It was a feat that pirate Captain Jack Swallow of the Black Pearl (Pirates of the Caribbean) would have envied. A horde of about 9,000 people slipped into town and took over every bed in the city’s largest hotel complex, its entire convention center, and nearly every eating establishment and parking space in the city. They did all this without raising a single alarm either on TV or in the local press. Too bad for the media, because they missed several significant stories linked to the quiet coup.
In this case, the citizens of downtown Winston didn’t seem to mind the May 27-29 North Carolinians For Home Education invasion. Sidewalk placards welcomed home-schoolers and invited them in to dine. The few downtown merchants who stay open for clothing sales or services on weekends were equally friendly and inviting.
For a town that tends to roll up its sidewalks from Friday evening until Monday morning, the NCHE Conference was a major event. Maybe a cutlass or two would have brought the Winston-Salem Journal out of its slumber — since 1997 it has reported on this event only once, in 2000 — but political candidates surely know that home-schoolers exist.
Gubernatorial candidates Dan Barrett, Bill Cobey, and Patrick Ballantine made informal appearances at the conference, greeting families in the packed registration hall and elsewhere in the convention center. Mrs. Brooke Burr, wife of U.S. Rep. Richard Burr, addressed support group leaders at a luncheon Friday on behalf of her husband and read his letter of support and congratulations on the 20th anniversary of NCHE. Jeanne Smoot, candidate for superintendent of schools in North Carolina, met with parents and offered information at her table in the candidates’ area in the Adams-Mark hotel.
Multiple candidates from the 5th Congressional District also vied for the attention of home-schoolers. Jay Helvey, Vernon Robinson, Nathan Tabor, and Virginia Foxx appeared at the convention. Jay Rao, running for N.C. secretary of state, and home-school dad Paul Newby, running for the state Supreme Court, were there. Newby’s campaign was a family effort. His son rode the elevators in the hotel and handed out Newby literature to passengers. Other political attention came from Insurance Commissioner candidate Cindy Huntsberry, and Court of Appeals candidate Marvin Schiller.
Like them or not, home-school parents and former home-schoolers are informed citizens. They also use their political voice. So says Brian D. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute in “Homeschooling Grows Up,” a national survey of formerly home-schooled adults. The adults vote, make campaign contributions, work for candidates, and participate in public forums at about twice the rate of the general population, Ray said.
As of 2003, the Department of Non-Public Education counted more than 50,000 home-schoolers in North Carolina. Since home-schooled children under the compulsory school age of 7 are excluded, the NCDNPE estimate is low. In North Carolina, home education has been growing at an average rate of 15 percent per year over the last seven years, and its appeal shows little sign of slacking.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of NCHE, and the conference offered several special events, including both an anniversary luncheon and a raffle for those who purchased the NCHE 20th anniversary pin. Over the past 20 years the organization has grown and developed its mission to “protect, inform, guide, and support families who undertake their children’s education at home.”
This year’s conference was perhaps more overtly Christian in tone than in some previous years, judging by keynote speakers. Keynote talks by Christian education advocates Ted Tripp on May 28 and Ken Ham on May 29 each attracted 2,600 of the nearly 9,000 attendees, filling the main ballrooms as well as overflow seating in two adjacent areas. NCHE does not exclude non-Christian families, and speakers without an explicitly Christian message, such as John Taylor Gatto and Cynthia Tobias, have also been featured at NCHE conferences.
NCHE President Hal Young, addressing convention goers, stressed the hard work and whole-family aspects of home- schooling. Young acknowledged the role that a strong family and mutual support play, whether in an academic setting or otherwise. Young’s wife, who is expecting their seventh child, canceled her participation in the planned husband-wife presentation as she followed doctors’ orders for additional rest.
“With proper training and practice,” Young quipped, undaunted, “husbands can learn to operate a vacuum and perform other household tasks, even without a cheerleading section.”
Other speakers’ themes included right-brain/left-brain learners, multiple-learning styles, classical education, and sessions on topic areas such as math, history, language, and geography.
In all, the NCHE conference sponsored 83 speaker sessions and hosted more than 100 vendors in the 46,000-square-foot Book Fair. To help home-school consumers decide what to use and how to use their curricula, vendors staffed an additional 47 workshops. At least 15 colleges and academic institutions also sponsored tables inside the hotel.
Other events included a Talent Showcase, an all-day Children’s Program to free parents from child-care duties during the sessions, and a formal ceremony for several hundred graduating high-school seniors.
The demographics, and even the style and preferences of home-school families are shifting gradually. Many more families are home-schooling all the way through high school, as evidenced by the growing number of graduates. The NCHE Greenhouse Report documents that these students are entering colleges, earning scholarships, and moving into post home-school life with relative ease and success.
There is also increasing participation and support from extended family. Home-school mom Ann Siochi, who moved from North Carolina to Tennessee last year, returned in May because the North Carolina convention is bigger and has more resources. Siochi’s mom drove in from Boone to meet her and the friend she brought along from Tennessee. The meeting allowed for a visit as well as help in choosing materials for Siocci’s two young children. They aren’t unusual. Grandmothers, fathers, and grandfathers were more in evidence this year than in previous years. One grandmom, asked whether she did the teaching as well, said, ”I’m just here to support my daughter-in-law.”
Clothing and style have also shifted over the past 10 years. Homespun-type denim jumpers no longer dominate crowd scenes. There are still plenty of conservative and very conservative looks, but there are lots of young, hip-looking styles as well.
More than appearance has been changing. Wade Hulcy, developer of the “Konos” unit study curriculum, said that home- school moms used to ask of his curriculum “Is it good?“ Increasingly, he said, they ask “Is it easy?” The preference for convenience has led Hulcy, along with many vendors, to offer curriculum kits alongside their traditional do-it-yourself format.
Finally, cars in the parking garage also have gone upscale. My pickup truck, once a perfect fit, looked a little sad amid the big vans, luxury SUV’s, and new mobiles that arrived this year. Even so, I got my pirate treasure — an upholstered chair won as first prize in the raffle — safely aboard and quietly out of town. The other 8,999 attendees left as well, apparently without a ripple.
Karen Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.