Not Your Average School Experience
By Alexandra Gardell
Ask the people you know about their high school experience and you’ll likely get a myriad of stories about annual school musicals, Friday night football games, bad cafeteria food, stressful exams, field trips, and large graduation ceremonies. It seems like the modern collective American school experience, whether public or private, encompasses all or at least some of these experiences.
Imagine, however, if this was not your experience at all. Imagine that your kitchen was your classroom and your mother was your teacher for all of your school years, day in and day out. You could never play hooky, or tell the teacher that your dog ate your homework. Your mom knew when you were sick and she knew that you didn’t have a pet dog.
David Felicie and Michelle Kakalecz in a recent performance at Lincoln
Center with the non-profit ballet troupe, the Performing Arts Ensemble.
According to a 2006 New York Times article, “Home Schoolers Content to Take Children’s Lead,” in recent years, about 1.1 million children in the US received their education at home. Among them were David Felicie and Michelle Kakalecz.
Both Felicie, 22, and Kakalecz, 20, are from New Jersey and were taught at home by their mothers. Both are disciplined, hard working, active members of their communities and pursue their dreams. And although they share a similar background in their curriculums and interests, their experiences with education are unique.
Felicie grew up in a large household, the fourth of six siblings. And his mother taught them all. “My mother thought homeschooling was the best decision because it would create more of a one-on-one learning atmosphere, rather than a one-on-twenty or one-on-thirty environment,” says Felicie. “Another reason was to keep us out of trouble. We were living in Staten Island in a rough neighborhood and moved to New Jersey when I was ten and continued to homeschool.”
How does one give a thorough education to six kids, all different ages, at once? The Felicies had a system. “The two oldest were in the same grade, the next two, myself and my older brother Joey, were in the same grade, and the youngest, Bethany and Josh were in the same grade,” explained Felicie. “Basically the youngest of each pair got bumped up a year so that my mother was teaching three grade levels instead of six at a time.”
David Felicie in a recent performance of Beauty and the Beast, produced
by the Performing Arts Ensemble, discovered his dance talents while
attending vocational school.
This is not an unheard of practice in home education, and think of this: kids in any given public or private classroom may be a year or two apart in age. “Throw away that grade level thing. It's a way of comparing children, and in a home setting just isn't necessary,” said Mary McCarthy, co-founder of the New Jersey Homeschool Association said in an article from Home Education Magazine. “Then see if you can combine several children in one subject. I've never seen it written anywhere that children can't work together on learning.”
It worked for the Felicie family, and it also helped them focus on family bonds.
Kakalecz is the youngest of three. Her oldest brother attended private school, and her other brother was homeschooled from eighth grade on. Kakalecz’s mother decided to educate her daughter herself, using a pre-determined curriculum and a series of extracurricular activities and learning programs.
Setting the curriculum
Homeschoolers have many options in deciding their curriculum. Both Felicie and Kakalecz used the A Beka system, which was created by the founders of Pensacola Christian College in Florida. “We would order our textbooks and videos through A Beka, but my mom would also add her own lesson plans,” said Felicie.
Kakalecz’s mother, Gayle, would attend events called curriculum fairs, where all the different companies that produced textbooks and other learning materials would showcase their products to homeschoolers. This is where the Kakaleczs got their materials, like those from A Beka.
In addition to textbooks, A Beka offered videos with daily lessons that gave students the feeling of a classroom. Sometimes they had other students at desks, other times just a teacher at the front of the room.
The videos weren’t a replacement for one-on-one interaction, however. “I don't think the videos were that effective though; they didn't really explain how to do things; they gave the problem and then the answer, they moved too fast sometimes,” says Felicie. “My mom would do most things manually, and really teach us on her own.”
Kakalecz said one of the good things about the A Beka videos was that if she did not fully understand something she could call in and someone would talk her through the problem. Making a phone call may have been more difficult than raising your hand in a classroom, but there was help available if you needed it. In addition to A Beka, Kakalecz also used other curriculums for various subjects, such as Algebra and Geometry.
Homeschooling is not “unschooling,” explained Gayle Kakalecz. She says the unschooling approach to learning is where parents do not set a curriculum but rather encourage their children to learn by experience alone. “They go out into nature and learn from nature, they learn from making things. Homeschooling is more instructed,” she says.
