to know the students very well," she says. "But you don’t always know what they look like."

"Why don’t you just send them south?"

Home education generally requires at least one parent to be at home to provide instruction or support to the child. Kathy Smith has been home with her children for the past two years. Lolita Tait-Chegwyn is on maternity leave from her job.

For the Neilys, however, homeschooling presented a problem. Both parents work outside the home, Marilyn as senior advisor of sport and recreation for the Government of Nunavut and Tim as the GN’s administrative coroner.

"A lot of people here in town send their kids out. People said, ‘Why don’t you just send them south?" Marilyn says.

But with young kids, that didn’t seem like the best option, she says. Between Marilyn and Tim, they had more than 35 years’ teaching experience and they were certain they could make something work.

"We had hoped to hire somebody as a facilitator," Marilyn says. "We put an ad out and got a couple of responses, but it’s hard to keep someone employed here when there’s no housing."

The facilitator would have "homeschooled" the students from a room at Nakasuk School. But that didn’t work out either. At an IDEA meeting in June, their request for a teacher workroom and use of the resource centre was denied because the school needed the space.

While the Neilys still hope to find a facilitator and workspace for Colleen and Jonathan, 13, for now the kids spend most days at the Smith house.

And all the kids are still involved with their former schools. Jonathan takes French, gym, music and math at Inuksuk High School, and Kimberly and Tyler go to Nakasuk for French class four mornings a week.

"Kathy told me, ‘Well, this is working out pretty good. Having another couple of kids involved makes them all work harder,’" Marilyn says.

Judging by the first week, the experiment has been a success, though the proof will come at the end of the school year.

"We thought they’d come back and say, ‘Gosh, it’s really messed up,’ Marilyn says. "But they said they had a great week."