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Kate and Molly Go to College
by Ann Leadbetter

teen girlMy daughters’ life learning journey has officially ended now that Kate (19) and Molly (17) are both in college this fall. It began when Kate finished first grade and Molly was a preschooler and now, 13 years later, they will both be in full-time school for the first time.

I’ve loved everything about life learning. We were able to spend large swathes of our days together and I was able to help them do things they wanted to do rather than coercing them to do things I thought they “should” do. Because I didn’t have to play the role of teacher or of teacher-colluder, I could be in a relaxed and honest relationship with them. When Kate turned 14, however, I started wondering if there was more we should be doing because she had already stated her desire to go to college so she could play soccer. Like most parents of unschoolers, I didn’t know how unschoolers fared in the college admission game, if it was hard to get into the colleges of their choice, if they would qualify for scholarships, if they’d hate college once they got there, if they could handle college work and, if they didn’t end up in college, then what? I have to admit that even though I had been a passionate believer in unschooling, I secretly hoped my girls would choose to go to college.

Maybe we all have an anti-mainstream threshold, and although I was more than happy if they chose to take some years off to travel or work, I always wanted them to go for that degree eventually. I don’t carry mindless assumptions anymore that they’d be doomed without one; in fact, I made an effort to point out people who had great jobs that didn’t require college, like their two aunts. One is a massage therapist and birth-doula, and the other is a master gardener and landscaper. And they both love their jobs.

Recently, I read a PR-type advertisement by Bill Gates touting the importance of college. It’s ironic that even very successful entrepreneurs who never got a college degree (like Gates) still feel the need to convince others that having one is a necessity. This bit of cultural conditioning is so deep that people I know who are “successful” in every way still have this sense of being “less than” because they never finished college. Even though statistics show that most people don’t end up working in a field related to their college education, having a degree seems to be important for our self-esteem. Nonetheless, I never pressured my daughters to go to college; the pressure they felt was self-imposed because both of them realized it was a way to keep playing the sports they loved at the competitive level they were used to.

To this end, both girls started the American School of Correspondence’s high school program when they were 14. We found out that in order to play sports in college, they needed a high school transcript that was recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Clearing House. The Clearing House is a watchdog organization which assures coaches that prospective college athletes will graduate from high school having completed a prescribed number of classes. I knew about its requirements because my husband is a college coach and he was always monitoring his runners’ academic eligibility. I found out about the American School from Cafi Cohen’s work (she’s the author of And What About College?, a guide to college admission for homeschoolers) and chose it because it was on the list of schools accepted by the NCAA.

Three years later, I learned that an unschooled athlete from our town had gotten into a NCAA Division I university to play tennis on the basis of a homeschool transcript created by his parents and made more “official” by the services of a local homeschool umbrella “school." The head of the school helps parents and teens translate their life learning children’s experiences and life learning into traditional academic credits and combines them with more traditional coursework (if there is any) to create a transcript. Once a standard number of credits have been accumulated, teens can “graduate” from the umbrella school.

Because Kate was almost finished with the American School curriculum and Molly was halfway through when we found out that transcripts from the umbrella school were accepted by the NCAA Clearing House, they decided to complete the curriculum anyway. We then incorporated American School courses into a transcript that included credits for life experience and a few elective courses they took at the local high school during soccer season. An example of a “life-experience” type course was when we gave both girls an “environmental studies” credit for spending a month in the back country doing trail work with an organization that provided 10 hours of environmental education per week. This combined transcript allowed us to show more of what they really did with their lives other than completing a bare-bones high school curriculum. I’m sorry now that they had to struggle through the American School; I know we could’ve created a fine transcript without it, but at the time I didn’t want to take the chance of making them ineligible for college sports when and if the time came.

"I want parents and teens to know that any fears they have about unschooling or minimal-schooling until the end of high school are unfounded. I want them to know that during the teen years, their relationship with their children and their children’s relationship with each other can be as smooth and fun and lovely as when they were small. I want parents to know that teens can be trusted to figure out what they want and to go after it without any coercion."

I was grateful for the umbrella school’s transcripts and diplomas when it came to filling out college applications. It’s a bit easier to show that your child graduated from a school; it makes the whole process less complicated and less open to scrutiny. But this step isn’t necessary. I know plenty of parents who have made their teens’ transcripts themselves from start to finish and haven’t had any problems with college admissions, as long as there weren’t complicating factors like sports eligibility. (There are many guidelines for this process in places like Cafi Cohen’s book as well as Allison McKee’s From Homeschool to College.)

Fortunately, both Kate and Molly were able to finish the correspondence coursework in less than three years with summers and long vacations off. They spent no more than one to three hours a day, three or four days a week doing it. The majority of the courses were deadly boring, but they could chip away at them whenever they felt motivated enough and could easily fit them around all the other things they were doing, like living for three months in Latin America to learn Spanish. I can’t say it was a painless experience, but it wasn’t too intrusive and it gave us a temporary illusion of safety.

