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Home-schoolers adjust to classes in public schools

From the lobby of West Fargo High School, Ashlee Morrow watched with near-awe the twin rivers of teens surging up and down the staircase. She was about to make her public-school debut. "Wow, that's a lot of people," she thought before plunging in...

Blake Morrow in choir
"I was kind of lost the first few days. then I thought, 'That sounds really good.' " says Blake Morrow, second from right, on 10th-grade choir in West Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

From the lobby of West Fargo High School, Ashlee Morrow watched with near-awe the twin rivers of teens surging up and down the staircase.

She was about to make her public-school debut.

"Wow, that's a lot of people," she thought before plunging in.

The first day of junior high or high school can test any newcomer's mettle. If you've never experienced traditional school before, the arrival can bring on extra angst.

For a variety of reasons, some area home-schooled students enroll in public or private school in the later grades. Most cherry-pick classes and activities while continuing to do most of their learning at home. Ashlee, who is now a nursing student at North Dakota State University, signed up for band, choir, volleyball and Spanish.


Naturally, the transition can bring jitters and a bit of a culture shock. But before long, Ashlee was giving speeches before more than 100 peers, hitting the school stage and busting myths about socially inept home-schoolers.

Her brother, Blake, arrived at West Fargo High a couple of years ago: "She was my claim to fame when I didn't know anybody."

First-day jitters

Home-schoolers might choose to get involved in traditional school for many reasons: for group activities such as choir that are impossible to pull off at home, for foreign language conversation practice, for a crack at lecture-style teaching in advance of college. Blake's mom, Candy, wanted him to nurture an aptitude for math, but she couldn't picture teaching him calculus.

On his first day in 10th-grade choir, Blake wondered what strange song his classmates were singing as they all launched into standard classroom vocal warm-ups. Then, he had to get the hang of four-part harmonies.

"I was kind of lost the first couple of days," says Blake, a senior. "Then I thought, 'That sounds really good.' "

Last year, Clara Anderson, who had been home-schooled until the seventh grade, walked into Moorhead's Park Christian lunchroom a bit late on her first school day. All the girls were sitting at one long table, and all the boys at another. The only open seat was at the boys' table.

And to think she had worried about detention, which her dad once got for talking in class: "I was wondering how fast the teachers would be in handing that out."


Katie Shorma, who attended public school until the third grade, returned as a West Fargo High senior to take speech and U.S. government. A member of a youth acting troupe, with a large circle of family friends, she was a self-described talker.

In fact, she signed up for the government class because she wanted to partake in large-group discussion. Yet, she fell into an out-of-character silence the first few days. She didn't break it even when a teacher was inquiring after nicknames, and Katie became Kathryn for the rest of the school year.

"I remember feeling very scared," says Katie, a recent Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate. "It was a change from being the only one in my class to being in a group of 25 students."

And Carol Schuster, a home-schooling mother of four, recalls dropping off her son Chris - then a sixth-grade saxophone player in a seventh-grade band class at Fargo's Discovery Middle School - and lingering in her car.

"Lord, please let them like him," she prayed. "Let nobody pick on him."

Getting the hang of it

Without a doubt, easing into a classroom setting can be an adjustment.

Banished to the rear of a Park Christian classroom by alphabetical seating, Clara found it harder to focus with a teacher who, unlike her mom, only made eye contact occasionally. At first, overnight homework in history, English and science was a bit overwhelming - and it piled up even when she was out sick with the flu.


Sharing a teacher with 70 band students or 20-some kids in Spanish class can take a little getting used to, says Chris Schuster, who now studies music education at NDSU.

"At home, if we don't understand a concept, we can take more time on it," he says. "At school, we go at a steady pace even if some kids aren't getting it and others are bored out of their minds because they've already gotten it."

When Chris' brother Daniel, a trumpet player, was preparing to take band at Discovery, he peppered Chris with questions.

"Were you totally freaking out when you went the first day?" was one.

In turn, Daniel fielded questions from their sister, Melanie, and gave her a tour of the Discovery orchestra room before she started there last month. A veteran of church plays, the violin player describes the first-day feeling as acute stage fright.

"I was like, 'Hi. Hello. I am here though you don't know me,' "

she says, adding, "I was really nervous."

Dispelling myths


Tom Gravel, West Fargo's home-school coordinator, says between 10 and 15 percent of the district's 59 home-schooled students attend the district, most often part time and in the upper grades.

"It's usually just a select course or co-curricular activity," says Gravel, adding that could be anything from the fifth-grade DARE program to upper-level math and language classes. "It's not all or nothing."

Shane Martin, Gravel's counterpart in Fargo, says roughly the same percentage of the district's 155 home-schooled students attend it. Usually, both agree, home-schooled students get the hang of the school setting fast.

After a week of keeping quiet, Katie Shorma willed herself to get up and recite the preamble to the Constitution for extra credit.

"I don't think you took a breath during the whole thing," her teacher observed after she rattled off the text. "I did it! I talked," she thought triumphantly and went on to become a regular contributor to classroom discussion.

Ashlee Morrow, who already had a sizable stable of friends from church and the area Christian home-schooler group REACH, made more friends. She acted in a school play, worked on the student newspaper, played volleyball and became vice president of the school's honor society.

After her junior year, she faced about 100 girls at a state speech event in Grand Forks. She was running for higher Girls' State office, and she led the crowd through a chant of her name set to the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song. Her parents, she thought, had been a tougher crowd.

Ashlee and Blake both brushed off the idea of enrolling in high school full time, says mom, Candy: "They felt they had the best of both worlds."


"Being home-schooled helped me realize the importance of being a little bit different and being OK with it," says Blake.

After "a month of agony," in her mom Barbara's words, Clara Anderson grew to like school. Detention, it turned out, is hanging out in the library with a friend whom you chatted with when you weren't supposed to. Though the family decided to go back to home-schooling this year, she'll stay in daily touch with friends through Facebook.

All students tried to use their peers' misconceptions about home-schooling and "take the weirdness out of them," as Ashlee puts it. No, she didn't take lessons in her pajamas; in fact, she only wore sweatpants to school once she got to college. No, you don't get to sleep in. Daniel Schuster, for one, gets up at 7 and hits the books after breakfast. And yes, you do have school on snow days.

This fall, Katie started as a teacher in a Spanish immersion classroom in Northfield, Minn. Professors and peers thought it was strange that she chose a career in public education.

"I never thought it was strange," she says. "I think there are great advantages to both situations. Each family should choose what's best for them."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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