On Limited Educational Choice in Rural Communities
Rural communities have the fewest educational choices. They default, therefore, to the local public school, which is a disservice to their kids. SDE could be their escape.

Traditional public schools. Charter schools. Vocational schools. Magnet schools. Microschools. Parochial and Religious schools. Private schools. Democratic Schools. Self-Directed Learning Centers. Language immersion. Montessori. Waldorf. Reggio Emilia. And on and on.

None of these educational options is 100% right for every young person, but each of them is right for some. As a parent in an urban area, you often have your pick among several of these choices to decide what will work best for your child. As we know, every child is different, and every child has different needs that must be met in order for them to become their best self. One size does not fit all when it comes to education. Choices are essential.

So what about when we have no choice?

In rural areas and small towns, we often have no choice but to send our kids to the local public school. In my town of about 13,000 (the biggest town in a 25 mile radius, by far), I have exactly one choice of where to send my 4th grader to get an education. As she gets older, a second choice will become available. (I created it, but more on that later). We could homeschool, but an educator married to a social worker means we need two incomes, and homeschooling didn’t seem feasible years ago. So, public schooling it was. I’ve since learned that homeschooling may be more feasible than we knew. Our 4th grader will likely leave school after this year. We’ve left the choice up to her. Our 5 year old may try elementary school but will have his choice as well. To truly do what is best for our kids, educational options outside of the conventional style are essential, and here, we simply don’t have many choices.

I went to conventional school and turned out fine.

Many of us in rural areas grew up attending the local school, and it served us just fine. Except for when it didn’t.

What lasting damage did it do to those of us who couldn’t sit still, or talked “too much,” or didn’t talk enough, or who didn’t have interest in the traditional subjects forced on us by the standardized curriculum? How did school change the lives of those of us who were labeled “troublemakers” because the classroom wasn’t meeting our need to move or speak freely? How did it harm those of us who “fell behind” and never caught up? How did it stifle those of us who wanted to do more or wanted to specialize in a particular subject? What about those of us who had special interests that weren’t valued by the school because they weren’t a part of its curriculum. We could have become an expert in that thing, if only we’d had the time to do so, instead of spending it on homework and studying for subjects we’d rarely use outside of the classroom. Maybe we did choose our interest over homework and studying, but how much were we shamed for it? How much were we told we’d never get anywhere by doing that thing, and we’d better focus on school instead? How many of us are still fighting a negative self-image because of the way we were treated by others in the school building? How many of us believed we weren’t capable of success because we didn’t excel in the strict confines of the classroom?

My guess is, you might see yourself in one or more of these ideas. I had a relatively positive conventional school experience, and I still see myself in some of them. I wonder what I would have become if I’d had more freedom and support to do what I wanted to do. What if I hadn’t felt pressured to perform for adults and prove I was “smart?” How would I be different if the behavioral expectations and social pressure at school hadn’t turned me into a quiet and shy person who was, and sometimes still is, afraid to speak up?

Every one of us began with potential and dreams and motivation to reach them, but we were told we had to finish school first, and by then it was sometimes too late. School may have been a step that helped us reach our goals and meet our potential, but in many cases, it was responsible for extinguishing those dreams, and making us feel like they were impossible for us. Or perhaps rather, some notion of who a few adults thought we were.

Your kids are likely in a similar boat. Maybe they like school and it’s a perfect fit for their needs. That’s great and it certainly works out pretty well for some kids. More likely, they simply tolerate it because they’re told they have to go or they’ll never be successful, which isn’t true. At worst, they actively dislike school, and often refuse to go. Do your kids attend school because it’s the best fit for them? Or do they go because everyone else goes, and you feel like sending them there is your only choice? Have you ever considered any other option?

How does having few choices for education limit us?

Limiting Access to Goals

The standardized curriculum of the one-size-fits-all conventional school limits our abilities to reach our goals if those goals aren’t a part of that curriculum. And even if they are reflected in the curriculum, it’s for maybe an hour a day at most. The rest of our time is spent on things we don’t truly care about. We may find a new interest this way, or learn something useful, sure, but we will see most of it as a waste of our time, and as we get older, we’ll learn we were mostly right. Could there be an educational choice for us that gives us more freedom to select content?