Even with a curriculum, though, homeschooling gives kids and their parents’ chances to customize the curriculum to fit their interests and allows room for creativity. “Michelle read a variety of books, such as Pride and Prejudice,” says Gayle Kakalecz. “Once she wanted to see the musical The Scarlet Pimpernel and I told her she had to finish the book first.”
Felicie stressed that he endured a rather strict curriculum. “We were taught English, math, science, everything that you do in public school. If you didn't complete that day's assignments you couldn't do what was considered recess, anything fun like going outside,” he says. “Sometimes I would goof off and not want to do my work, so I would end up inside while everyone else was outside, doing my school work until 8 p.m., maybe even twelve at night.”
Now a very conscientious adult, Felicie gained from these experiences. “I learned to work hard though, and to always complete my responsibilities.”
Just like most other students, homeschoolers can take standardized tests and exams like the SATs. “I took the SAT and the PSAT at Middletown North,” the public high school Kakalecz was zoned to attend if she had not opted for homeschooling. “I took the tests where you fill in the bubbles,” she said with a laugh, the familiar standardized tests, at the school her brother previously attended.
What do the professionals think?
Twila Liggett, a professor of Education at Marymount Manhattan College and creator of the famed educational television program Reading Rainbow says that, “Some parents feel they can offer a richer, more interdisciplinary approach to learning. Some kids just find it hard to be in an overly structured environment and do much better with homeschooling.”
No two situations are exactly alike, and there is no definite answer to what is the best way to obtain an education. The most important thing, Liggett says is that, “Parents should be intellectually curious and willing to spend the time it takes to do the job.”
Interacting with others
Growing up with so many close siblings, mostly all boys, Felicie always had someone to hang out with. Conversely, Kakalecz was the baby of the family, and the only girl. No matter the size of the family, though, homeschoolers have opportunities to get together with kids their age, just like in traditional school.
Kakalecz completed all of her core curriculum at home under the instruction of her mother, but often got together with other local homeschoolers for special activities.
“We met with a group called REAP for ‘Geography Nights.’ We would research a different country each time, learn about the culture, and prepare foods from that country to share with everyone,” said Kakalecz. “I studied French and Spanish with a group, and we would even learn cross-stitch and sewing at one of the girls grandmother’s house.”
In addition to the group’s organized swimming at the YMCA, Kakalecz always got her physical education from gymnastic and dance classes. “I took ballet almost every single day,” she says.
Felicie had a network of other homeschoolers as well. “Homeschoolers that were affiliated with A Beka in the area would network and organize events, things like field trips. We would go roller-skating, bowling, go to farms and take care of and feed animals, all different things,” he recounted. Kakalecz shares similar experiences with day trips as supplementary education.
And what about the prom? “We had a prom that was organized by some of the parents where they would rent out a big hall and all of the local junior and senior year homeschoolers would go,” says Felicie. “We could bring "outsiders" as dates, just like other proms.”
Both Felicie and Kakalecz had high school graduation ceremonies. Kakalecz acquired her GED from a vocational program. Felicie had a ceremony with other homeschoolers in the area. He added, “I finished my high school studies early and graduated at 16 because I actually skipped a grade.”
Life after graduation
After graduation, Felicie attended a two-year vocational program that was part of his local county college. He started studies in landscaping but once he got there he switched to dance, saying he was part of what they called the "Jump Start Program."
At this time Felicie began cultivating his natural talents with formal education in dance. He had always played around with break dancing and hip hop, but this “jump start” actually turned out to be a grand jete that helped to move Felicie towards classical ballet, which became a passion. Felicie has since attended numerous intensive programs, and has performed as a professional dancer and choreographer. He also works as a dance instructor.
Kakalecz is currently a Liberal Arts major at Brookdale Community College. “I am finishing my second full semester now, but I had taken two other classes at Brookdale before starting fulltime to get used to going,” she says.
Kakalecz says she feels like she had a full, well-balanced experience thanks to her involvement in many different activities while being homeschooled. She is very active member of a non-profit ballet company, The Ballet Company of the Performing Arts Ensemble, where she met Felicie, who is also a member of the Ensemble. She’s involved in various volunteer efforts, including at the Holocaust, Genocide, & Human Rights Education Center at her college.
On Felicie’s homeschooling experience, he says, “I think it turned out to be the best thing for us.”