Learn As We Go: Unschooled in Nebraska Part Two


July 25th, 2012

Omaha, NE- Most educators agree that education may need a bit of a makeover. Unconventional education and public education have begun to share some common philosophies. But, fundamentally, educators may never be able to agree on what an effective education model actually looks like. And in the end, do they even share the same objectives for young adulthood?

Part One:

Listen Now

Part Two:

Listen Now

Lincoln unschooler Michael Landreth is not public education’s number one fan. “I want to go on record to say that the idea of a school system is corrupt to the core.” Landreth said emphatically.

“It cannot be good because it is bad in of itself,” he said. “Children were not meant to be taught by a bureaucracy, we are meant to go out into the fields and learn the trade. When did that stop happening? I’ll tell you when. The industrial revolution!”

Unschooler Carl Mowry says he likes the smaller class sizes of community college compared to public high school. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

Landreth is now attending community college studying philosophy, but he has many qualms with the structures of standardized education. He said pressures outside of learning motivate students to find shortcuts and circumvent lesson plans.

“You don’t learn things when you’re forced into a system; you learn how to cheat the system,” he said. “You’re thinking because of credits, these arbitrary rules we’ve placed.”

Landreth, 22, and his family have been on again off again unschoolers. Unschooling is what some would call a “radical” form of homeschooling. No tests, no curriculums, and no formal teaching.

Parents are required to fill out an annual form that cites either religious or philosophical interference for their decision to keep their children out of an accredited school. The state does not issue a diploma to exempt students, but home learning students can receive one from either their parent, a homeschooling network, or by taking the GED test.

Most of the Landreth children, whose ages range from five to 24, have spent sporadic time in the public school system. Some have attended, or still attend, individual courses at a local high school — classes like pottery, Japanese and speech to supplement their at home or “life experience” learning.
Unschooler Carl Mowry, 17, currently attends Metropolitan Community College in Omaha to take general education courses. He said class sizes deter him from public high school.

The Landreth children have spent most of their childhoods “unschooled.” (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

“There’s like, one teacher to a ton of kids,” Mowry said. “I’ve had friends in public and private schools for that matter, and they don’t really pay attention.”

For the Landreths and Mowry, their unschooling philosophy best suits their core principles of life learning, self-sufficiency, and freedom of choice. While critics may find their methods to be radical, their philosophies can be found in both public and private institutions.

LaVonne Plambeck is the Director of Montessori Educational Centers in Omaha. Plambeck brought the Montessori teaching method to Omaha nearly 45 years ago. They were originally seen as daycares, but now, the centers are a licensed private education system.

Children in Montessori schools are encouraged to become independent in play and learning. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

“The problem is, through school, they are just so structured,” Plambeck said. “This first grade, second grade. You know, it doesn’t work like that anymore, people.”

Much like unschooling, Montessori schools focus on what the child wants to do. Children explore interests with spurts of guided learning. Plambeck called it “freedom within limits.” Children are encouraged to learn from each other and share new knowledge with their peers in mixed age groups.

“Montessori is a philosophy where you’re really building the character of the individual, teaching them how to think. Who are you? Think for yourself,” Plambeck said.

Montessori students are encouraged to follow their own interests in learning. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

In a suburb of Omaha, Millard Public Schools has also caught on to the idea. MPS has two elementary schools and a middle school that implement the Montessori philosophy. But the Millard Public Schools’s Montessori is free and open to the public. Private Montessori schools can cost upwards of $8,000 a year.

Dr. ReNae Kehrberg, Assistant Superintendent of Omaha Public Schools, says public education is the backbone of society.

“Public school is the great equalizer,” Kehrberg said. “It is the opportunity for young people to be more than what they could’ve been without it. It allows young people to have a successful future academic career in college, university, or the world of work.”

“Public school allows young people who have little resources to have the same toehold on the future as a family that is highly resourced,” Kehrberg said.

Dr. Kehrberg says Omaha Public Schools guarantee a well-rounded education for all its students. (Photo credit Omaha Public Schools)

For Kehrberg, structure is beneficial in a district that serves a majority of students in the Omaha metro. That structure ensures all children receive a quality education across the board. She agrees that “doing” is the best form of learning, a philosophy shared with unschooling. OPS has career centers to foster talents and interests. There, students receive a core education in all subjects that utilize lectures, hands-on experiments and group projects through a scheduled curriculum. Unschoolers, however, do not use any learning schedules.

“We define… what every child should know and be able to do in 4th grade, 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, and then … what they need for math, science, social studies,” Kehrberg said. “And those are called content standards, and the state gives those to us. In the absence of content standards, if I’m unschooling, well, I might love statistics, but I might never engage myself in geometry.”

Kerhberg said some home learning children entering the public school system are strong in a few subjects, but have “holes” in many others. “What we guarantee is that when you graduate high school in the Omaha public schools, you’ve gotten a balanced array of all the core subjects,” she said.

Sandpaper Letters” are a Montessori staple for learning how to read and write. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

But for some unschoolers, the public school system is failing students. And those notions are backed by federal data which has listed high schools throughout OPS and Lincoln Public Schools as failing by federal testing standards. Kehrberg said public schools are open to entire communities with students across a spectrum of backgrounds and abilities. And that diversity makes those federal standards unobtainable.

For Jessica Freeman, a Lincoln unschooling parent, that points to the irony in criticisms of home learners. She takes issue with the suggestion that home learners need to be more supervised.