Consider this. Perhaps you are a dirt biking enthusiast, or a dancer, or you love to cook. Maybe you want to make movies. If given the time and support in your teenage years, you could most certainly become a professional dirt bike racer, or a professional dancer, or a professional chef. You could direct your first film by the time you turn 18, but the demands of school greatly diminish the possibility that these things will happen because you cannot spend enough time on them to develop expertise. They’re hobbies, not careers. Turning them into careers after high school takes great risk and sacrifice. These sorts of career paths are competitive and to do them at a professional level requires lengthy and demanding practice, leaving little time for development of a “safer” alternative. What if you had ample time to develop your passions in your teen years, when you have more of a safety net for your basic needs? I have a belief that the happiest people among us are those that have found meaningful work doing something they loved when they were young. Schools must recognize that some of us do not need them to be successful.

Limiting Behavior

If our needs for movement, freedom of expression, and human connection aren’t met, our behaviors reflect that, and at school we are often punished for those behaviors because the conventional school relies on methods that require order. Their behavioral expectations are necessary to maintain that system. They are not, however, in the best interest of every young person. Some young people need movement to focus. They need to talk about their ideas as they come to mind. They need more human connection than one teacher can provide in a class of 25. Could there be an educational choice that gives our kids more freedom over how they’re allowed to behave?

Consider this. You have been labeled “hyperactive” or as having an “attention-deficit.” When you have interest in a topic, you can focus extremely well. You spend hours doing things you love, and this often means your schoolwork suffers. You get bad grades. You start to believe you’re stupid. When you don’t have interest, you cannot focus. You have an overwhelming desire to leave your seat, and you regularly get in trouble for this. You look out the window or doodle to occupy your mind while you do your absolute best to listen to the teacher talk about something boring. You get in trouble for daydreaming and the teacher says you need to redo the assignment because your paper has doodles all over it, even though they’re pretty impressive drawings. You’re trying to “be good,” but you start to feel like the teachers are out to get you. You resent such treatment and stop trying to engage in the class. Why doesn’t school recognize that some of us aren’t meant to sit in a little box all day?

Limiting our Time

If your kids attend a conventional school, your schedule pretty much revolves around that school’s schedule. It tells us when we will wake up and go to bed. It tells us what activities and subjects will be readily available to us. It tells who we can spend our time with. It tells us how we’ll spend our time after school. It tells us when we can take breaks. It tells your child when they can eat, when they can drink, when they can use the restroom, and when they can talk freely to a friend. It tells us all what we can consider “worth our time” and what we should consider a “waste of time.” It tells us what is important and what is not, and it usually considers itself the highest priority when telling us this. It tells us what “success” is, and lets us know when we are not “successful.” It runs much of your life and your kids’ lives from the time they enter kindergarten until the time they leave 12th grade. Could there be an educational choice for us that gives us our time back, and lets us decide for ourselves how we want to spend it?

Consider this. You have to be at school by 8. You aim to leave at 7:30. You need to be awake by 6:30 in order to get ready to go, and that is pushing it, especially if you’re going to eat a healthy breakfast. You make it on time, and you sleepwalk through the morning hours, class to class. Social studies to math to PE. Ancient Mesopotamia to linear equations to line dancing. You get a break for lunch. You’ll have less than 30 minutes to store your things in your locker, get to the cafeteria, wait in line, eat, socialize and use the restroom before you get back to your locker to retrieve your things for the next class. But the restroom was full when you tried to use it and something weird was in your chicken sandwich, so you still have to pee and you’re hungry. Language Arts, Science, Art, Band. A double period where you have to read a book you’re bored with and then write about its themes and symbolism. The Periodic Table. A painting unit (but you prefer to work digitally). The songs you play in Band are fun but the kid next to you is a jerk. The school day is over. You’ll develop no lasting interest in any of the things you sat through today.

It is recommended that you obtain between 8 and 10 hours of sleep as a teenager, so you should be in bed by 8:30 p.m. since you’ll need to wake up at 6:30 a.m. This is, of course, laughable, because like most teenagers, your natural melatonin levels don’t rise until about 11 p.m. Nonetheless, from the time that school lets out, you’ll need to attend a meeting for a school activity, complete about 2 hours of homework, discuss a group project, eat a reasonably healthy dinner, maintain a relationship with your family, and then if there’s time, you’ll finally get to work on the animated YouTube video you’ve been working on. You are an animator, and you want to make it your career when you get older, and this is the thing you really care about. You finally get to work on it at 9 p.m. You get really locked in and stay up working until 2 a.m. School is in 5 hours. Why doesn’t school recognize that our own body clocks don’t match their requirements?

