Dillingham home-schoolers enjoy flexible schedules and curriculum

Mar 27, 2017

The Bailey family lives just outside of Dillingham. They home-school their five children. This year three of their students are enrolled in a program that allows home-schoolers to tap into the public education system. 

Shanna Bailey home-schools her five children in Dillingham. Natalie, 6, is the youngest.
Credit KDLG

Monday morning on the average school day finds most students in their seat in a classroom. But for the Bailey family, who live just outside of Dillingham, the classroom can be anywhere from the kitchen table to the Nushagak Peninsula, where they hunt caribou. 

Bright March sun filters into the front room of their family’s house as Joseph and Esther Bailey open hefty, identical copies of an anthology of Shakespeare’s plays. They are reading "Midsummer Night’s Dream" together for literature class. As they read out loud, Joseph voices the character Theseus, and Esther reads for Hippolyta.

Siblings and classmates, they are students of the Galena City School District, but they have never actually been to school there. In fact, they have never actually been to any brick-and-mortar public or private school. Joseph and Esther are home-schoolers enrolled in Interior Distance Education of Alaska, or IDEA.

The five Bailey siblings run almost the entire gamut of grades. The youngest, six-year-old Natalie, is in first grade. Isaac, the oldest, is a senior in high school. Their mother, Shanna Bailey is their primary educator. 

On the average day, she wakes her kids up around 10 a.m. “They get breakfast, and they’re kind slow getting started. And then we get busy on some school work,” Bailey explains. “But it’s pretty much just the younger kids that start that way… the younger two I try to keep a little bit more scheduled.”

She says her older students prefer to do their school work in the afternoon and evening.

Ethan is in fifth grade. True to stereotype, he’s still in his pajamas in the late afternoon. He says that the flexible routine is what he enjoys about home schooling. Last week, he says, he finished one history assignment after midnight.

Ethan Bailey, 10, is in fifth grade.

“I don’t really have one,” he says of his school schedule. “I kind of just do it whenever, unless my mom tells me to. Then, I have to do it.”

The Baileys moved to Alaska from California two years ago. This year the middle three students are enrolled in the IDEA program for the first time. The youngest is not an IDEA student because she does not meet the school district's age cut-off for the first grade. The oldest will graduate high school through a different program.  All five Bailey children have been home-schooled since kindergarten.

“My husband was home-schooled, and it was just kind of one of those values we always decided we would like our kids to be involved in, and that way we had more control over what they’re being taught,” says Shanna Bailey.

What they are being taught, she says, is influenced by the family's Christian faith. It is a priority for them to incorporate that perspective into their children's academics, especially into science and history.

The Bailey’s reasons for home schooling are typical of families whose students are enrolled in IDEA, says director Daryl Bowers.

“Typically families come to us for one of two reasons. Number one is they knew since their children were born that they were going to home-school them. Often times, these are families that were mom and dad, or one of the two parents, were home-schooled themselves,” Bowers says. “The other type of family that comes to us is a family that maybe had a negative experience or they feel that they can better educate their kids at home, so they chose to remove their kid from the public school.”

IDEA was the first program of its kind in the state. A distance learning school within the public school system, it is open to any student in the state. Since it opened 20 years ago, a number of other such programs have started, but Bowers says that IDEA remains the largest with 4060 students enrolled this year. Of those, 14 students are in Dillingham. Five live in Naknek. Bowers says that IDEA does not market itself to rural villages because they do not want to draw students away from schools may face closure as student populations dwindle.

Schools around the state did not receive students’ English language arts, mathematics, and science scores last year due to technical errors. Bowers says that when the school last received Standards Based Assessments, IDEA student’s scores were comparable to those of students at public schools around the state. Their reading scores were typically higher than the state average, while the math scores were slightly lower. He says the graduation rates are similar as well.

For rural Alaskans, Bowers says flexibility that allows families to participate in seasonal activities like hunting, fishing, and trapping can be a draw. That’s a sentiment echoed by the Bailey family.

Isaac Bailey went hunting with his dad in mid- March. When he got back, he wrote a report on the economics of caribou hunting.

“If you like your meat quality to be higher, then it’s a lot better to go hunt it,” he says, explaining his findings with enthusiasm. “If you don’t, you could usually get it for less price if you don’t care about the quality of meat.”

Economic sense was another reason that the Baileys decided to enroll in IDEA. Since it is a public school, it receives state funds for students, which it allocates to families: $1800 for students in kindergarten through third grade, $2000 for students in fourth through eighth grade and $2400 for high school students.

That money can be spent on books, school supplies, field trips, and even on guided instruction, like music 

Natalie Bailey, 6, is in first grade. She practices her spelling.
Credit KDLG

lessons or swim class.

The reasons for home schooling differ from family to family and student to student, but 11th-grader Esther Bailey sums up the reason she and her family have enjoyed home schooling.

“The free time. Our neighbors have to go to school for eight hours each day… I don’t know, to me that just seems like a waste of time when you’re still learning, but you don’t have to do as much.”

Contact the author at avery@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.