As much as I hated subjecting my daughters to standardized testing of any sort, we couldn’t see any way out of taking the college entrance exams since all the colleges they were interested in required them. At least this was the one and only time they ever took one, a huge accomplishment in this test-crazy era of No Child Left Behind. Both girls ended up doing passably well on the ACT. Well enough to get into the University of Colorado at Boulder as well as five small liberal arts colleges that the US News and World Report Guide to Colleges classifies as “more selective.” They both had excellent scores in reading and English, and barely squeaked by in math and science.

They took the tests twice; the first time we paid an extra fee to receive their tests and answer sheets back with the correct answers marked. Then we reviewed all the English and math questions they missed, and looked for weak spots to target. For instance if I noticed they always got a particular kind of comma usage wrong, I made up some exercise sentences and we spent time going over that rule. Their math tutor did the same kind of thing with the math portion. We had enlisted a math tutor as soon as the girls started their first America School Algebra course. Until age 14 neither of them had taken any formal math classes. With occasional help from their dad and me, they were able to plod through the American School basic math courses. They took Algebra I and II with the help of occasional tutors. Right before they took the ACT a second time, we crammed the few targeted problems and rules, and it made them score quite a bit higher in English and a tiny bit higher in math. Their dad went over how to read graphs in the science portion, too, and this enabled them to make a small gain on the science test. Altogether, we spent maybe two hours on English and math cramming, and an hour on science. Not a bad investment because Kate raised her score by four points and Molly three (of course we don’t know if this is the only reason they scored higher; they could have also gotten easier tests or just been more comfortable with the procedure.) Their scores (24 and 25) ended up hitting the bottom rung of acceptability for the colleges they applied to.

What really helped college-wise, I believe, were their “extracurricular” summer jobs with Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, multiple Habitat for Humanity trips to Mexico and their extended language study in Mexico and Costa Rica. From each of these they got good reference letters. And they wrote very nice application essays.

As it turned out, both girls are going to the same college: a small liberal arts college that gave Kate scholarships for both soccer and tennis, and Molly one for tennis. It so happens that the college, Albertson College of Idaho, is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a smaller conference that doesn’t require Clearing House endorsement. This means the American School was doubly not necessary, another lesson in not making decisions out of the fear that something “bad” might happen in the future. Perhaps it gave my daughters a hint of what surviving academia entails, however when I asked Kate recently if the American School helped her in any way to be ready for college, she said, “No,” in a duh-of-course-not kind of way.

Kate’s overall experience of her first year of college was positive. She had to work very hard to complete all her work while being a two-sport athlete. Because of her low ACT score in math, she had to take a remedial math class her first semester that walked her through everything that she never really learned and that prepared her sufficiently for the regular freshman math class the following semester. She ended up getting Bs in both classes. She did very well grade-wise, all As and Bs, and she enjoyed as many classes as she disliked. She loved her tennis season but wished she’d gotten more playing time on the soccer field. She liked her roommate (whom she lived with on the “healthy lifestyle” floor,) the cafeteria food and the nearby city of Boise. She worked for the Outdoor Program as a work-study and went with them on raft, kayak, rock-climbing and mountain-biking trips when she wasn’t on the road for sports. Her favorite trip was to Hawaii to play in a tennis tournament. Since she thinks drinking alcohol is unhealthy (she’s a super “health freak,” among other things,) her social life was severely curtailed; fortunately, she’s never felt the need for a lot of socializing anyway. She became a very disciplined student (who knew?) and she reported that all her professors really liked her because she was a lively participant in class discussions. She had momentary panic attacks when she couldn’t understand an assignment, or when she thought she wasn’t prepared for a test, but things turned out fine – she was usually worried for nothing.

Now Molly will follow her to the “healthy lifestyle” floor, but they won’t be roommates. Kate was offered the job of campus host, hosting prospective students who wish to spend a night in the dorms, so she’ll have a single room to accommodate their occasional visits. My daughters always claimed they’d go to college together, but we never thought they really would. I’m glad for it; I like the thought of them supporting each other, although I’d hoped Molly, who just turns 18 this fall, would decide to take at least a year off. We talked about some enticing prospects, but she elected to go to college so she could be with Kate. She’s eager for the idea of college and misses her sister; we’ll have to see if these are good enough reasons.

The reason I want to crow about my daughters’ modest achievements is because they accomplished them with a fraction of the stress, effort, and time that school kids spend for basically the same result. They were accepted by the same kinds of colleges that most kids end up in, and they did it without giving up very much of their teen years and none of their elementary or middle school years. They did it without 12 years of six-hour school days or hours of homework. They didn’t have to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes, join resume-building clubs, be the editor of the yearbook or be recognized by the National Honor Society. They were able to live their lives and do things they were interested in and to squeeze in enough academics (or things that could be transcribed into academics) around the edges to end up in the same place as the majority of their age-mates. What’s huge is that they enjoyed their lives: they were never stressed, never infantilized by the school social scene (they had enough opportunities for socializing in sports, community theater, and homeschool teen activities;) they were able to sleep as long as their bodies needed, spend all day reading a book, hit the tennis courts when they weren’t crowded and spend the day cooking or painting, or volunteering, or just doing nothing. They emerged from these past five years not angst-ridden, anxious or rebellious, but optimistic and confident. They emerged with lots of interests and experiences that kids trapped in classrooms didn’t have the time for.

