ORONO, Maine — About five years ago, the Gerbi family was faced with a significant decision — send their oldest daughter, Erin Gerbi, now 11, to public school, or keep her home.
They decided to start home schooling — a choice they haven’t regretted.
“We just knew she wouldn’t have been able to go mainstream,” mother Aimee Gerbi said.
The Orono family’s first thought was to spend just a year home schooling Erin, but in that year, “she just flourished,” Aimee said. “She started getting interested in all sorts of things.”
Since then, Aimee has home-schooled Erin and two of her other children, Megan, 8, and Evan, 5. The couple’s youngest daughter, Jordan, 2, is not yet school-age, but learns and plays alongside her brother and sisters.
The siblings join 4,700 or so other Maine children who are educated at home — some in cooperative programs, others by their parents or guardians.
Maine’s home-schoolers are given a long leash when it comes to how and what children are taught. For the Gerbis, that means the children choose what they want to learn and when. Other families prefer to purchase and follow predetermined curriculum.
At the end of the year, each student must turn in a portfolio of work to a licensed Maine teacher, who then evaluates whether the child is ready to proceed to the next grade. It’s a system the Gerbi family has found allows their children to take an active role in their studies.
“I like that I don’t have to run around like a rat in a maze,” Erin said. “I like that it’s not ‘do math,’ but ‘do you want to do math?’ and I can decide how to do it.”
The idea of letting children direct their learning is often referred to as “unschooling,” and continues to gain momentum with home-schoolers around the country. In Maine, there are annual unschooling conferences held for parents to meet and listen to speakers from all over New England and Canada.
Unschoolers believe life experiences, supplemented with books, classes, family and mentors, encourage children to take initiative in their learning, therefore making it more meaningful.
But it isn’t without its critics, which can include other home-schoolers and educators who say they worry about students “falling through the cracks.”
However, Aimee, who recently started helping other families who are interested in home schooling get started, says it’s important to remember that almost all parents simply want their children to succeed and be happy.
“While I understand that it is possible for kids to fall through the cracks, I’ve never met a legitimate home schooling family who doesn’t care about the education of their children,” she said.
Classrooms are everywhere
The Gerbi house is a multifunctional learning space. Books fills shelves in bedrooms, the basement and living room. Maps cover the kitchen walls and the children work wherever they feel most comfortable.
On one recent morning, that meant Megan sat on the couch learning German in preparation for an upcoming trip to Austria that she’s taking with her father and sister.
“Well, I’ve learned one word, ‘big,’” Megan said, then explained she hopes to have a German-speaking friend help her and is also learning the language using a computer program.
Other topics over the years have included archaeology, Greek mythology and most recently, for 5-year-old Evan, baseball.
When each child expresses an interest, Aimee will hit up the library, newspaper, museums and public events to help her children learn about their chosen topic. They are also able to almost seamlessly carry that theme across multiple subjects.
For example, this year, the family attended spring training for the Boston Red Sox. Evan then worked on math using team statistics and reading through the newspaper learned to recognize words about the sport — “baseball” and “Boston.”
The two older girls are also planning a trip for later this month with their dad, Christopher, who is geology professor. They will travel to Austria and are excited about exploring the country, learning language and culture.
“Ninety percent of what we do could be considered field trips,” Aimee said. “That may mean we’re out doing water quality testing or checking out museum exhibits.”
The children also are able to attend a local home-school co-op program where they take subject-specific classes like art, and all are involved in sports and clubs.
The Gerbis, who both have advanced college degrees and have taught school professionally for years, aren’t interested in pushing their children either toward or away from college.
Erin has told her parents she wants to home-school through college, while Megan said she wants to home-school through high school, then go to a traditional college and earn a degree.
“They are going to do whatever they want to do,” Aimee said. “I want them to do things for themselves and I want them to be proud of their accomplishments.”
And someday, one or all of them may ask to attend public school and the Gerbi parents are more than OK with that. But until then, they are figuring out what works best for their family, the children and their education.
“We are life learners and we are joy seekers,” Aimee said.