Before attending Shawnee Mission East high school, Max Kurlbaum was in a class of one. He could wake up at noon and study math in his pajamas. His parents were right there for help when things got difficult. But in his first days at East, he found himself competing with 20-30 students for the teacher’s attention. While the ultimate goal of public school and home-school is an excellent education, they are drastically different in essence. Current East students had different reasons for initially choosing home-school, but had similar experiences in making the transition to public.
Max was born with two very important teachers. They taught him how to speak. They taught him how to walk. They taught him how to read, how to tie his shoes, how to choose friends, how to decide what is right and what is wrong. They invested every bit of themselves with the hope that he would flourish as a student and person. When the time came for Max to enter school, his parents believed they could do a better job teaching him than the surrounding schools.
“We used to live in Wyandotte county and the public schools are just awful,” Max said.
The district is indeed the lowest performing in the state of Kansas. Max received the education he needed at home and continued to perform highly on his annual tests. His family saw no reason to make the switch to public school immediately after moving into the Shawnee Mission area.
While the Kurlbaum’s decision to home school was out of necessity, junior Mary Kate Peterson and her family’s decision was driven by their educational philosophy. Kirk Peterson, her father, found that his own public school experience valued grades over actual learning. He wanted a different route for his five children.
“Our hope was to cultivate in our kids a desire to learn, because we should be lifelong learners,” he said. “If we could do that, we could equip them to be successful in anything.”
Mary Kate came to embrace the freedom that home-schooling offered. Without the restrictions of a rigid routine, she could work in a way which amplified her strong subjects and amend the weaker areas.
“I learn better on my own so it was nice to work at my own pace and get ahead,” she said.
Max also heavily relied on himself for teaching, which allowed him to accommodate his own learning style. At the beginning of each year, Max would receive textbooks with thorough lesson plans. He did more and more self-teaching as he grew older.
Many parents believe this focus on personal learning is lost in the public school environment. With East class sizes often exceeding 30 students, even Principal Karl Krawitz believes lack of attention can be an issue. Teachers have to consider the needs of the entire class above the individual.
While Krawitz agrees that larger class sizes are not the ideal learning environment, he strongly believes teaching straight from textbooks is an inadequate method. He feels that much more is gained from interacting with an actual teacher.
“There is no substitute for being in a classroom with a professional who can bring to the table so many things to heighten the ability of a student to understand and learn material,” he said. “It’s really hard to share the emotions of a circumstance through textbooks or online courses.”
Krawitz believes public school offers many valuable interactions. Home-schooled children enjoy more family time than the average student, but have less opportunity to be around a variety of peers. Parents agree that they cannot shelter their children forever; it’s necessary for them to be exposed to more people and their respective ideas before college. Once their kids reached higher level classes, the parents found it increasingly difficult to teach. Janet and Kirk Peterson attempted to learn Latin one summer, but ultimately decided it would better be taught by a specialist. High school was the right time to enter.
Kurlbaum entered public school in eighth grade; Peterson, in ninth. But senior Kasha Prinzing was initially reluctant when her parents decided it was time for her to make the transition last year. Her parents chose to home-school because it allowed them to spend more quality time together as a family. After a lifetime of home-schooling, Kasha found East to be a strange environment.
“My parents taught me not to try to blend in, because I wasn’t going to, and that’s OK,” she said. “There was the acknowledgment that I’m not like everyone else.”
Kasha embraces her unique qualities and complements them with a unique education. Even though she is taking AP English, Spanish and art classes at East, she continues to take her math and science classes at home. She has kept a foot in each world, but at first, going from the sheltered home-school environment to the massive halls of East was a culture shock.
“I would jump whenever I heard the “F” word, which you hear like a hundred times every passing period. I’ve kind of become desensitized to it now,” Kasha said.
By the second semester of the school year, she felt accustomed to the routine of the new school. Kasha was never fazed by the competitive nature of East; she feels no need to compare herself academically to others. Her own pace of learning is what’s best. Max, on the other hand, thrived on the encouragement of other students.
“I feel like at East, the competition really makes students strive to try their hardest,” Max said. “Smart people are actually valued here.”
While not every public school experience has been enjoyable, the students are glad they have become used to the environment before entering the real world. They have made the transition to successful public school students with the love and support of their tight-knit families. The school is beginning to feel a lot more like home, but these students would change nothing about their past education.