About the group

Thursday, 05/10/01

Home schooling answers a need
Elizabeth Houston, 11 months, left, and Nicholas Artates, 15 months, play in the lap of Andrea Houston as home-schooler Alexander Michael Thomas Houston snacks on crackers in Two Rivers Park.  
Staff Writer

They present the most generic of pictures a dozen or so mothers gathered around a cluster of picnic tables, their children romping on a nearby playground.

But what members of this group share is something so rare that it makes them unique in Middle Tennessee. They are home-schoolers, and as a group they do not espouse a particular religious or educational philosophy.

It may sound like a benign enough distinction, but to the members of Eclectic Homeschoolers of Tennessee, it's essential.

''Most (people who join) are looking for a place that embraces diversity, and we do,'' said Jacki Willard, who co-founded the group in 1990.

That's what attracted Andrea Houston, a mother of three who began home schooling her oldest son two months ago.

''We're not Christian, and almost all the other groups we found were conservative Christian,'' she said. ''This group said up front, 'We're not religiously affiliated.' It made me feel very welcome.''

Web sites devoted to home schooling list dozens of support groups and cooperatives in the area. But virtually all of them are connected to specific religious beliefs or educational methods, Willard said.

Some require members to sign a statement of faith. That's what happened to Sherri Scott, a former teacher who began home schooling her 10-year-old daughter, Mahala, last year and initially joined a group other than the Eclectic Homeschoolers.

''My beliefs were different than theirs,'' Scott said. ''I didn't want to step on anybody's toes.''

The Eclectic group provides an alternative, Willard said.

''It's good to have support from your own religious community, but there's also the wide-openness of this group,'' she said.

The group meets weekly at Two Rivers Park for an unstructured afternoon of fun and socializing, and usually holds a monthly evening event so fathers can be involved.

The children range in age from 1 to 17. Their mothers include Christians and non-Christians, new home-schoolers and veterans, users of set curricula and followers of ''unschooling,'' a philosophy that says children should direct their own learning.

What they all find is other parents willing to accept their differences, Willard said.

They also find simple companionship.

''We do talk about home schooling, but most of the time we talk about anything,'' said Willard, whose son, James, is 17.

About 28 families from around the region are on the group's roster. Many of them also belong to other home-schooling groups, Willard said.

The diversity has also brought its own set of challenges. ''How do you make rules for a group of people who don't like rules?'' Willard joked, but she said working through them has made the group stronger.


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