Mac A. Roon
Home-schooling can be a lonely proposition. Even as a college professor, Juliana Hunt remembers struggling to find support to home-school her now-grown daughter.
"I was always hoping to find like-minded people who were in the same position as me," she says. "I know that children learn best through a give-and-take, question-and-answer process of teaching and learning, but where do you find mentors who can make that happen?"
Now she is trying to fill this hole. Hunt, who identifies herself as an educational consultant, is retired from teaching philosophy and the history of ideas in the UW System, including most recently UW-Marathon County. As her adult daughter has long since left her home school, Hunt has thrown herself into organizing the Madison Mentor Center. She and a handful of like-minded educators and parents are now converting an office space at 6302 Odana Rd. into a center of learning.
The Mentor Center will be open to anyone interested in continuing education, though Hunt has been reaching out to home-school and unschool groups, student associations and others who may have a natural need for continuing education or tutoring. The center now has several dozen teachers and home-schooling parents involved in getting the project off the ground, and hopes to begin offering classes this fall.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 3% of students were home-schooled in 2011-12. Resources and support for these parents are thin, and tutoring is expensive. Several of the Mentor Center's volunteer mentors are former teachers who say they were private tutors for $35 to $50 an hour.
"Most home- and unschoolers are doing it on one income, so we've had to choose a frugal lifestyle," says Holly Tellander, a former teacher who is "unschooling" her two young children. "I couldn't afford myself as a private tutor. I need a community and support that can help fill in the gaps in my abilities."
According to Hunt, home-schooling and unschooling, a rejection of compulsory school as a primary means for learning, are increasingly popular in Madison. The Mentor Center hopes to offer classes to students as well as parent teachers or freelance teachers so that they might better serve the needs of all students, especially those who do not flourish in schools.
Hunt is persistent and enthusiastic about her mission, and has been able to corral a small group of mostly former teachers into a core group of mentors. Many got involved by responding to Craigslist ads Hunt published and reading her voluble emails.
Potential mentors have been submitting course proposals for math, science, computer programming, philosophy, dance, music and other areas of study. Hunt has been able to acquire space through Matrix, which bills itself as an incubator for service-based businesses. The Mentor Center's building has dozens of open rooms with space for music and dance, and even a baby grand piano and rudimentary recording studio.
Financing will be a challenge. Hunt hopes to entice potential mentors with the 10-10-10 Rule: Teach 10 classes with 10 students for $10 apiece, and mentors can generate $1,000 of extra income.
"I have learned in the process how hard it is to find mentors," she says. "But if you can teach or barter with other teachers, this ought to be a way to serve your community, take interesting classes and find a little extra income."
The Mentor Center could be a practical solution for parents who need tutoring help for their children, and especially for home-school parents. Trecia Shales, a former teacher and current unschooler, says the demands and curriculum imposed on teachers make it difficult to help students who fall behind.
"My reason to home-school was that I saw, especially with my daughters, that when they fell behind academically around middle school, there was almost no way to get them back on track," she says. "There is no flexibility for parents or teachers. The schools have certain goals to meet, and there is very little support for students who fall behind."
The Mentor Center has two very important assets: an enthusiastic core group of potential teachers and a large, flexible learning space. However, as it gets close to launch, the curriculum and classes are still taking shape. But Hunt and her team have no shortage of ambition and lofty goals.
Working with a former student, Hunt hopes to create web applications for students that will help them connect with people around the world. "We don't want to compete with schools, but to help relieve their stress, and supplement some good teachers' income in the process," she says.
Currently, the Mentor Center is registering members, securing nonprofit status and putting together a board.
"I saw with my own daughter that her passion for learning gradually declined, and there was little support and few resources to help her rediscover a love of learning," says Hunt. "But my faith in the power of the growing mind was restored when I saw how enthusiastically she took to independent learning. Is that too much to hope for every student?"
Madison Mentor Center
6302 Odana Rd. 608-819-5319