I want parents and teens to know that any fears they have about unschooling or minimal-schooling until the end of high school are unfounded. I want them to know that during the teen years, their relationship with their children and their children’s relationship with each other can be as smooth and fun and lovely as when they were small. I want parents to know that teens can be trusted to figure out what they want and to go after it without any coercion. (I never insisted that they do their American School coursework, they just did it themselves when they felt up to it.)

Parents need to know that the majority of colleges out there are not hard to get into; Cohen states that only 12 percent of all colleges and universities are super selective, and only another 20 percent are very selective, which leaves 68 percent that are fairly easy to very easy to get into. Alexandra Robbins says in her book The Overachievers, “There are more than 2,000 four-year undergraduate programs in the U.S…Only about 225 of those… practice any form of selective admission; most of the rest would fall over backward to accept good students.”

I think the media, high school counselors, teachers and kids themselves who go into competitive frenzies with each other lead us to assume that college admission is fraught with obstacles that only straight As, perfect ACTs and a raft of AP classes can overcome. The super-competitiveness that’s stressing kids out or making them rebel has taken on a life of its own, unconnected to any real rationale. And the fear is contagious. Parents and kids no longer question what working so hard is for, and they let the expectations and pressure tear apart their relationships with each other.

Is everyone trying to get into Harvard? No. Most of the kids we know who worked insanely hard throughout high school ended up going to state schools, including last year’s valedictorian from the school where my girls played soccer, as well as a girl they know who “aced” the ACT. True, these super-competitors qualify for great financial aid packages, but many times the schools they end up going to are not terribly expensive (relatively speaking) to begin with. The amount we will end up paying for our daughters’ private school after merit and athletic scholarships, work-study, a sibling discount and grants is a little less than the full-tuition at our large state universities. We had no idea what kind of financial assistance was out there until we applied. Only then did we find out that you didn’t need AP courses or stellar entrance exam scores in order to get a lot of financial help. All of the private schools offered Kate around the same amount.

Even in the unschooling world, there is anxiety around college admissions. I hope my story can assuage some of it. The advice is the same as it’s been all along: Keep trusting your children. Don’t let cultural messages about future success and what your teen “should” be doing to prepare for college lead you to make fear-based decisions that could end up wasting your time and jeopardizing your relationship. Non-stressed-out, non-coerced teens who have been allowed to be self-directed and have been supported in all their interests will bring their whole selves to bear on whatever challenges they face. And maybe they’ll even end up doing what you hoped they would!

* * *

Adolescence Isn’t Hard

Whenever parents of schooled teens gather, the conversation inevitably turns to all the irritating things their teens are doing, like breaking curfew, acting surly, not participating in family activities, having emotional meltdowns and talking on the phone non-stop. They roll their eyes and give each other knowing looks that say, “That’s what teens are like. Aren’t they a handful?”

In a recent Scientific American Projects magazine, I read an article debunking the myth that the teen years are inherently difficult. The author cited a study in which adolescent-adult relationships were examined in 165 pre-industrial countries, and the researchers found there was no concept of adolescence being a tumultuous, rebellious or conflict- ridden time.

In America, dismal statistics tell a different story about teen life; here there are high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, high crime rates, high suicide rates (the third highest cause of death for teens is suicide) and, studies show, an average of 20 conflicts between teens and their parents per month. (When I marveled about this statistic to the mother of a schooled 15-year-old, she replied, “Oh yeah, easily 20 a month.”) The researchers concluded that teens in the pre-industrial countries don’t experience these kinds of problems because they spend most of their time with adults, learning to be adults.

In western countries, on the other hand, teens spend most of their time with each other. The author, a Harvard trained psychologist and past president of the American Psychological Association, believes this age segregation results in a prolonged immaturity, which adults deal with by boxing teens in with rules, expectations and punishments. This rule-laden environment drives teens to rebellious and risky behavior and to the rocky relationships between parents and teens that we think of as a natural part of growing up.

That article helped me understand one reason why my daughters’ adolescence has been so smooth. They, like the teens in the agrarian societies, have spent a lot of time around adults and there have been no rebellions, no power trips, no trust issues and not even one conflict per month in our household.

The relationship my husband and I have with our teen daughters has been loving and conflict-free, and as if overnight they have appeared before us like a great gift, mature, sensible, fun to be with – lovely in every way. And not only has our relationship with them been harmonious, so has their relationship with each other. They are the best of friends. Adults who observe them together always comment how nice they are to each other.

Who knew all the bad behaviors and difficulties of the teen years were the result of segregating children from adults in schools, and not a normal part of growing up? I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.

Ann Leadbetter had been an unschooling mom for 13 years when this article was written in 2007, and was on the verge of an empty nest. She runs a creative writing school for women called Women Writing for (a) Change in Grand Junction, Colorado. She is contemplating writing a book about her family’s unschooling journey. Meanwhile, she has previously chronicled her daughters’ learning paths in articles in Life Learning’s September/October 2002 and November/December 2003 issues.

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