Books and boots
About the time that other kids are waiting for the school bus, children at the Silver Spur are outside helping with chores.
Several families are home schooling at the well-known commercial cattle ranch on the Wyoming-Colorado border.
The reasons they give for not enrolling their children in public school are typical of parents who keep their children at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Parents who home school feel they have more control over their kids’ education and more time with their kids. The hours that their children would have spent traveling become freed up for other pursuits. And many parents say putting God back in the classroom was a huge motivation.
Jennifer Turner, whose family lives on the Wyoming side of the Silver Spur, said home schooling has opened doors for her family.
“Public schools don’t seem to fit our lifestyle or our beliefs,” Turner says. “We love when our kids get to ride horses, work colts, move cows with their dad. Public school takes up so much of their time, they were not getting to experience as much of ranch life as we liked. As far as our beliefs, public school is not Bible-based and we believe in teaching with that.”
“Without God first, nothing is possible,” Turner says.
Turner and her high school sweetheart Matt, a top hand, have three children ages 16, 10, and four. Jennifer does most of the classroom educating while Matt works training horses for the ranch and showing.
The head boss and his wife also home school, as do the families of a few coworkers. The Silver Spur is ranked ninth in the U.S. in commercial cattle numbers, with operations in Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska.
The Turners are Oklahoma natives, and the first 10 years of marriage were filled with travel and changing schools. They like the new arrangement much better.
Individualized lessons also go with the rhythms of ranch living.
The youngest Turner girls go to class in the morning, from 8am to noon. The oldest attends in the afternoon.
“This is on an ideal day,” Turner says. “If Dad needs more help at the barn with horses then we are more flexible.”
Interruptions are part of the plan. Taking the classroom on the road is also a benefit.
“We just have to take interruptions in stride, not get too stressed for time,” Turner says. “We do take school with us when we travel, mostly English and math then try to get back on track when we get home.”
Some studies are done as a family. “Science we can do experiments together… My oldest helps out if I am teaching one and the other girl needs help.”
Curriculum is from Abeka Bible and Wyoming Connections Academy. Turner estimates she spends an average of 30 hours a week on school.
In spite of good planning, she worries about the kids getting what they need, and relies on testing for feedback.
“I struggle with that. Are we doing the right thing? That pops into my head constantly…..I feel like we are as long as they are testing proficient. Doing well on weekly tests makes me feel like they are doing well.”
The Turners have a room designated for class, but they use the kitchen table a lot, too.
The classroom has three desks, one on each wall. Each wall has what they need – cursive, alphabet, multiplication tables.
The internet makes the classroom virtual. The older girls use it for the daily class work and the youngest for alphabet games and numbers.
“I enjoy using the internet for their schooling. It is a huge part of the world we live in.”
The kids are typical rural kids, Turner says. “I don’t feel like our girls are isolated. They have lots of opportunities to be around other kids. Church, ranch work, horse shows, sports.”
Statistics show having a stay-at-home is the one characteristic home schooling families share most. Says Turner, “I have always been a stay-at-home mom. So the transition was fairly easy for us.”
It wasn’t something that came right away. “It was not a decision we made overnight. We had always had it in the back of our minds when our oldest started school.”
Budgeting for home schooling on a cowboy’s wages is a consideration.
“It costs more than public school because we pay for curriculum, computers, etcetera,” Turner says. “But we don’t buy back-to-school clothes and with three girls, that could be a little pricey.”
Up state in Casper, it’s Sunday, and ranch mom Jennifer Baker has the day off from teaching, but a teddy bear is in need of emergency surgery.
Teddy has lost his eyes, and a toddler is worried he can’t see. So Baker heads to her sewing kit, pulls out some supplies, and sews new eyes on the stuffed animal, making her daughter happy.
Baker sees no conflict between being both instructor and parent.
“A mother is a teacher,” Baker says, “they aren’t separate roles. Mothers normally teach from the day the kids are born – walking, potty training, bike riding, how to play nicely with others, baking. Homeschooling just allows me to expand what I’m teaching them.”
Learning about ranch life was a big part of the Bakers’ decision to take the kids out of public school. They just started home schooling this year.
The Bakers have two daughters, 5 and 7. Just recently, the girls got to help gather when it was time to ship cows. Baker lives on a small acreage surrounded by the family farm and ranch.
“This helps teach responsibility,” Baker says. “When my daughter was going to public school, she didn’t have time for farm chores and missed out on the daily and monthly tasks it takes to keep the animals healthy.”
Baker remembers long days designed around public school schedules, not much time for her daughters to play, and fighting about homework while she was trying to cook supper.
“Our kids,” she says, “had to be at the bus stop an hour before school and didn’t get home until 4pm. So they were gone for nine hours a day, and then they would come home with an hour and a half of homework….We decided it would be better time wise and for us as a family to get to spend time with them to do it ourselves.”
The family ranch runs baldies, and on the Bakers’ five acres, there is a mix of farm animals to tend.
Before the school day, Lilly feeds and lets the chickens out, milks the goats and cares for the donkey. Younger Hannah sees to the barn kitties. When the girls are a little older, they will be handling steers.
Baker says her kids get the same number of school days as public school kids with greater flexibility in scheduling and assignments.
A trip to Yellowstone National Park, for example, can easily be turned into a science program about volcanos.
“I left room in our schedule to pursue interests as they come along,” she says.
Grocery shopping can be molded into a math lesson, and play groups with other homeschooled kids are a bonus. She uses public school as resource for physical education.
Study is individualized within a household.
“My kids are too young for many essays still. Hannah mostly gets graded on whether or not she’s willing to learn that day. There are things like spelling and math though. They get it right or wrong and get their grades for those based on the percentage correct.”
Baker says it doesn’t take any special skills to home school. A person just has to have the right feelings for it. “I think anyone can do it if they are willing to put forth the time and effort.”
Time outside the classroom is still special to the family, she says. “There’s so much fun to be had with them, too – state fair, walks, trips to the mountains, picnics. Sometimes we just enjoy life.”