Lake Bluff family defies stereotype
Fiona Repp, 11, of Lake Bluff takes soil samples Monday with her mother, Ruth Kulmala, at the Heller Nature Center in Highland Park, which offers workshops for home-schooled students like Fiona. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 2, 2012 4:18PM
LAKE BLUFF — “Home-schooling” may invoke images of a mother and child seated around a kitchen table strewn with worksheets.
Ruth Kulmala and her 11-year-old daughter, Fiona Repp, defy the stereotype that home-schooled pupils are socially isolated — or even taught for the most part at home.
The Lake Bluff girl spends part of her week taking cooperative classes and workshops with other home-schooled students in Skokie, as well as at the Heller Nature Center in Highland Park and the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.
At home, Fiona can be found in front of her computer for two live, online courses in 19th century literature and Spanish.
Kulmala didn’t opt to home-school Fiona because of dissatisfaction with the local schools or a desire to offer religious instruction — two common reasons cited by parents in the most recent survey of the National Center for Education Statistics.
From an early age, it was clear Fiona would need a customized educational program. “There was something very different about this child,” said Kulmala, noting her daughter at 4 months started uttering words in both English and Finnish, the languages spoken at home. By nine months, she had a vocabulary of 100 words.
“We realized we had to hide some reading materials because she wasn’t emotionally capable of handling what she could take in,” said Kulmala, noting that Fiona asked about genocide at age 5 after reading a newspaper article on Darfur.
About 18 months ago, Kulmala discovered the Home Schooling Gifted Students cooperative. A scientist by training, Kulmala now teaches middle school chemistry and Advanced Placement biology for the organization.
How prevalent is home-schooling in the suburbs? Illinois’ hands-off stance toward home educators makes head-counting difficult.
While some states require parents to register and use a state-approved curriculum, Illinois leaves parents alone to decide what to teach, when to teach it — or whether to let the child’s curiosity lead the way, a philosophy known as “unschooling.” The parent also is free to decide when a high-school-aged student has met the requirements for a diploma.
Parents may be asked to provide evidence the child is being taught the same subjects as would be taught in the public schools to children of the same age. And parents are required to teach six specific subjects; Language arts, math, biology and physical science, social science, fine arts, and physical education.
“Illinois has a very sensible legal framework for home-schooling that, thankfully, has a very low level of wasteful red tape, but a significant number of performance standards,” said Scott Woodruff, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national group. “It is a very rare situation where a family is not providing a legitimate, good-faith education for their kids.”
According to the State Board of Education, only 684 home schools representing 810 children voluntarily registered with the state last year. Of those, only 27 were from Lake County. Those figures are nowhere close to the conservative estimates of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which puts the number of home-schooled pupils at closer to 60,000 in Illinois and growing by about 10 percent each year.