There was no principal to pass out diplomas. No valedictorian. No class president. But, there was a graduation. Before a crowd of friends and family in the sanctuary of New Life Assembly of God, 26 area homeschool students graduated on Saturday, June 7. As each name was called, they met their parents on the stage and were handed their diploma, often with a hug or a kiss.
“These graduates and their parents could never have made it to this point, without the strength of the Lord,” Dr. Chris King, pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church, said as he welcomed a crowd of over 400 people to the graduation. The simple ceremony included a message by 2012 homeschool graduate Sutton Wirt, a congregational hymn and prayer and blessing over the graduates.
After each student received their diploma, they played a short video of pictures with a recorded message from their parents. The slideshows and messages were as diverse as the students and families represented. There were pictures of theater productions, embarrassing childhood moments, hunting trips and sports competitions; overlade with messages from their parents of encouragement, love and hope.
Although the graduation ceremony was serious, the graduates were full of energy and excitement.
During the reception that followed in the New Life gym, the graduates even broke into a surprise flash mob, singing and dancing. Later, they would quiet the reception crowd down for a special announcement.
Graduate Anna Johnson spoke: “We would like to thank our parents for the countless hours of service and dedication and everything they’ve taught us, not just in school, but in life. Mom and Dad, we couldn’t do it without you. Thank you.”
Anna had traveled from Amherst to graduate in Farmville. Before moving from the area, she participated in an educational cooperative for homeschool students. A competitive figure skater, next year she will be competing to skate in the U.S. Figure Skating Solo Dance Championship and attending Liberty University. She hopes to transfer to Boston University in 2015. She plans to become an osteopathic doctor.
What was one of the most challenging parts of being homeschooled for Anna?
“Outsiders, that don’t understand,” she says. “A lot of people look down on homeschooling.”
After experiencing that bias, Anna says she has found she is more comfortable with diversity and those that are different from her. “It’s definitely helped me grow as a person and accept all different types of people,” she said.
The 2014 Farmville-area graduates were definitely diverse in their aspirations. Graduates dream of attending gunsmithing school, becoming registered nurses and studying theater. But, when The Herald spoke with the graduates, they all had one thing in common: they were grateful they were homeschooled, often thanking both their parents and God for the opportunity.
Some acknowledged there were times they wished they could go to a private school. Several others said that being sent to school was almost seen as a punishment.
“It was a threat to be sent to public school,” Katie Hess, of Randolph, told The Herald, “If I was complaining about school work or mom was mad, she’d say, ‘I’ll send you to public school.’”
According to the United States Department of Education, 1.5 million children were homeschooled in the United States in 2007. Some estimate the numbers to be more than two million. And, no matter who you ask, they agree the trend is still growing.
In Virginia, parents can choose to instruct their children at home, have a state certified teacher tutor them or file for religious exemption from school attendance. Last year, in Prince Edward County alone, 138 students were homeschooled, based on the number of homeschool and religious exemptions recorded by the County school. In Cumberland, 65 were homeschooled and in Buckingham, 93, according to County schools’ records.
Last week’s ceremony was organized by one the graduates’ mother, Laura Moser, a homeschool mother of five from Prince Edward County. There have been home school graduation ceremonies in this area for about ten years, but, to her knowledge, this one had the largest number of students.
The number of homeschooled students is increasing in the commonwealth, according to Virginia Department of Education statistics, nearly doubling in the ten years since the 2002-2003 school year. When asked if they were glad they were homeschooled, all the graduates The Herald interviewed responded with an emphatic ‘yes.’
Homeschool student’s academic achievements often surpass that of public school students, according to a study conducted by National Home Education Research Institute. The national study, conducted in 2008, found that, on average, homeschool students scored 37 percentile points above public school students on standardized achievement tests.
But, academics was not the highlight of homeschooling for this graduating class.
Instead, it was flexibility. Parents are able to pace their student’s education, giving them more time to focus on the areas that challenge them, one graduate pointed out. It also allows students more freedom with their time outside of school. Several graduates talked about how they were able to finish their school work in the morning and then use the rest of the day to focus on other things.
Graduate Rebecca Skelton quoted Mark Twain in her biography for the graduation program: “I never let schooling interfere with my education.” A graduate from Amelia, Rebecca plans to eventually study Engineering at Virginia Tech.
“The great thing about homeschooling is I really get time to develop my personal interests,” Jeremy Stinson told The Herald. From Curdsville, Jeremy has been homeschooled his entire life.
“You’ll see among the homeschoolers so much diversity…We have swimmers in here. We have musicians in here,” he said pointing at the reception hall around him. As they congratulated students and chatted, the crowd milled around tables, one for each graduate. They were decorated with pictures, memorabilia and artifacts of their years in school: play scripts, model helicopters, trophies, a squirrel skin.
They are “extremely talented,” he continued. “You wouldn’t believe that they only just graduated high school and that’s really a great thing. And that’s always what I came back to; I can really spend the time focusing on what I really love to do.”
For Jeremy, that’s music. He plays the acoustic guitar, banjo, electric base, ukulele, mandolin and electric guitar. He plans to go to community college and eventually transfer to a university.
Other students focused their energy during school elsewhere.
David Lehman is from Prospect and worked nearly full-time in construction and agriculture the entire time he was in high school. “I’ve been just putting money away,” he told The Herald. He hopes to continue working, maybe buy some land. Online college courses may also be in his future.
But, for David, high school wasn’t all work. What does he love the most about homeschooling? “I got a ton of friends that I wouldn’t give up for the world,” he told The Herald. They do all the normal stuff teenagers do, he said: go to the movies, hang out, play video games.
The other graduates concur. They have made strong friendships during their years as students.
“People say, ‘Homeschooling! You’re unsocialized,’” says Jeremy, “But, look around. These have been my friends for my entire childhood and they’re some of the greatest people I’ve ever met.”
Of course, there are some challenges to homeschooling, graduates pointed out, such as the lack of snow days and keeping your mother — who also happens to be your teacher — happy. But, in all, graduates were grateful.
Thomas Hertzler is from Prospect and glad he wasn’t sent to public school. He thinks he could have gotten himself into big trouble. Instead, as a homeschool student, he was able to get his work done and then go do what he loves. Wander the woods and build things. He plans to do construction work after graduation and save up money, so he doesn’t have to go into debt, for gunsmithing school. He also plans to acquire an online degree in business management. He echoed the statements of many students that day: “I just want to thank my parents in just following what they feel like God had for my life.”