Like most of her peers, Hinesville sixth-grader Cheyenne Smith has structured hours for learning and a set curriculum.
But unlike many, she spends her days at a desk on the second-floor of her parents’ home, with her mother Sheila Smith sitting feet away guiding her instruction. Science posters, maps, an American flag and even a crucifix adorn the walls in her dedicated learning environment.
The 11-year-old is among an unspecified number of home-schooled students living within the area. That population, whether growing or unchanged, has become much more connected in the last year thanks to the Homeschool Moms of Fort Stewart-Hinesville Facebook group that allows parents to connect, according to Sheila Smith.
“Just within the past year our group went from maybe 20 members to 85,” Smith said. “I really feel like there are a lot more home-schooling families out there that we don’t know about, and they don’t know about us. And we are such a great support network that I really feel there’s no way I could continue home-schooling without having a good network of people I could go to.”
The network is a chance for members to share curriculum information, especially about the standardized tests required every three years by Georgia law. It also offers students of all ages a chance to interact and visit places where traditional field trips may not venture.
The group had a rare learning opportunity Friday when about 20 students and 12 parents visited the Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center to see the “Offering of the Angels: Paintings and Tapestries from the Uffizi Gallery” exhibition, which runs through March 30.
Docent Pete Schramm guided the students through about an hour-and-a-half tour of the exhibition, which was laced with lessons on the history of the Renaissance period, the stories of Jesus Christ’s life and death and the role of religion in commissioning and preserving artwork.
“It becomes much more real if you see it in person than reading it out of book or seeing pictures,” Schramm said. “There’s power in the size and the beauty of these paintings that just doesn’t come out in pictures. And the children get to hear a third-party representation of what the stories are about, and a little bit about the artists — and I think that’s helpful, because, at times, they only get an author’s view.”
As Cheyenne Smith took in the paintings, such as “Madonna of the Loggia” by Sandro Botticelli, with her peers, her mom Sheila Smith said the experience would include a quiz on the lecture as well as a reflection paper on a painting of her selection.
The lesson ties into the family’s Catholic faith, one of the drivers behind their decision to home-school, Sheila Smith said. The other factor was flexibility to create family time in conjunction with military leave, especially before or after her husband’s deployments.
Mary Cullison, whose two oldest children were home-schooled until high school and who now attend different colleges, attended the exhibition with 14-year-old Jillian “M.J.” and Zachary, 12.
Waiting for the tour to begin, her eighth-grade daughter, M.J. Cullison, said she was eager to see the art and grateful for a break from the books.
That type of flexibility, Mary Cullison said, is an advantage of home-schooling.
“Starting out, I though I had to do cookie-cutter everything,” Cullison said. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that I could mix and match [curricula], and if it wasn’t working, I didn’t have to stick with it all year. I could stop and find what works.”
LaWanda Townsend, who has three young children, began homeschooling after realizing that her 6-year-old daughter Aliyah was ahead of her Fort Stewart peers on many subjects. She agrees that home-schooling affords more individualized learning.
“Her teachers were telling her that they didn’t have any material to teach her,” she said. “She was doing a lot of talking, a lot of playing, a lot of nothing, really.”
They also shared learning experiences with the group through coordinated trips to Poppell Farms, the Tybee Island Marine Science Center and a planetarium.
Townsend comes from a family of educators and even taught kindergarten for a year, so she said finding curriculum is not an issue.
Even when they do run into curriculum issues, the women agree they share questions through networks like their own. They welcome those questions from prospective members as well.
“I want people to know the group is open to everyone,” Mary Cullison added.
To become involved with the group, email email@example.com.