Ten-year-old Mei Thiessen and her 13-year-old sister Ruth play a board game during a learning exercise earlier this week. Mei, Ruth and their older sister Kate have been home schooled by their mother Jolene for the majority of their grade school years at their home in Oak Lake. (LINDSEY ENNS/BRANDON SUN)
Hallie Unger and her sister Indiana play the piano while their brother Matteo plays his violin during music lessons at their home in Brandon. The three siblings have been home schooled by their mother, Christy for their entire lives. (LINDSEY ENNS/BRANDON SUN)
Sitting comfortably on a couch inside their Brandon home, you would never guess Christy Unger and her three children spend several hours a day learning together.
Unger has been home schooling her daughters Hallie, 13, and Indiana, 7, and her son Matteo, 11, their entire lives, and says it’s a decision her and her husband have yet to regret making.
BY THE NUMBERS
Over the years, the number of home schoolers both in Brandon and across Manitoba has been growing at a steady pace, according to Darryl Gervais, the province's director of instruction, curriculum and assessment.
Listed below are the number of home-schooled students in Brandon over the past several school years, according to information provided by the province.
Brandon home-schooled students:
• 2002-03 — 24
• 2003-04 — 24
• 2004-05 — 23
• 2005-06 — 20
• 2006-07 — 29
• 2007-08 — 26
• 2008-09 — 25
• 2009-10 — 28
• 2010-11 — 31
• 2011-12 — 44
• 2012-13 — 69
• 2013-14 — 50
The number of home-schooled students in Manitoba over the last six school years:
• 2008-09 — 1,894
• 2009-10 — 2,089
• 2010-11 — 2,195
• 2011-12 — 2,410
• 2012-13 — 2,815
• 2013-14 -- 3,164
» Brandon Sun
While Unger stays home and leads her children through a curriculum she describes as "eclectic and full of variety," her husband works a full-time job with flexible hours.
"I honestly think that we are less stressed than the average parent because our mornings are so relaxed," Unger said. "We’re not rushing out the door ... we can take our time."
Being home schooled has also allowed their three children to grow up together. Christy recalls Hallie and Matteo being home when Indiana took her first steps and spoke her first words. Ultimately, Unger said, it’s moments like those that have brought the family closer together.
"It was just so much fun because it was just a family experience."
The Unger children are among 50 students in Brandon and 3,164 across Manitoba who are currently registered for home schooling with the province. In comparison, there are currently more than 8,000 students enrolled in Brandon’s public school system.
While there are many reasons why some parents choose to home school their children, Darryl Gervais, director of instruction, curriculum and assessment for the province, said the time commitment involved is "one of the biggest considerations."
"One of the parents has to stay home with the student ... it’s a big family commitment," Gervais said. "Overall, parents choose home schooling because they feel that it’s an opportunity to give their children a better or different experience for school."
The parent who does decide to stay home doesn’t require any teaching experience and can choose from one of three different curriculum options, or combine them to create their own program. The three curriculum options for home schooling in Manitoba, according to the province’s website, are child-centred instruction, a Christian-based curricula and an independent study option.
However, if students are home schooled up to Grade 12, they aren’t eligible to receive a high school diploma, Gervais said, adding home-schooled students are welcome to enter the public school system at any time. Manitoba education also offers compulsory courses required for graduation for grades 9-12.
Although parents are required to submit progress reports to the province twice a year, the province doesn’t fund home schooling, something that Unger sees as a good thing.
"The more funding the more governance," she said. "We have a lot more freedom with the curriculum."
The freedom to personalize their children’s education is also one of the main reasons Jolene Thiessen and her husband decided to home school their three daughters, Mei, 10, Ruth, 13, and Kate, 16, at their home in Oak Lake.
Thiessen’s husband and five of his family members were home schooled, so it was an option the family had always been familiar with. Home schooling also allows for a more flexible schedule, which works best for their family, Thiessen said.
Besides resources available through the province, Westman home schoolers can also join the Westman Homeschool Connection, which provides programs for students and supports for their families. The program hosts ongoing events such as monthly potlucks, a teen book club, parent nights, learning co-ops and annual used curricula sales.
On May 3, Westman Homeschool Connection will also host Westman’s first home-schooling conference for parents at Brandon University. Sessions will include home schooling for beginners, balancing the needs of multiple kids and creating learning stations. For more information or to register online, visit westmanhomeschoolconnection.com.
As their children get older, Unger and Thiessen both said they are starting to look at college and university admission requirements. Unger said universities, like Brandon University, are starting to become more familiar with accepting home schooled students.
"The doors are really starting to open," Unger said. "Some universities are even actively recruiting home schoolers."
BU admissions clerk Shelly Old said the university has admitted roughly six home-schooled students within the last year or so and recent changes to admission regulations have made it easier for home-schooled students to be "admitted like every other student."
According to BU’s admission regulations posted on its website, home schooled students are eligible for admission if they supply written confirmation from the province’s home school coordinator that they have completed Grade 12 under Manitoba’s home school provisions.
Thiessen said she isn’t worried about how her three daughters will transition into a post-secondary institution, if they choose to do so.
"As long as they have confidence and they know how to learn and where to get to the information, they will be fine."
Something both sets of parents seemed to have in common is that they are genuinely enjoying the extra time they get to spend with their children.
"I will never regret the time I’ve been able to spend with them, watching them learn," Unger said. "I’m just so proud of the character I see developing in my kids. I see the compassion, empathy and courage and those are things that can be taught at home."
Being home schooled also hasn’t kept the Unger siblings from enjoying extra curricular activities. Hallie plays volleyball, Matteo plays hockey and Indiana takes dance lessons.
"We get lots of socialization with people through sports and stuff so I don’t feel like I have less friends than anybody else," Hallie said. "I feel like you get to avoid all the drama and stuff from school ... so I’m kinda glad I get to skip out on that."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 12, 2014