Alternative Education. Does it really work?

Laura Sandefer

February 16, 2018

As adults, we carry with us many memories of our growing up years and in particular our childhood education.  My education was very nontraditional.  My parents were pioneers in New Mexico as they championed legislation that would allow parents to homeschool.  In the early 1980’s, homeschooling was legalized in New Mexico.  My parents homeschooled me from birth through high school.  There were many things I disliked about being homeschooled but for purposes of this blog post I will reflect on the positive.

As a youngster, I was very strong willed and independent (my husband would argue that some things never change).  My mom and I fought constantly over school work!  In an effort to occupy my time, my mom signed me up for sewing lessons with a local seamstress.  After working with my grandmother and with the seamstress, I became competent at creating little dolls and Christmas ornaments.  My grandmother gave me an old sewing machine and that launched me into my first little business. A curio shop near my house agreed to sell my dolls.  I decided to expand my business by selling at local craft shows.  My little business further expanded when I contacted a gift shop I had visited in California while there on vacation.  They purchased a few of my ornaments.  I felt that my business needed more marketing so I taught myself basic html web site programming and soon had a web site.  I was 11-12 when I launched this business.

On other occasions after arguing with my mom over school, she sent me to my dad’s real estate office.  This became a regular thing for me to work with my dad (my mom probably needed a break from me).  My dad taught me how to use QuickBooks, clean job sites, mow lawns, and answer the phone professionally.  I remember one time when my dad had a customer who wanted to live in Mesilla Park.  This area was established and there were no lots for sale.  I told my dad I had seen an empty lot while on my bike.  He gave me permission to ride my bike to get the address.   My dad taught me how to research at the county courthouse who owned the lot.  Long story short, my dad’s customer bought the empty lot I found and hired my dad to build a house (side note- I sold that house 10 years later when I had my own real estate firm).  I was fourteen when I “sold” my first piece of real estate.

After learning QuickBooks, I took that skill and used it in my craft business.  I inventoried all my supplies and setup a cost of goods sold so I could monitor how much I made on each sale.  Each doll had a label and item number.  I learned how to shop sales to get good deals on my supplies.

My grandmother Sara worked really hard to teach me Spanish.  I could care less and found it boring and a waste of my time.  When I was 13, my grandmother took me on a trip to Mexico.  We stayed at an orphanage and worked with the children.  After leaving Mexico, my motivation for learning Spanish soared as I wanted to communicate with the children.  I worked really hard to become fluent in Spanish and returned to the orphanage several times and can now communicate in Spanish very fluidly.  Lighting that internal motivation was key for me to learn Spanish.

As a young teen, I wanted to volunteer in the political realm as I felt strongly about particular issues.  My parents dropped me off at the political headquarters, and I quickly became a sought after volunteer at the ripe age of 13.  I met congressmen, senators, a president and was nominated to be on local and state committees as I progressed into my teen years.   People asked me to help on events because they valued my ideas and knew I would work hard.  I was just a kid but I had earned respect and trust through hard work.

At around 15, my dad hired me at minimum wage to help host open houses at his model home.  I quickly learned how to show homes and about various construction techniques.   After a short while, my dad’s hired salespeople complained that I was getting more sales than they were.  I learned to be helpful to people who walked in the door vs. just trying to sell them a house.   By the time I was 18, I had taken my real estate license test and within a few short years I was the number one selling agent in Las Cruces.

You might ask what my parents did for “education” during our home school years.  In high school, they signed me up for correspondence school.  We had tutors for some subjects but mainly I taught myself.  I finished all my high school work by 16 and enrolled at NMSU a month after turning 17 on a full scholarship.  Growing up there was no pressure to perform “at grade level” and we weren’t given standardized tests.  Our schedule was flexible and we enjoyed lots of time to engage in our interests.   Going into college took some adjustment as I wasn’t used to a formal structured education environment of lecture and then regurgitate on a test. I quickly adapted and graduated with honors with a degree in Finance.  While attending NMSU, I launched my own real estate firm which I later sold after it grew to be the third largest in Las Cruces.

