A Different Kind Of Pomp & Circumstance how area home-schooled students celebrate the culmination of high school
For many years, Ellen Gerwitz has been a member of Loving Education at Home (LEAH), an organization dedicated to promoting and supporting home education in New York, and she is currently the Chapter Leader of the LEAH group she founded eight years ago. Ellen decided to commit to the home-school process when her oldest child was about to start kindergarten in Greece.
Between herself and her husband, the couple's background included attending a Christian school, a Catholic school, and various public schools and, according to Ellen, "None of them were great, even though we were good students. I felt confident that we could provide a better educational experience where our kids were really challenged." The couple decided to home-school all three of their children and feel that it was a worthwhile and rewarding time commitment, one that they will be sorry to see come to an end when their youngest child, Allison, graduates this year.
With all the excitement surrounding traditional graduations, it's easy to forget that there's another group of teens, like Allison, who will also be graduating in June – those who are home-schooled. These students' educations occur in a different physical space than their peers so, when it comes time to graduate, their parents contact the school superintendent of the district they live in to get a "letter of completion," equivalent to a high school diploma. Many parents who choose to home-school also prepare their own acknowledgment to mark the end of their child's schooling, often a blessing or a highly personal speech about what they've taken away from the experience. Though it's a slightly different process, completing their high school requirements is just as memorable and exciting of an occasion.
Patti Owens serves as the Regional Representative for LEAH's Rochester/ Finger Lakes area, however she describes herself more informally as "the bridge between the statewide LEAH and the local chapters." Though home-schooled students aren't allowed to participate in their local high school's celebration, Patti observes that the teens do have several ways that they can observe the culmination of their home-schooling. Some local LEAH chapters choose to organize a small-scale celebration for the families in their group. Other families decide to have a private family ceremony and party.
Holly Phillips, New York State's LEAH Upstate Commencement Coordinator, says a significant number of New York State's home-schooled students are interested in being part of a larger celebration and partake in the annual homeschooler graduation ceremony. For the past five years, this event has been held at the Riverside Convention Center in Rochester.Last year it attracted 120 graduates and upwards of 2,100 guests. 132 teenagers are slated to graduate this year. The program format is similar to that found in many traditional high schools, Holly says. The average age of the students is seventeen and they wear caps and gowns and walk up on the stage just like their high school counterparts. Each year there is also a commencement speaker who is nationally recognized in the home schooling movement. This year's speaker will be Rick Boyer who, with his wife Marilyn, home-schooled their fourteen children and have written several books about their experiences, Christian parenting, and national reformation.
Where the ceremony differs from a conventional high school's is that LEAH has a narrator, Jaime Cole, who announces each graduate by reading a short biographical sketch submitted by the student, a scripture verse that the teen selects, and a brief description of his or her future plans.
Additionally, parents play a key role in the LEAH graduation, meeting their son or daughter on stage and personally handing out the diploma which acknowledges completion of a satisfactory course of study. "It's important to recognize [the parents] as well," says Holly, which is why the parents also come up on stage for the LEAH graduation ceremony. She explains it's not only because they are the ones who are actually graduating the student. "They've put so much dedication and sacrifice into the educational process."
For most teens, there's much more to school than academics. Do home-schoolers miss out on the traditions and activities that are associated with the end of their high school careers – things like signing yearbooks, senior award ceremonies, the senior prom, or senior class trip? Ellen says her kids always had the option of doing the same social things as their peers. When her son felt he was missing out on the opportunity to play competitive hockey, Ellen and her husband coached a homeschoolers hockey team. Likewise when her second child really wanted to attend a prom the couple organized a home-school prom for other fifteen and sixteen year olds. "Our LEAH group also has a yearbook and anyone who wants to contribute to it can," Ellen adds.
According to Ellen's youngest daughter Allison, there isn't a single thing she'd change about her home-schooling experience. Allison says she's always felt much less regimented than her friends at public and parochial high schools. Since she could get her schoolwork done at whatever pace she chose to, she had more time to explore and pursue interesting hobbies, like Civil War reenactments, which she really enjoys. The teen quickly dispels what she says is "the myth of home-schoolers being isolated and housebound." She explains that her family actually enjoys spending time together and that, between church, sports, field trips and other activities they're "on the go" much of the time. Like other high school students, Allison's friends come from the various groups she belongs to, like dance troupes and basketball.
Ellen and her husband have let each of their children choose how they wanted to celebrate their graduation. Their son decided that a graduation party with family and friends, where he would receive his framed "letter of completion" and blessing from his parents, would be the most meaningful experience for him. Ellen's second daughter, who graduated in 2008, decided to participate in the LEAH ceremony along with having a private party. Allison will be graduating on June 2nd in the New York State Upstate LEAH Commencement Ceremony, followed by a party with family and friends.
Allison is happy to have the option of being part of a more formal group event which publicly acknowledges the end of her schooling at home. "It's important to mark graduation; that's what you do," she says. "I worked hard to get to this point and it only happens once in your life!"
Sue Henninger is a contributing writer to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. Contact her at www.fingerlakeswriter.com