Caleb Werth’s older brother Aaron was six years old when he promised his mother he wouldn’t smile in his school picture. When she opened the envelope, she saw he kept his promise. Why did he have to take one every year, after all? he wondered.
But that wasn’t the straw that broke the backs of a family burdened by traditional schooling; instead, it was a box of Crayolas.
“Can we please leave my crayons here?” Aaron begged his mother when she picked him up from his classroom a few weeks later.
Caleb laughed as he retold the story.
“Apparently, [the teacher] made him color so much that he didn’t want to see his crayons again,” he said.
That was the day Aaron’s parents pulled him out of public school.
Ever since, the Werths have stuck to homeschooling, and Caleb, now a sophomore at the University of Alabama, said it was all worth it.
Caleb was “100 percent” homeschooled until high school, he said, where he went to Covenant Christian Academy, one of the state’s 96 cover schools – or umbrella groups, as some call it. That was where he met Josiah Sowell, also a sophomore at the University.
“An umbrella group is much more hands-off [than a public or private school]” Sowell said. “It’s called an umbrella because it shields you from the government.”
In Alabama, where home schooling laws are relatively lax, home schoolers are not required by law to attend a cover school. However, many homeschool families take part in the benefits umbrella schools have to offer – like administrators, faculty and formal classroom settings – without abiding by the government regulations that traditional schools must follow.
At Covenant, Sowell and the Werths learned to be college kids. A flexible schedule allowed Sowell to become nearly fluent in Russian and knock out 45 credit hours. Meanwhile, Caleb learned to code and had time to earn his coveted Eagle Scout badge.
“When people hear, ‘Learn at your own pace,’ they think you go slower,” Caleb said. “No, no, no. Not correct. You go faster.”
Because homeschoolers typically spend less time in a classroom and more time “teaching themselves,” Caleb surmised, they are usually destined to succeed.
He recalled peering at a sign next to Buckhorn High School near his Huntsville home. On it read “CONGRATS NATIONAL MERIT FINALISTS.” Listed below were two names.
“I was like, ‘They only have two, really?’” he said. “I had no idea how rare it was.”
In his graduating class of 37, Caleb was one of five National Merit Finalists. And that didn’t include one student who competed regularly in international science fairs.
“That makes six people who, objectively, were academically above-average,” Caleb said.
According to a study by UA’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, the number of homeschoolers on campus has nearly quadrupled over the last 10 years. This year, two-thirds of UA’s homeschool population is enrolled in the Honors College.
“[Homeschoolers] tend to do pretty well,” said dean Shane Sharpe. “The one thing I want to be careful about is not to differentiate them from another Honors College student that went the traditional route, but by and large, the students show a great deal of initiative – they want a role in managing their education. They’re looking to make the most of it.”
However, while the number of homeschoolers on campus has increased, public schoolers still make up three-fourths of the Honors College, a figure that has barely budged in the last 10 years.
Unlike his brother, Caleb never set foot in a public school. Yet he spoke melodically, each sentence punctuated with a “right,” or a “you see,” as if those very words were ones from experience.
“It’s not obvious that a lot of public school teachers are very pure at heart, right?” he said. “They’re not necessarily good people that are trying to do the best for their students.”
“If you’re teaching, you should like kids and want them to learn,” he said. “But a lot of them don’t … You’re literally sending your kids there to be taught by these people. You don’t know their motives, and they tend to be very sensitive about being observed.”
Behind Caleb’s assumptions, though, is a larger issue. In his largely high-income homeschool community, Caleb said he found no need to branch out.
“Was it beneficial to me that I wasn’t around undesirable people all the time?” he said, not stopping to define “undesirable.”
Caleb’s father is an engineer who graduated from a tech college in Michigan. His mother is college-educated and can afford to give up an income to devote herself to her children’s education. While he acknowledged this fact, Caleb reasoned that low-income families may not have the “confidence” to home school due to a “lack of education” rather than time or resources.
Yet, he stood firm in his claim.
“In my opinion, I think homeschooling is the superior form of education,” he said.
No laugh followed. Not even a chortle.