When I look back over my growing up years, launching my own business, volunteering in the community, traveling, and working for my dad is what prepared me for the many projects and businesses I have been involved with.  I learned problem solving, real world skills, and gained a lot of confidence.  During the four years I spent at NMSU, I had three classes that I felt were useful.  The epidemic of college graduates who are in debt for their degree and can’t get a job is evidence that just a formal “education” alone is not what prepares students to have a fulfilling career.

My whole point in sharing my story, is not to bore you with family history but rather paint the picture of what we are trying to create at Acton.  Many parents ask me about math, writing, and reading standards here at the school.   Parents worry about whether their child will be successful in life and associate performance on tests as a measure of success.  I want to encourage you by sharing my story – alternative education works in a powerful way!  My siblings and I are not genius or gifted.  We just learned to work hard, be self-motivated, and we are independent learners.  Had I not been in this environment as a child, I don’t think I would have been able to tackle the projects I have in my life.

You might ask how my siblings faired coming from home school.  My sister Katherine graduated from NSMU with a nursing degree.  She was accepted into several schools including Yale for a master’s degree program.  She now has her own medical practice as a nurse practitioner and she is taking courses to prepare for medical school.  My brother Daniel is a plant manager and he has his own business adding special effects and editing movies.  My youngest brother Nathaniel transitioned into Arrowhead Early College High School and was the valedictorian of their first graduating class. He is studying animation and genetics at NMSU on a full scholarship.

My sister and I joke that we really couldn’t read very well until 8 or 9 years old but it just didn’t matter.  My parents gave us an amazing gift!  I love the saying in medicine of “first do no harm.”  Many school environments in my opinion do harm to students by stifling their creativity and making them feel stupid if they can’t perform “at grade level.”  On the contrary, schools celebrate good grades on tests which can give students a false sense of security.  Simply because you can perform well on a test does not guarantee a successful career or life calling.  I think the worst harm done to students is making them feel that they can’t solve big problems or do big things on their own.  Children are so very capable when given the opportunity to create.

Acton Academy is a place that I hope will launch students into adulthood with confidence, skills, and courage to find a calling that will change the world.  Thank you for joining us on this journey!


P.S.  Here is a brief synopsis of what we worked on this past week.

Kinder-2nd Grade Children began writing their own books that they can illustrate.  Stations were expanded to include more dramatic play.  This next week the pumpkin patch theme moves into the dramatic play area.  I will be adding a wood working station and more engineering products as those are really engaging the students. Khan Academy is popular with the students as they learn math skills on the computer. This is only a 15-minute station as we believe screen time should be limited for our younger eagles. Music class began this week with basic introduction to rhythm.  Art class consisted of learning to draw what you see using colored pencils as the medium – depth perception, shapes, and shading were discussed. We are rotating through a variety of textures and materials so the children are exposed to many different art projects. Spanish is daily as children are learning the body parts as well as basic greetings.  The day launches with Spanish Songs. We learned about the water cycle and constellations.  The rainy day was perfect timing. Reading is a daily event.   We worked individually with those just learning to read using the Bob Books series.  Points and Eagle bucks continue to be very popular.  Gardening begin which was a HUGE hit!

3-6 Grade Running partners, freedom levels, eagle bucks, and points tracker were key tools implemented this past week.  Students learned how to set SMART goals as well as what it means to be a good running partner.   Students began work on a 1000 word story for a national children’s writing contest.  Having prize money was very motivating.  The children learned about Mr. Khan who developed Khan Academy.  Mr. Khan actually visited Acton Academy in Austin FYI.  Learning his story and his life mission was inspiring.  Children are doing well on their math missions.  During our Socratic discussions we discussed cloning, honesty, heroes, and other fun topics.  The children are learning to form arguments, think critically, and engage with a group in a professional manor.  Art, music, and Spanish are also on the children’s schedule.  The business quest is in full swing as the children are almost done with their logos and business structure.  Next week they begin forming their products.  One project that I will introduce next week is the Verizon app challenge.  More details to follow.  Oh and I can’t forget reading.  We do DEAR time – drop everything and read.  This is a quiet time of the day that allows students to recharge while enjoying a good book.  Gardening was incredibly popular.  Some students even got to use the dirt compressor and worked along with the Landscaping crew.  Shovels, rakes, potting soil, plants, and good old fashioned hard work made for a lovely afternoon!

Each day is filled with many wonderful lessons and opportunities for all of us to grow in character.

Thank you for sharing your children with us.

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