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New group helps homeschool students connect

Annie Zelm • Dec 10, 2011 at 6:00 AM

After plowing through stories of pirate battles and evil creatures in the series leading up to the classic tale of “Peter Pan,” Spencer and Preston Shupe are eager to make a trip to the library.

While others their age are in class, Spencer, 10, and his 9-year-old brother can finish the thick chapter books in a few days. At home, with their mother as their teacher, the boys are more free to focus on what interests them.

They might research a report about the wildlife in their backyard or complete some of the math-work pages they’re required to do each week.

But finding a way to collaborate with other home-schooled children proved difficult until their mother started a new group.

The group, called Homeschoolers Engaged in Leadership, Projects & Service (HELPS) aims to connect families with ways to help the community while giving them a forum to socialize and share ideas.

Last fall, after the school district where Melanie Zoellner worked as a marketing teacher eliminated her position, she decided the boys would learn better at home than in a traditional environment.

At first, she said it was difficult to “deprogram” them from a classroom mindset, where they expected someone to tell them what to do at all times and how to do it.

“I want them to be more self-directed, to research things and not really be told,” Zoellner said. “That kind of squashes their creativity and makes them more passive, rather than taking responsibility for what they have to learn.”

To build their social skills, the boys participate in tae kwon do, roller skating and community-service activities.

They’ve helped at agencies including Habitat for Humanity and the Ohio Veterans Home, where they made door decorations and visited with residents during a tailgating party.

Zoellner also recognizes the importance of allowing them to spend time with kids their own age, but arranging those interactions can be tricky during the school year. Most of their peers are at school until mid-afternoon. Afterward, their time is consumed with extracurricular activities, family time and homework.

When Zoellner tried to network with other families who homeschool, she found it wasn’t easy.

There’s no centralized group with an active online presence in the four-county area, nor any local representatives for state groups like Homeschooling in Ohio.

About 30 families stay in touch through a loosely connected network in the Bellevue area, where they can participate in physical education classes and other activities, but that group mostly operates through word-of-mouth.

HELPS activities could include starting a community garden, volunteering at food pantries or visiting council meetings to see government in action.

“By making real contributions to the community where they live, students can develop essential leadership skills, gain compassion, build better self-esteem, demonstrate problem-solving and critical-thinking skills and help their community, all at the same time,” Zoellner said.

So far, about two dozen families have expressed interest, but she hopes to reach more.

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