Public school came to a screeching halt last week - tests and final projects one day, sweet freedom the next. But at least 16 Island youths will merely slow their studies, instead of stopping altogether. Some may not even acknowledge the two-and-half-month academic bump in the road called summer vacation.
For the home schooled students of Martha's Vineyard, school may be just another day at the beach: reading a book, collecting shells, practicing arithmetic in the sand. Working with curriculums that reflect their unique interests and learning styles, the ubiquitous days-until-summer countdown is absent from these students' calendars.
"I happen to think that it's a very viable alternative for some parents and some children," Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss said. "When it's done well, it's a very personal kind of education. When it's done poorly, it's an inadequate kind of education. In my brief tenure here on the Island, I've seen some very good programs with caring parents trying to meet the needs of their individual children."
Twelve families on the Vineyard are currently registered for home schooling through the superintendent's office - a small community that grows smaller as many move off-Island due to the rising cost of living. The Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School with its focus on individual education plans also has proven a draw. In fact, the number of students being educated at home today is about one-fifth what it was when the charter school opened in 1996.
A family's right to home educate is protected in every state. The parents or guardians are required to register with the superintendent's office and provide a curriculum for approval. Families can be brought to court if the town does not feel the children are being educated properly, although the superintendent's office was unsure if this has ever happened on the Vineyard.
Although the 12 families registered on the Island have wide-ranging reasons for home schooling and differing approaches to education, they all belong to an organization called Island Homeschoolers, also known as the Vineyard Initiative for Teaching and Alternative Education (VITAE).
The parents organize monthly educational activities and events for the children, among them craft fairs, talent shows, characters in history nights, and world culture nights with food, costumes, dance and music. One family is in charge of organizing each event.
The group also provides social interaction for the children. Most of the home schooled students are elementary school aged and get together frequently to play. Some consider adequate socializing the greatest challenge to home education.
"I think people assume a lot of home schooled kids don't have a lot of social interaction, but they do," said Amy Wajda of Oak Bluffs, who has been home schooling for four years. "I think if we didn't have that, if we were isolated somewhere, that would be an issue. But we have tennis, we have pottery, we have families we're very close to within the group."
Five other home schooling families interviewed last week also said their children interacted regularly with other children and adults. In addition to the networking with one another, families said they take advantage of programs at the Featherstone Center for the Arts, Native Earth Teaching Farm, the public libraries, Vineyard Youth Tennis and other Island resources. The students take classes in sign language, knitting, pottery, horseback riding, piano, writing and tennis, among others.
"There are so many great free resources around here, [home schooling] is definitely possible for most incomes," said Jamie Tara O'Gorman of Chilmark, whose nine-year-old stepson, Franklin, is educated at home.
For the Wajdas and their four daughters - aged 15, 12, 8 and 3 - the decision to home school four years ago centered on wanting to also care for their family farm and raise their own meat, eggs and vegetables. Soon they will move off-Island to a 50-acre farm they bought in Vermont.
"[Home schooling] was something we had wanted to try," Mrs. Wajda said. "We liked the freedom that it offered." Now the two older girls and their mother - with the younger girls as helpers - all take care of the animals and the house on a rotating schedule. The girls are awake and dressed with teeth brushed by 8 a.m. and work on curriculums that are tailored to their learning styles.
Home schooling also provided a solution to a physical reaction one of her daughters had to the school environment. Teachers at the West Tisbury School helped the Wajdas determine it was the fluorescent lighting that was causing headaches, stomachaches and what appeared to be petit mal seizures.
"We had such a great working relationship with the teachers there," Mrs. Wajda said. "It's not like you can go in and rip out the fluorescent lighting for just a few kids."
At the school, Mrs. Wajda's daughter had been reading at a low grade level, but removed from the school environment, she excelled. "She's now a student that devours books," Mrs. Wajda said. "Most of our curriculum for her is very literature-based. She's a very independent learner. She just has a vault in her head for anything she reads - it's locked in - but due to the physical environment in the public school, that made it difficult for her to concentrate, to focus."
Susan Wade of Vineyard Haven decided to home school partly based on the physical realities of the school environment as well.
"He just needs to move," Mrs. Wade said of her active eight-year-old boy, Elijah. "You have to sit still [in school], and it just doesn't work for these kids." A teacher's aide in Elijah's public school class told Mrs. Wade that Elijah would likely fall behind or be put in lower level classes.
"At that second I knew that we'd be home schooling the next year," Mrs. Wajda said. "I don't want him to be held down for his type of character," she said. At home, Elijah is still very active, but he also has started to excel as a reader: "I think I've gotten more books from the library this year than I have in my whole life," Mrs. Wade said.
Every home schooling parent interviewed noted that the ability to create a curriculum geared toward the child's learning styles and interests was an incentive.
Mrs. O'Gorman and her husband, Rick, home school Franklin because they doubt the effectiveness of the "one size fits all" curriculums of public schools.
"In the public schools, whoever decided the curriculum, they have a lot of power in training people for 13 years," she said.
Mr. O'Gorman reflected on the shortcomings of his own education.
"I felt really cheated because the teachers always had to teach to the lowest people in the class, and that wasn't me," he said. "I spent years sitting there bored."
Home schooled students learn faster with one-on-one teaching, Mrs. O'Gorman said. This has allowed them to spend more time on topics that pique Franklin's interest.
Many of the parents also said schooling at home strengthened the bonds within the family. Mrs. Wajda said her eight-year-old attended half a year of kindergarten, but felt left out of the family activities during the day.
Carolee Aiello of Edgartown likes that her seven-year-old daughter, Savanna, can spend time with her four-year-old brother, Vito.
"If she was in school, she wouldn't have any connection with him," Mrs. Aiello said. "It's not just goodbye in the morning and hello at dinner time. You're connecting with the whole family throughout the day."
The Aiellos' foremost reason to home school was to encourage family values and connection with God. A part of every day focuses on Christian principles.
"As you can see, we all have extremely different reasons for home schooling," said Mrs. Wade, who is the unofficial leader of Island Homeschoolers. "But we all can come together and have a little community. The kids get along so well."