Since the 1980s, homeschooling has become a serious option for families concerned about their children’s education. Within the last thirty years, millions of Americans have successfully educated their children from home. Leigh Bortins is a national leader in home-centered education, but her journey began when homeschooling was still a fringe movement in American society.
Seattle: Starting the Journey
When Leigh was pregnant with her first child, she watched a talk show about an “odd” homeschooling family. Even though they seemed odd, Leigh knew she wanted to teach her children at home, too. When her first son, Robert, was born in December 1983, she was looking for full-time work as an aerospace engineer. Her husband, Rob, still had another semester at the University of Michigan to finish his aerospace engineering degree, so she knew she would get to be a full-time mom at home with Robert for at least four months. When Robert was born, Rob and Leigh were torn over the decision so many new parents face: how should we raise our children? Rob wanted Leigh to stay home, but he also wanted her to pursue the career for which she had studied. Because they each had engineering experience in college, they both had fabulous job offers from Boeing in Seattle. Financially, they knew they could be set for life, but there was a precious little boy whom they loved more than life itself. So they compromised.
Leigh began working in May. By the time Rob started work in September, Rob and Leigh’s hearts were in unison. Leigh told her boss she was going to finish her contract out to the last minute and then she was going home to be with her son.
And so the homeschooling adventure began. Leigh found homeschooling neighbors, went to homeschool conferences, formed co-ops, paid professionals to teach her to teach, and invented her own curricula as there were few materials available to buy at that time. When Rob got a job offer with USAir in Winston-Salem, NC, Robert was six and John was four, and Leigh was already considered an experienced homeschooling mom.
Winston-Salem: Walking in Community
After they made the move to Winston-Salem in 1989, Leigh immediately began making homeschooling friends. She taught all kinds of classes and organized many events so her boys would have the same opportunities as every other child. Then Robert hit middle school, and he began to lose his friends to traditional schools—mostly because their parents did not feel adequate teaching high school subjects.
By that time Leigh had stumbled upon the classical model of education through Douglas Wilson’s books Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and Classical Education and the Home School. She realized she had done a good job teaching dialectic skills to her boys, but they were weak in grammar, and she did not want them to miss out on a rhetorical education. Rob suggested Leigh invite a few students in once a week and start a rhetorical program. This was the beginning of Classical Conversations®.
In the fall of 1997, eleven high school students began to meet once a week at the Bortins’ house to discuss American literature, Latin, science, algebra, American government, economics, and Shakespeare. Leigh enjoyed it, and the parents felt like they were getting some help. The students were making friends and being held accountable to a higher level of academics. The following year, Leigh expanded the program and contracted with two longtime homeschooling friends to tutor six subjects each. Leigh called this the Challenge program because she did not want it to be grade dependent. She wanted students to be in the Challenge level that best fit their academic needs.
Leigh recognized that her children were accomplishing more than ever before because they had an accountability group. She wanted that same accountability at the grammar level with her third son, William, and her youngest, David, so along with a few friends she started the Foundations Program for 4- through 12-year-olds and their parents.
Today, in addition to Foundations and Challenge programs, Classical Conversations offers Essentials of the English Language. Essentials helps late elementary-age students develop the language arts and writing skills they need to communicate effectively through junior high, high school, and beyond. Classical Conversations also assists parents in the education of their children by coordinating standardized testing and providing a transcript service. For more information, visit www.ClassicalConversations.com.
Pinehurst: Preparing for Celebration
Over the years, Leigh and Rob have moved from parents, to advisors, to friends who share in the passions of their grown children’s lives. Learning new things is an ongoing passion for all of them. When parents adopt the classical method, says education author Doug Wilson, they are recovering the “lost tools of learning.” Leigh says even the youngest students are eager to accomplish great things if they are taught the way God designed them to learn. When the classical model is mastered, anyone can learn anything. “It’s like receiving a new brain,” Leigh says.
In 2005 the Bortins family moved to Pinehurst, NC, but families across the country have joined them on their journey of renewal. Classical Conversations will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary in 2012. In the fall of 2002, about 250 children, five directors, twenty-one tutors, and sixty mothers participated. By 2008, Classical Conversations had over 400 directors in thirty states. Just three years later, Classical Conversations has communities in forty-five states and a few foreign countries, with thousands of students and parents working together to gain a new vision for education.
A true education teaches man to know God and to make Him known. Because God is at the center of learning, Leigh emphasizes that there are no independent subjects; rather, knowledge of each one sheds light and depth of understanding on the others. This requires each parent to stretch beyond his or her obvious strengths to discover the Lord’s purpose in all academic fields. Knowing how to learn using the classical model makes this possible. Instead of a factory model, which creates humans fit for mass production, Leigh and other Classical Conversations parents are dedicated to the idea that education prepares mankind for freedom.