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Learning at home
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Students at the home-school enrichment group have made catapults out of pop bottles and plastic spoons. The students will use them to lob marshmallows at each other. They're learning about life in the Middle Ages. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
More and more families are choosing to home-school. In Minnesota, about 16,000 children get their education at home. That's almost eight times the number of 20 years ago. For some families, home-schooling seems like the best way to help their children learn and develop their full potential. For others, it's a way of instilling religious and ethical values.

Duluth, Minn. — There are lots of reasons why families choose to educate their children at home. Many families are like the LeGardes, who come at it from a religious perspective.

One morning at the LeGarde house, Joseph and Robert LeGarde are playing Money Matters. It's a board game that teaches lessons about household finances.

For the moment they've left their formal schoolwork upstairs at the dining room table. Their teacher is their mom, Trina LeGarde. She says Robert did his math early this morning.

"And then he has English, and vocabulary, science, health, and history," she says."

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Image Trina LeGarde.

Trina LeGarde says she and her husband didn't start out with a plan to home-school their kids. When their first child, Amelia, was kindergarten age, they were living in California, and they heard stories about the neighborhood schools. Other parents said when kids were disruptive, the schools excused the bad behavior instead of correcting it.

"We thought, 'We've spent a lot of time up until this point trying to train our kids with our attitudes, values & beliefs,' and we wanted that to continue," she says.

So they taught Amelia at home for a year, and enjoyed it so much, they kept at it.

Trina's husband Joe was in the military, so he was on assignment a lot. When he was at home, the kids were free to spend time with him. And home-schooling allows the LeGardes to choose textbooks that reinforce their religious beliefs.

"We do live in world where there are moral absolutes," she says. "There is truth based on God's word. I know not everybody accepts that, and I can be respectful of that opinion, I want our children to be respectful of that opinion. But the greatest satisfaction I will have at the end of my life is knowing that my children have a relationship with the Lord, that they're saved."

Bible study is an important lesson every day, and Christian teachings show up in math books and science books. Amelia says she likes to think about the cosmic questions.

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Image Lisa Messerer.

"The 'big-bang' for example. What made it go 'bang'?" she asks. "Because atoms just don't start colliding. So it takes more faith to believe in an evolutionist point of view than in a creationist. And when you look at evidence of creationism happening, it just clicks."

Amelia says she's enjoyed learning at home. She likes to be able to work at her own pace. But now she's fourteen. And next year she plans to attend high school in Hermantown, a suburb of Duluth.

"I've been home schooled nine years, and I just think it would be a little funner to go to school and have that kind of experience," she says. "And I would like to get out of house, and kind of break away from my family just a little bit, enough so that I have some room to breathe," she says with a smile.

The LeGardes participate in an enrichment program for Duluth area home-schoolers. Every other week they get together to socialize with other kids, and to learn from people besides their moms.

At one gathering, about 20 kids are facing each other in a church basement. They're lobbing marshmallows across the room at each other. They're using catapults made out of soda bottles, pencils, and egg cartons. These kids are studying life in medieval days.

They're not all home schooling from a Christian perspective. Lisa Messerer is here with her kids. She says she and Trina LeGarde are good friends, although their styles are very different.

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Image Sarah Messerer.

"And we always talk about how I come from the far left, and she comes from the far right, and we meet in center," Messerer says.

The Messerers decided to try home-schooling because their older daughter Gilah is an introvert and needs a lot of time on her own.

"So being home-schooled gives her that," Lisa Messerer says. "So that's how we first came into home-schooling, and then we just decided we kind of like this. We like being with our kids."

The younger Messerer daughter is still in school at home.

Lisa Messerer calls her educational style "un-schooling." She lets her daughters follow their own interests. She doesn't push them to achieve, but she makes a point of offering situations where they can learn.

"Even when the kids were real young, it may not have looked like school was happening," she says. "But we were always reading out loud to them, cooking with them, talking about the fractions in cooking -- 'here's a teaspoon, how many teaspoons do we need?' So the math, and the language arts were built in, just built into life."

Messerer says this approach means in some subjects her kids are ahead of other students their age, and in other subjects they're behind.

Her daughter Gilah is 15. She started ninth grade in a public school last fall. Gilah says she had some trouble adjusting.

"I was kind of far behind," she says. "But I was able to work and the teachers worked with me, and I was able to catch up, and now it's working a lot better. Yeah, I'm happy." Gilah's mother, Lisa, says teaching her girls at home has allowed them to flourish, without the negative peer pressure they might have gotten at school.

"That sense that girls aren't as smart, and that they have to be pretty and they have to play certain games," she says. "My girls have just never been exposed to that. And that's okay; maybe we're going to have kids who can change the world a little bit because they haven't been exposed to some of that stuff. And change the world in a positive way."

Lisa Messerer wants her kids to change the world. Her friend Trina LeGarde wants her kids to be saved. They both think home schooling is the best way to do it.

And they're part of a growing number of Minnesota families. Officials say home-schooling is more popular here than in other states. The legislature spelled out some requirements nearly 30 years ago. Home-schooled children have to take a standardized test every year. The state doesn't see the results, but the tests allow the parents to keep track of how their students are doing. The Department of Children, Families and Learning is comfortable with how home-schooling families are doing, according to spokesman Bill Walsh.

"There's some national studies that indicate that home-school students do very well on standardized tests, like SAT and ACT," he says. "Most evidence would point toward high academic achievement for home-schooled kids."

A generation of home-schooled young people is now active in the world.

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