Jamie's a poster girl for home schooling UMBC student defies stereotypes about unorthodox education

July 06, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Jamie Smith never went to school until she earned a perfect 4.0 grade average last year in her freshman year in college.

Well, not school as most of us know it. Smith was educated at her Columbia home from the day of her birth 19 years ago until she took three courses at Howard Community College before enrolling full-time at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

She never took a formal examination until she tackled the Scholastic Assessment Test and scored 1,320 of a possible 1,600.

She never got a grade in any subject until she entered college and never was placed in a school "grade" -- never a fourth-grader or a high school sophomore.

Never a snow day. Never a "first day" in September, because education for her was a year-round proposition.

And never a prom, which Smith does not regret.

"I never had homework," she said the other morning after finishing a calculus exam at UMBC in half the time allowed.

"For a home schooler, it's all homework, but it's not homework in the sense that you read a chapter in a textbook during the day and then answer questions about it at night."

Said her UMBC calculus instructor, Bonny Tighe, "Jamie largely taught herself higher-order mathematics. She has a perfect score in this class.

"If I had whole classes like Jamie, I'd be a very happy woman."

Though she could be classified as an extreme example, Jamie Smith represents the burgeoning home-school movement in Maryland.

The state Department of Education reported this spring that the enrollment of children educated at home has quadrupled -- to 8,098 -- in a decade.

Schools like UMBC are gearing for more and more home-schooled students and adjusting their admissions procedures accordingly.

"Without formal grades, we assemble what could be loosely called a transcript from the SATs, advanced placement exams, essays and the like," said Charles M. Woolston, vice provost at UMBC.

"Basically, we're finding these students work out very well. Certainly that's the case so far with Jamie Smith."

Perhaps it isn't so ironic that Jamie's father, Manfred, is a middle-school social studies teacher in Montgomery County.

"I don't want to condemn all of public education," Manfred Smith said. "But I have seen how it can kill the love of learning with its regimentation and emphasis on grades, testing and competition."

The idea to home-educate Jamie and her two younger brothers came to Smith in the late 1970s, when he read an article in Mother Jones magazine by the education reformer John Holt.

Smith became a pioneer in the home-schooling movement in Maryland, founding the Maryland Home Education Association in 1980 and fighting successfully in the late 1980s to relax state restrictions on home education.

"Basically we're unschoolers," said Manfred Smith. "Some people play school at home, try to transfer a structured school environment to the home. That's not what we're about."

For Jamie Smith, being educated meant lots of reading, a minimum of textbook work in such subjects as mathematics, and many field trips.

A computer program helped her (and is helping her brothers) study German. She said she was "quite independent" by the time she reached high-school age.

"It would have been silly to give me grades by that time," she laughed, "because I was the one who was grading me."

Her father took her to his public school several times a year and allow her to sit in for a day.

"I saw so many students who felt forced to be there," she said. "For me, home education meant finding myself and learning to love learning for its own sake."

Smith demolishes two stereotypes about home schooling.

One is that without the socialization that goes with formal schooling (particularly in high school), without the proms and the sports and the pep rallies, home-schooled students arrive at college stunted.

"I never missed any of it," Smith said. "I was involved with a number of activities -- skating, swimming, Girl Scouts, had lots of friends and some boyfriends.

"And home-schoolers get a chance to be socialized with people 2 to 82, not just their peers. If I'd wanted to go to a prom, I could have asked one of my guy friends, but I never really wanted to.

"I had a friend, who's here now [at UMBC], who was home-schooled through the eighth grade, then went to public high school. Went to proms twice and to a homecoming, and every time came back and said it was a letdown."

Said UMBC's Woolston, "We're finding it's a stereotype that home-schooled students aren't well socialized. More and more of them appear to be well ahead of their age group in social maturity, and Jamie is a good case of that."

The other stereotype is that home-schoolers have a major problem with the teen-age rebellion all kids go through: Their teacher is the natural enemy.

Smith denied she went through a rebellious stage, and her mother, Jeanne, concurred.

"Of course, you're going to have disagreements; everyone does," Jeanne Smith said, "but the rebellion period is probably worse when you're in school."

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