New faith-based homeschool co-op is thriving

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 1, 2011

I have a little story about a quite magical place.
It is a place to laugh, learn, play. A place where children are showered with love, and most importantly, a place where children (and their parents) love to come.
It’s a school.
“A school? Bah, humbug.” I can hear it now. When I was in school I don’t recall being that thrilled about it. So what is this school and why is it so wonderful?
This school, the Rowan County Homeschool Co-Op, is a much-needed resource for the local homeschooling community. The school is the brainchild and passion of founder and director Mary Wilhelm, herself a homeschooling mom. Mary, mother of three rambunctious young men, experienced the need to have a greater depth of resource for her kids’ education than she was able to provide on her own.
When the Wilhelm family moved to Chattanooga due to husband Todd’s job with the railroad in 2005, Mary discovered within Chattanooga a whole culture of homeschool cooperatives filling the void between what homeschool kids needed and what their parents were able to provide on their own.
“We desire for our children to come together and learn in a group setting in addition to the individual one-on-one time we have at home,” Mary said.
“We use the various strengths of the individuals in this group to pull it together. We have writers, artists, good cooks, people who can bake and decorate cakes beautifully. We have people who can sew wonderfully. We have people who do not only do those extra-curricular things but also people gifted in the sciences and mathematics, so we have a good balance of core academic subjects along with the extra-curricular activities.”
Staffing for the school comes from the very parents and families served. As you can imagine, homeschooling a child requires a serious commitment, not only in time but also in resources (and patience). One of the parents must be at home, of course…to be the teacher and so far this year I have had the title of Mr. Mom/school marm/principal/shuttle-bus driver.
As Mary points out, “It’s hard for a parent to be everything,” but it turns out that your “something” is usually someone else’s “something missing,” and so it goes.
It’s hard to forget old Paw Cartwright when he sagely explained to Little Joe that a bundle of twigs is easy to break one at a time, and very difficult to break all at once. Together we fill most of the voids that individually we struggle with.
This is the very first year of the co-op in this county. On opening day, 93 children were in attendance, and the school had already reached maximum capacity for the year. Next year, although it will be a very tight squeeze facility-wise, planning is under way to staff for 120 students.
There are currently 766 families (and over 1,500 students) that homeschool in Rowan County, and the figure rises every year.
“There is no way that we can meet the needs of all 766 families; however, my desire for the co-op is to meet the needs of as many families as we possibly can in this area. I desire for this co-op to be a model so that parents in other parts of Rowan County can assimilate and start another, so that more families that desire to homeschool can benefit.”
The co-op is held every other Thursday during the regular school year at Highest Praise Worship Center in China Grove.
The facility has graciously been offered for use by the members of Highest Praise, and Pastor Patrick Garrett, whose wife teaches classes in the co-op.
Recognizing that many families that homeschool do so for religious reasons in addition to having more control over the curriculum, it is expected that most families attending this co-op are also doing so for reasons of supporting their faith, though it is not a question that Mary asks a prospective family.
“We do make sure they understand that the curriculum is based on Judeo-Christian values such as creationism, so if they do not wish for that viewpoint to be included in their child’s education, this co-op may not be their best choice,” Mary says.
There is no real reason why a co-op could not be set up on purely secular grounds, aside from the fact that there are fewer families in the community who homeschool for simply scholastic reasons.
Right at this moment, I find myself sitting in the sanctuary typing away while Music Director Shantell Bissette is teaching first through third-graders to sing the National Anthem, with each youngster taking a turn at the microphones.
The families involved are intelligent, sincere, involved, educated (often certified teachers in their own right), compassionate, earnest, and fun-loving. Add to that heady mixture conscientious and highly ethical, and caring.
There are classes for kids from preschool through high school. School commences every other Thursday, starting at noon and operating until 4 p.m.
For the elementary grades the time is broken into two separate sessions. For the high school grades, there are three separate sessions. The children are allowed to choose from various subjects to augment what they are able to receive at home — subjects such as algebra, science, anatomy (including an actual hands-on dissection of a fetal pig), introductory music, sewing, physical education, crocheting and needlepoint, English, creative writing.
Next year plans are underway to add beginning guitar classes and an art class to the mix. I can pretty well assure you that those will be popular choices with the kids.
All the work performed here is voluntary. Parents agree to assist or teach in order for their children to attend.
Each class typically has a teacher and one or two assistants, and though it varies, it seems there are about 12 to 15 students in most classes.
These kids are notably well-behaved and positive.
My own son is a 5th grader enjoying the stimulation and camaraderie found here. Whatever is in the water they have over here in China Grove is apparently working, because this boy will knock walls down to get to this school — and he is not the only one.
This raises another point.
The common perception that homeschooled kids “lack social skills” is not really fair. Their social skills are actually very developed since they spend so much time in direct contact with adults. What they often lack, as in our case, is quantity of social interaction. This school helps that very issue. We live a little distance from town on the east side. Since there are not really any kids living nearby, our son cherishes any moment he can get to interact with others his own age.
Stroll through the front door and you’ll be greeted with a smiling face. This would be Mary, the head honcho. Be assured you will be searched for any possibility of usefulness in assisting the goal of enriching the lives of the children under her wings. Got a talent? She’ll find out and find a way to utilize it.
You might encounter a phys-ed class headed by Michelle Smith and Sandra Wagoner or a cooking and cake-decorating class taught by Sherry Gobble.
Continue on down the hallway and you’ll discover the really tiny ones in the large media room on the left. Turn hard right and the hallway takes you to several more classes, including science class headed by Diana Garrett, (wife of pastor Garrett), who also teaches math. Pass by this class and you’ll come to another headed by Amy Offenberger and Lara Gminder, which offers instruction in crocheting and needlepoint.. Gina Holderfield heads up a sewing class. Dana Duggins teaches creative writing, and Sharon Holt handles biology, including the dissection of fetal pigs.
Being a member costs only $15 to $30 per year. The only charges are for some necessary supplies to fuel the class. Administrator Mary Wilhelm and assistant administrator Melissa Snipes freely give their expertise and care away to the benefit of the community. The teachers (parents) also give of their skill and love freely, and often are really fully-certified teachers on their own taking time off to personally raise their child, and thankfully, helping ours and perhaps yours one day.
Mary is quite apologetic to point out that currently the demand for the co-op has again been greater than the ability of the physical facility to support, so there are no available spots for the upcoming 2011-2012 school year.
There is, however, the opportunity to get a group together and develop a similar co-operative in your own corner of Rowan County. I’m not stopping you; as a matter of fact I am double dog-daring you to start one, and I am sure Mary would offer her sage wisdom in how to set your venture into motion.
It is very obvious from the overwhelming demand Mary encountered that the need is great enough to support another immediately. Since I live over in the East Rowan side, I’d love to see somebody with industry and initiative enough to develop their own version of this scholastic success story eastward.
Mary Wilhelm may be reached by e-mail at
Gordon Furr can be reached at