Limiting access to goals, punishing behavior rather than addressing needs, and forcing us to meet its scheduling requirements are only a few of the ways that we are limited by having access to only one type of education. What other ways have you or your family been limited by the restrictions and requirements of school? Is there any escape?

How to escape when you have limited educational choice

Stop going to school. For real. You’re allowed to do that. If your area does not provide a schooling option that suits your needs, you can simply stop going to school. The way to stop going to school is by the mechanism of homeschooling law. Each state has its own homeschooling requirements, and you will need to meet those to be in compliance with compulsory education laws.

In Illinois, we are fortunate enough to have relatively lax homeschooling laws. You simply sever ties with your school district and you are free. In my district this requires a parent’s signature on a form. The only requirement then, according to the State Board of Education, is that you must provide instruction, in the English language, in the following subject areas: Language arts, Mathematics, Biological and physical science, Social science, Fine arts, and Physical development and health. There are no specific classes required in these subjects. There are no requirements for the number of school days or the length of a school day for homeschool students. Classes can occur any day of the week and at any time during the day.

Imagine the possibilities. Reading a book of your own choosing meets the Language arts requirements. Grocery shopping on a budget is Math. A walk in nature is Biology. Interests like cooking or fashion design can become whole curricula.

You are free.

I can’t do that alone.

This belief is almost certainly true. You’ll need help. Fortunately, many communities, even smaller rural ones, have at least a handful of homeschooling families you can connect with, and there may already be an active group you can join. The nearest public library is a good place to start. Most communities have events and classes and other activities where kids can socialize. With a little effort, your kids can also maintain their friendships with schooled friends. Most of their actual socializing probably takes place after school hours anyway. Certainly there are sheltered homeschoolers, but the unsocialized homeschooler is largely a myth. Homeschoolers are some of the most socially adept kids that I’ve met in my years of work with young people, which includes time in the public school system. That experience as a teacher in the public system is what led me here.

Self-Directed Learning

I founded a Self-Directed Learning Center for teenagers in my small community. We help families end their reliance on the conventional school system and take charge of their lives and learning. Once they have severed their ties with the district, they are free to educate how they choose. It looks different for everyone, but parental involvement is essential. Some use online programs for specific “core” subjects or skills. Others take more of an unschooling approach. Our center focuses on a consent-based, child-centered way of helping young people learn. We work together with teenagers and their families to create an education that works for them. We help them find resources and ways to learn what they want to learn. We help them think through their goals and work toward them. We don’t judge them by grading their work, or by making them prove to us they’ve learned something. We meet them where they are and address their needs in the moment, academically and otherwise.

Probably the most useful thing we offer is a place to go during the day where there are other young people, which makes this method possible for working families and remedies the socializing fears. We also offer classes, resources, special trips and mentor relationships with each of our members. Everything is optional. We respect people when they say “No. I don’t want to do that right now.” Magically, giving them this respect and autonomy leads to them making reasonable, socially conscious, and personally fulfilling decisions about how to spend their time.

Kids are naturally curious and want to learn. They want to do things and make things and be things. We just have to support them, trust them, and allow it to happen on their terms.

The choice to not choose a school.

If you’re feeling like school isn’t working for your family, but you have no choice in your area, take a look at the homeschooling community. If you can make it happen, that choice can restore your time, freedom, and most importantly, your relationship with your kids.

If you are considering taking this leap, or if you recognize the need for more educational alternatives in your area, there are ways you can help. Explore, support, and even start grassroots initiatives to expand educational choice in your community. Reach out to existing alternative educational groups to find out more about them and share what you learn. Word of mouth is almost surely their primary method of growth. Volunteer your time to lead an activity or offer a workshop. Advocate for policy at the local and state level that promotes education reform, expands options, and allows greater flexibility for young people and their families.

As more of us choose to take education into our own hands and demonstrate interest in new ideas, alternatives will continue to grow and spread, even into our small communities, giving us more opportunities to best provide for our kids’ needs. The educational landscape is changing quickly to allow more freedom, flexibility, and choice to meet the needs of today’s young people and their families, and meeting those needs for every young person is critical for the future of our communities.

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