Home-schoolers join crowd; Graduation ceremonies for home-schoolers are catching on

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Home-schooled students miss out on many of the traditions of high school life: the football games, the homecoming dance, the high-stakes testing.

But they don’t have to miss out on graduation. An increasing number of home-schoolers are opting for caps, gowns, and all the pomp and circumstance of a public-school ceremony.

“It’s a rite of passage,” said Scott Newmann, a Dallas home-school parent whose son Scott III graduated in a six-student ceremony at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Cedar Hill last week. “In our culture, a graduation ceremony is a door into adulthood.”

“I’ve had one-on-one in almost everything else in my education, so it ties in well to have a one-on-one graduation ceremony,” his son said. “My mom’s been teaching me since grade one. She’s always been there, and now she’s giving me my diploma.”

Admittedly, these ceremonies aren’t what you’d find at Plano East or Skyline High. Like the educations they’re the capstone of, home-school graduations are more personal and take place in smaller settings.

“I’ve had so many people tell me that these are the best graduations they’ve ever seen,” said Betty May, vice president of Home School Texas, a Dallas group that organizes graduation ceremonies. “There are people who come because they know one person, but they end up crying for every single graduate.”

Numbers on the rise

When Ms. May and her husband started the area’s first graduation for home-schoolers 11 years ago, they could assemble only 16 students for the ceremony. This year, there are 27. And there are at least seven other ceremonies held annually in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

While the ceremonies differ, they all follow a basic pattern. They have a standard graduation speaker. But the central figures are the parents. One by one, the parents bring their children to the stage and talk for a few minutes about their abilities, struggles and accomplishments. Then, often teary-eyed, they confer a diploma ? sometimes homemade.

That kind of personal focus obviously is impossible at a 300-student ceremony at a large public high school.

Parents often aren’t the only ones crying.

“It’s usually pretty deep and has a real big impact on the people who hear it,” said Peter May, Ms. May’s son, who will graduate this month. “While the speaker’s nice, nobody usually remembers him. They remember the parents.”

Ten or 20 years ago, a graduating home-schooler might have had little more than a celebratory dinner with family. But the increasing popularity of formalized graduations is evident nationwide.

At Milligan’s, a mail-order company that sells diplomas, caps and gowns to home-schoolers, business is booming. “Four years ago, we might have sold 100 diplomas a year,” said Betty Lynn Milligan, owner of the Brewton, Ala., company. Now, it’s about 1,500.

A number of factors have fueled the increase. The largest is simple: There are more home-schoolers than ever before. National home-school groups estimate that 1.5 million children are being home-schooled.

About 300,000 Texas children are home-schooled, according to the Texas Home School Coalition. That’s more students than in the Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington school districts put together, and about four times as many as were home-schooled 10 years ago.

Movement maturing

Shifting demographics are also a factor. Ten years ago, the majority of home-schooled children were of elementary age. That’s primarily because many parents were just getting started with the movement, but also because some parents chose to enroll their children in standard schools once they reached high school age.

“Now, the movement is both growing and maturing,” said Tim Lambert, the Texas Home School Coalition’s president. “You’re seeing more people choosing home school for the long haul.”

Mr. Lambert said a home-school graduation ceremony last week in his hometown of Lubbock had 27 graduates. Last year, there were 20. And at the first ceremony 10 years ago, only one student graduated.

As the movement has grown, home-schoolers have become more accustomed to banding together for activities, whether that means a field trip to the zoo or graduation. There are now more than 20 home-school associations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone.

“Networking among families is a big part of home-schooling now,” said Laura Derrick, president of the National Home Education Network and an Austin home-schooler of two. “If parents want to do something together, they just organize it, invite others along and go.”

Under state law, home schools are considered unaccredited private schools, which means that each student is the one-person graduating class of a separate institution. That allows parents and students an unusual flexibility: They can shop among various graduation ceremonies and choose the one they like most.

“We looked around at what was available and picked the ceremony we liked the most,” said Cathy Turner, whose son Don David graduated in an 11-student ceremony last week. “Having a rite of passage is just as important for our kids as it is for kids in a public school.”