Dr. ReNae Kehrberg is the Assistant Superintendent of Omaha Public Schools. (Photo courtesy Omaha Public Schools)

“If the public schoolers who take the same test, don’t pass this test, what happens to them?” she said. “They’re still in the same system…they don’t get thrown out into home school. What kind of double standard is this?”

Currently, home learning students are not tested by the state. Freeman said legislation to do so has been proposed in the past but has not made it into law.

The end game for most public schools and home learners is getting kids to pursue secondary education to enter the workforce and become successful, productive adults. Despite the hesitation to join a traditional school system, many unschoolers do attend community colleges and universities to get the diplomas they need to find jobs. However, Freeman said pushing kids to college is missing the point.

“…like Occupy Wall Street, those kids went to school, they followed all the rules and they have no jobs,” Freeman said. “And they’re like, we have to do something to change this. Those kids can’t get jobs and they went to school, so you really need a college education.”

“But you don’t need a college education,” she said. “Because a college education at this point has become more of the same…sometimes it’s useful, but sometimes it’s not.”

At its core, personal accountability is paramount for unschoolers. Rather than a college degree, Freeman said, personal motivation is what stands in between success and failure. Unschooler Carl Mowry agrees.

“If you get someone who really doesn’t care about what they learn and what they do, they’re probably not going to be as prepared,” Mowry said. “I’ve met other guys in homeschooling that don’t really give a damn.”

So what does a successful adulthood look like to them? “Well,” he said, “they’re probably going to be in their parents’ basement for a while.”

4 Responses

  1. Cindy Miller says:

    Dear Ms. Peterson,
    I heard part of your broadcast and then came to KVNO website to read your article about unschooling. First, I think you shouldn’t lump unschooling and homeschooling into the same category. We have been homeschooling our 5 children for the past 22 years. All the homeschooling families we know are very serious about their children’s education. They have chosen to take their kids out of the public setting because of their religious convictions and because they believe they can give their kids a better education than they can get in the public sector. We all emphasize developing character in our kids and personal responsibility.

    At this time my three older children are pursuing higher education and have transitioned to the University scene just fine. (They all are averaging between A and A+ averages. My third child is graduating from college a year early and has been awarded a fellowship at Cornell University.) They say some of their classes are so easy you have to really try to fail.

    Also, you make it sound like there is no accountability to the State of Nebraska for homeschooling families. We have to send in a detailed list of our curriculum every year. We also have chosen to test our kids every two years with standardized tests just to make sure they aren’t falling behind their public peers or have any weak areas we are missing.

    A couple of years ago when their was a law before the Nebraska Legislature to change homeschooling laws we went to the hearings. There were thousands of homeschooling parents and kids at the State Capitol that day. As I sat there looking around, I saw caring parents and decent, well behaved, even happy kids. I wondered, “What is wrong with this picture? Sure not every homeschooling family is perfect but for the most part I think we are fulfilling our responsibility to our children and the State.

    Cindy Miller

    • Suzy Landreth says:

      Cindy Miller, We have been homeschooling our eight children for 17 years. Four of them have graduated from home. Out of the four, two have graduated from college (one was rewarded a Regents Scholarship to UNL) and the other two are still attending college. I assure you that although our home educating methods may differ, we are also serious about our children’s education, character development and personal responsibility.

  2. Emily Horacek says:

    ‘Kerhberg said some home learning children entering the public school system are strong in a few subjects, but have “holes” in many others. “What we guarantee is that when you graduate high school in the Omaha public schools, you’ve gotten a balanced array of all the core subjects,” she said.’

    This quote made me laugh out loud. Just because someone has had some state educators idea of a curriculum pass before their eyes does not mean that they do not have so-called holes in their education. Furthermore, curricula vary from state to state, so students from Nebraska migh have a much better understanding of Western American history, where ones from Virginia will probably be much more knowledgable about Jamestown. I am a product of the public school system, I cover plenty of material while homeschooling my children that I don’t remember learning in school. Did it keep me from earning a Master’s degree in U.S. Foreign Policy? No. Does learning stop when you get a high school diploma, a college degree, or complete studies at the post-graduate level? Let’s hope not.

    If we have students that are “strong in a few subjects,” let’s count our blessings and move on.

    • Lee Miller says:

      That quote also caught my eye. As someone in higher education (Associate Professor of English), I can say that we are seeing a great increase in students with high school diplomas with “holes” all over their learning and skills(somewhere around 40%, or so, of our entering first year students are required to enter what we call “transitional” courses, about half need more than one). Moreover, even those who don’t have those “holes” (which are determined by test scores, usually ACT), are largely woefully inadequately prepared to think for themselves, much less to articulate an informed perspective on anything important. Unfortunately, the policy answer too often is that we need more testing and more blaming of teachers. Yes, we could use more training of teachers, but more exploration of learning theory and educational philosophy would completely undercut the common emphasis, today, on standardized, curriculum-centered, test-filled education. Students are capable of so much more than that sort of educational approach requires/assumes, but only if provided structural support (including confident, well-trained, adequately paid teacher-learners), rather than structural regimentation. I’d really like to see what sort of students I would get in my classrooms if they were products of the sort of educational environment employed at, say, Sudbury Valley Schools (www.sudval.org). I can say, however, that my students who are homeschool products are typically much more used to thinking in terms of learning experiences and opportunities (and me as a facilitator in that process) than credits and requirements (and me as gatekeeper), that latter of which seems to be what is assumed by far too many of my students when they walk into my courses.

©2023 KVNO News