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A family's commitment to independent learning

Education: After 12 years, Ann and Gene Severance have deemed the home schooling of their four children a success.

January 05, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

They first contemplated home schooling as Stephen struggled through third-grade math and lost his enthusiasm for academics. He went on to teach himself computer programming and began work in the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center's radiology department at 16. Now 21, he is in an honors program at the University of Maryland, College Park and gives presentations at national conferences on computer applications in radiology.

But it hasn't always been easy. The second Severance child, 18-year-old Rachel, longed to be with friends at school when she hit adolescence. Her parents reluctantly enrolled her in, and pulled her out of, a private school. She ended up finishing high school at the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus before enrolling at Towson University a semester early.

Sarah, a high school junior, still studies at home with Ann in algebra, English, U.S. history and chemistry. She plans to continue her algebra studies, and possibly English, at the Catonsville community college next semester. She has a job at a kennel to pay for the leased horse she rides. For her senior year, she wants to take all community college classes. A vegetarian, she is looking for colleges with equine science programs.

Ann often works with both Sarah and Peter in the dining room, instructing one while the other works independently. But as Sarah gets older, many activities are geared for Peter.

Every other Thursday, home-schooled students and their parents pack the downstairs of the house for a science club Ann leads. Experiments include crystal growing and distilling muddy water from the back yard. One Friday a month, they're there for a book club, whose reading list includes biographies of St. Benedict and St. Joan of Arc.

The clubs give kids and parents a chance to socialize and learn from one another. Parents often lend one another materials and trade tips.

For all Peter's activities, he and Ann still spend a lot of time together. To keep from driving each other crazy, Ann has learned, it is crucial to back off when he has had enough.

Consider, for example, the day this fall when Peter got the flu:

It's a Wednesday, and Gene has been in bed all week. He started feeling sick on Sunday, the day of Peter's confirmation.

Just after 11 a.m. Ann calls for Peter to come downstairs for art. They're supposed to leave in an hour and a half to go exploring at a wetland with other home-schooling families.

"Am I gonna have to draw?" he asks.

"Yeah, but more like tracing a pattern. ... Do you have a headache?"

"Yeah."

"Why don't you put your glasses on?"

She shows him how to do the exercise, emulating M.C. Escher's mathematical artwork, then asks, "Is your nose running?"

"Mmm hmm." He's rubbing his eyes.

"Did you take ibuprofen?... Please go take some."

Peter comes back with his Walkman, turns the volume up and gets to work.

"Turn that down some so you don't hurt your ears," Ann says.

"What?"

"Turn it down so you don't get more of a headache."

"What?"

"Turn it down! ... Peter, would you like a grilled cheese before we go to the wetland?"

"No."

"You don't feel good at all?"

Peter keeps working until 11:30, then announces, "I'm going to bed."

Ann tells him to lie down for 20 minutes to see if he feels better. When he comes back, he rejects an offer of scrambled eggs but accepts one of French toast. He's not up to doing grammar or science, but says Ann can read to him while he eats. She takes out another Ransome novel, Winter Holiday.

Peter starts sneezing. As Ann reads, he walks back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen to get tissues and throw them away.

"Bless you, hon," Ann says. "I think you're getting what Dad's got."

Peter lies down with his head on the computer chair and his feet and legs on a wood dining room chair.

The phone rings. Peter hands it to Ann, who cancels the trip to the wetland. It's about to rain again anyway. She moves to the living room, where Peter sits, and then lies down, on the carpet. By the time she finishes the chapter, his eyes are closed.

At 12:35, she ends school for the day.

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