Stafford County Virginia woman is 'TheHomeSchoolMom'

by: Cathy Dyson

This article originally ran in the Free Lance Star and has been reprinted here with permission.

Mary Ann Kelley started home schooling five years ago, she didn't know what resources were out there.

She joined an online group and asked around. Other home-school mothers shared some great tips about types of curriculum and where to find free samples of educational products.

But Kelley never found a single Web site that contained all the information she had gathered in a few e-mails.

So, the Stafford County woman started one--and became "TheHomeSchoolMom" in the virtual world of cyberspace.

Kelley, 38, started a Web site by the same name and created a monthly newsletter. At first, most of the subscribers were family members or fellow home-schoolers in the Fredericksburg area.

These days, her newsletter is viewed by more than 9,000 people worldwide. Most are in North America, but a few are military families stationed overseas.

She doesn't charge for her service, but she does sell ads in the newsletter--as long as the products are educational.

"TheHomeSchoolMom" is no longer the only home-schooling resource on the Web. A Google search produces more than a million links with some sort of reference to those who teach their children at home.

But it does stand out, for both its content and design, said Ron Thompson, a regular advertiser.

His Florida company publishes a magazine called "Learning Through History." For two years, he's advertised regularly in Kelley's newsletter and has gotten good results. He's tried--and dropped-a lot of similar Web sites in that same time.

"Mary Ann's is consistently the most successful one for us," said Thompson of Classic Education Inc. in Naples. "She just does a real professional job of putting it together, and she understands what a home-schooling mom needs."

A believer of child-led learning

Kelley doesn't consider herself an authority on home schooling. Far from it.

But she does know a thing or two about finding resources online. She's used a lot of them to develop a curriculum for her own children: Michaela, 9, and Faith, who turns 7 tomorrow.

Kelley prefers to give them the basics, then let the girls explore topics that interest them. That style is known as child-led learning.

Michaela is a voracious reader. In one day, she read almost every word of "The Vile Village," the seventh book in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events collection. That book is geared to fifth- or sixth-graders, and she's a fourth-grader.

Faith is following a curriculum called "Five in a Row" in language arts. She and her mother read books that have won Caldecott Medals--for the most distinguished American picture book for children--then review certain aspects of the stories.

For instance, the two recently read "The Glorious Flight," about Louis Bleriot and the plane he built and flew over the English Channel. After Kelley read the story, she asked Faith various questions.

"Look for the French flag. What are its colors?" the mom asked. "Right, they're red, white and blue. Same as ours, only in different order."

They talked about French bread and looked at the woman on Page 10, who was carrying a baguette. They glanced at the old-style cars people were driving in the 1900s, when the story took place.

"How are they different from the cars today?" Kelley asked.

They don't have seat belts, hoods or the same kind of wheels, Faith answered. "And the baby gets to sit in the front, and that's very dangerous," the girl added.

The questions dealt more with how and why, not just when the story took place. There's not a lot of what Kelley calls "memorizing and regurgitating."

She and her husband, Scott, were both taught subjects that way in public schools--and Kelley does not favor the method.

"If they have an understanding of the causes of the things that happened, that is far more important than knowing the dates and names of places," she said.

"I don't really care if they remember the generals who were in the Revolutionary War. Of course, they need to know who George Washington is, but I don't remember the names of any of the other generals," Kelley added. "Do you?"

Following a growing trend

First and foremost, Kelley is a mother and wife, homemaker and teacher. But as "TheHomeSchoolMom" in the virtual world, she has a more global view of home schooling.

One of the first things she tells people is to check out the regulations in their county and state. Each state has different requirements. She includes links to local and state home-school associations.

Telesa Kessler, a Roanoke mother, visits Kelley's site 90 percent of the time when she has home-schooling questions.

"There are a few [others] which have helped but I can't recall any with the ease of use and wealth of information available--and it's free," she wrote in an e-mail. "I am only able to stay at home if I can keep expenses down, and this helps."

Kessler also uses Kelley's site to get a feel for the different types of teaching styles available.

"When you home school, you are always looking for a better way to get something across to your child," she wrote.

And there are plenty of different teaching styles out there to go with the growing number of home-schooled students.

The practice was practically an underground movement 20 years ago, Kelley said. But in 2003, more than 1.1 million students were taught at home, according to The National Center for Educational Statistics. Those are the most recent national figures available.

Statewide numbers are available for the current school year. They indicate that one of every 50 students in Virginia is taught at home, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

That's 2 percent of the public-school population and does not include private schools.

The number of home-schoolers in the Fredericksburg region is slightly higher, at 3 percent.

Kelley believes the actual numbers are even higher. Virginia home schoolers are supposed to register with the state, but some resist any level of "government interference," she said.

Kelley enjoys helping others who are embarking on the same journey she started five years ago. The demands of maintaining a Web site and newsletter sometimes clash with home and school, but Kelley likes the computer challenge.

"I do laundry, I wash dishes, I cook meals and all that gets undone," she said. The Web site "is the only thing in my life that doesn't get undone."

To reach Cathy Dyson (540) 374-5425

Posted March 17, 2005