BEMIDJI-During a recent school day, a group of teenagers was working on a video project in the basement of the Bemidji Church of Christ. Some of them were rehearsing pages of script among themselves. Others were adjusting camera and light settings. One was scanning a small, handheld camera for the behind-the-scenes footage they'd all laugh at later.
Much like their peers just down the road at Bemidji High School, these students are working toward graduation-even if the process might look somewhat different. As part of the homeschool collaborative SEEDS, which stands for "Support, Encourage, Educate, Develop and Socialize," they get together once a month to work on joint projects and learn in a group setting.
Together, they're part of a loose-knit community of families that choose to educate their children at home. Although, the homeschooling process may look different from family to family, many parents go this route for the freedom it brings.
It's the freedom to teach their children a certain set of values; it's the freedom to teach their children in a one-on-one setting; It's the freedom to spend more time with their children during their fundamental learning years.
"One of the reasons would be to pass on our values," Kandi Paddock said about why her family chooses to homeschool. "We didn't have kids just to have somebody else could raise them."
According to the Bemidji School District, there are approximately 280 home-schooled students within its jurisdictional area. They represent about 3.8 percent of the total student population, which also includes those in the public school system, the private schools, as well as charter schools.
A variety of methods
However, not all families homeschool their children the same way.
Some of them choose to take part in any one of the multiple co-operatives that exist, such as SEEDS. Some families are more independent and undertake their learning entirely on their own. There also are students that belong to both the homeschool and public school worlds, such as brothers Josh and Zack Shueller.
For part of the year, Zack's a full time student at the high school, where he takes as many advanced placement courses as he can. Outside of class, though, he also takes part in a variety of extra curriculars throughout the year, such as cross country, debate, speech, knowledge bowl and track. His brother, Josh, has a similar system.
On this particular Thursday morning, though, they both were helping their friends film the video project "The Wayward Time Traveler" in the church's basement.
"I still like to do some classes at home. Then I'm able to come to the homeschool group and do stuff with my homeschool friends," Zack Schueller said. "I like the combination of both."
For those students who don't dabble in the public school system, though, the co-ops can be a way to take part in activities that may not be as accessible for just a few siblings studying at the dining room table.
Abbi Cobb, the leader of SEEDS, said that's why they practice public speaking at the co-op in the form of giving oral reports. During the March meeting of SEEDS, 12-year-old Lydia Wollman gave a report about the history of ice cream and the exotic flavors that have been tried, ranging from ghost pepper to raw horse flesh.
"I personally don't think I would have tried any of those flavors, but that's just me," Wollen said during her report. "Today, there are so many flavors of ice cream that we can't count them all."
After the oral reports, the students split into older and younger groups. While the high schoolers were working on their project in the basement, a slew of grade students were upstairs in the pews with their parents, listening to a lesson about the five elements of storytelling.
Angela Paulson leads another homeschool co-op in Bemidji. Like SEEDS, her group, the Heritage Homeschool Co-op, meets periodically to supplement what each of the families is learning separately at home. They have gym time; they attend field trips.
In the time between their monthly or bi-monthly co-op meetings, each family is off in its own world. On a recent Thursday, two of Paulson's children, 12-year-old Joza and 10-year-old Kodee were working on a science lesson. They had an assortment of nature pictures spread out on the table. Their task was to match each picture with a category: Match one picture to the word "fungus." Match another to the word "invertebrate."
The faith factor
Both SEEDS and the Heritage Homeschool Co-op are faith-based, and many homeschool families choose curriculum that has a faith-based focus. Before Wollman and a couple other students gave their oral reports at the March SEEDS meeting, another student gave a brief scripture reading.
Like the Schueller brothers, Paulson's older son began taking classes at the high school. And because there were topics he encountered in the school system their family doesn't necessarily agree with, Paulson said it gave her the chance to have open conversations with her son about those issues.
"The fact of the matter is that no matter where we put our kids, they will be presented with situations like that all throughout their lives, and I'm thankful that we get to have those conversations while they're still at home," Paulson said.
Faith doesn't play a role in everyone's choice to homeschool.
Leah Corcoran administers the group Bemidji Area Secular Homeschoolers. The group is open to anyone regardless of religion; the name merely indicates the fact that religion doesn't factor into their activities and learning. It acts as a resource for families to network, support one another, and periodically plan events.
And just like any of the other families, homeschooling has allowed them the freedom to tailor their children's education to their own liking and the chance to learn in a smaller setting. It gives the students, Corcoran said, the opportunity to follow their interests and passions.
For example, her 7-year-old daughter has an interest in public office. So, they called City Hall and scheduled a meeting with Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht to learn about what public service includes.
Corcoran's 11-year-old son is a musician, so they scheduled a meeting with local jazz musician Sam Miltich.
Corcoran said it was those kind of moments she decided she wanted to experience with her children when she was first deciding whether or not to homeschool them.
"I wanted to be an active participant in their education; I wanted to be the person who got to witness those 'aha moments,'" Corcoran said.