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Homeschoolers teach a lesson

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

When home-schooling parents asked the Shaler school board two months ago to allow their children to participate in extracurricular activities, some board members displayed a petulance worthy of the third-graders they serve.

"These students, by choice, don't come to classes; why should they have the same benefits as our students who do?," asked one.

"Unfortunately, students don't choose to be home-schooled, parents do," mourned another.

Unfortunately? Unfortunate for whom? The only unfortunate things I see in this situation are state laws that allow districts to deny taxpayers the extracurriculars they're paying for and school board members who publicly sulk and seek to punish those who've rejected one-size-fits-all education for one-on-one instruction at home.

The pioneers blazing the home-schooling trail are finding fascinating ways to travel -- including a local group whose intellectual guide is renowned mystery writer Dorothy Sayers.

Deborah Holt is a "retired" certified public accountant who started teaching her three boys in their McCandless home when the oldest, now a seventh-grader, was ready for kindergarten. But after a few years, Holt and her husband John, also a CPA, were ready to try something more: Enter the study center.

The Holts are part of a burgeoning national movement. A 1994 Census Bureau report estimated the number of home-schooled children at 360,000. In 1996 the U.S. Department of Education estimated the number at 640,000, but its recent study says that in 1999, as many as 992,000 of the nation's 50 million students were homeschooled -- nearly 2 percent.

Pittsburgh's northern suburbs boast one of the largest home schooling "co-ops" anyone's heard of, Deb Holt says, where parents with education specialties -- say, engineering or medicine -- swap teaching responsibilities.

Several years ago, however, the Holts encountered a new but ancient approach to education that sprang from an essay by Sayers, the "Lord Peter Wimsey" novelist who returned late in life to her roots in medieval literature.

In "The Lost Tools of Learning," Sayers' mourned the decline in analytical thinking skills despite the spread of literacy. The essay was discovered in the 1980s by American educator Douglas Wilson. His book, "Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning," re-establishes the principles of the medieval "trivium," which divides education into three parts -- grammar, dialectic and rhetoric.

Young children find memorizing easy, so "we should be filling their minds with grammar -- especially Latin," as Holt explains the Sayers/Wilson approach.

Dialectic, the study of logic and argumentation, is a natural fit for middle-schoolers "because that's when they want to argue with us, anyway," she says. And rhetoric suits image-obsessed teens, who are ready to learn "how to write and speak beautifully, so they can express themselves winsomely."

Four years ago, the Holts surveyed fellow North Hills homeschoolers to gauge interest in establishing a more rigorous classical supplement to the families' individual programs. Working with David and Valerie Porter, a home-schooling couple from Washington, Pa., they opened the Blackburn Study Center in the fall of 2001.

Named for Gideon Blackburn, a minister who brought classical education to the American frontier in the early 1800s, the center moved last month into classrooms at North Park Evangelical Presbyterian Church in McCandless.

Blackburn "is not a school, it's a tutorial service," Holt says, "because you can come and take whatever you want." The program costs $1,250 per child.

The literature-based curriculum offers classes for third- through 12th-graders in history, writing, art, science, Latin, logic and rhetoric. Thirteen tutors teach about 65 students enrolled in the program. Classes meet two days a week, from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., followed by optional one-hour classes in algebra and chess. (More information is available at

Holt's fifth-grader, Peter, is reading "Johnny Tremaine" and studying the Revolutionary War. Her seventh-grader, Andrew, is studying the Middle Ages while reading "Song of Roland," "The Conquest of Constantinople" and poet Seamus Heaney's translation of "Beowulf."

The Blackburn's classical curriculum also incorporates the Great Books model. "It's a tried and true method that we've gotten away from," says Holt. "Our Founding Fathers were mostly farmers, but they could read 'Pilgrim's Progress.' "

Although only a handful of the parents originally surveyed have enrolled their children, "people who want what we offer will travel a long distance." Families drive from as far away as Murrysville, Ambridge, Kittanning and Washington, Holt says. It's that kind of motivation that drives the nation's growing homeschooling movement -- a motivation too often missing from the public schools. Such parental focus means the array of excellent educational options -- like Blackburn -- will continue to grow.

Holt may someday want her boys to get extracurriculars such as marching band from the North Allegheny School District, but "I don't anticipate any problems ... NA is pretty home-school friendly."

Homeschoolers do keep tabs on public education; the North Hills Christian Homeschoolers support group keeps a Web site,, that monitors conflicts like the one in Shaler.

The public school districts could benefit from keeping tabs on these homeschooling pioneers.

Ruth Ann Dailey is a Post-Gazette staff writer and can be reached at

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