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I Was an Accelerated Child

By Alexandra Swann
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #7, 1994.

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Alexandra Swann


The weekend of March 26, 1994, my parents, my 17-year-old sister Victoria and I were the keynote speakers for the Oklahoma Central Home Educators' Consociation in Oklahoma City. During two days of speaking to the audiences and answering endless questions from parents, one question kept recurring: "How were you able to earn high school diplomas at eleven, bachelors' degrees at age 15, and master's degrees at age sixteen?" Underlying that basic question, however, were two more fundamental questions, "Why did you accelerate your educations?" and "Would you do this again?"

We explained that my parents did not initially plan to accelerate our educations. My mother began teaching me to read and write one month before my fifth birthday. When I was five years and four months old, my parents enrolled me in the first grade through Calvert School, a nearly 100-year-old school based in Baltimore, Maryland, which offers a thoroughly accredited course of correspondence study for grades one through eight. Although I was the minimum age at which Calvert will accept a first grade student, when I began the first grade I already knew how to read and write, and I knew the addition and subtraction tables. In addition, I had a wonderful teacher at my side every moment of my school day to supervise my work and keep me moving from lesson to lesson. Under her supervision I was able to complete the first grade in two and a half months, the second and third grades in six months each, and each grade from fourth through eighth in eight months each. When, at age ten, I had finished the eighth grade, my parents enrolled me in an accredited high school program through the American School in Chicago, Illinois, which I completed in eighteen months, so that I had earned a high school diploma before I was twelve years old. Each of my nine brothers and sisters began school at the same age as I and progressed at exactly the same rate.

In spite of the rapid pace, however, we never skipped any grades. In fact, we never even skipped a lesson or a part of a day's work. To us, education was not about "getting out of school quickly." It was about earning the best education possible, which meant that our grades had to be excellent and we had to demonstrate that we had really mastered each phase of the material before we moved on to the next. With Mother directing our school, however, we were able to earn l's and 2's -- Calvert School's equivalent of A's and B's -- and still complete the work in much less time than would normally be expected.

Part of the secret of this acceleration was the twelve-month school year which our family followed. Mother realized early on that with ten children to teach, she did not have time to go back and reteach subjects which we had forgotten over summer vacation. She felt that ultimately it would be easier for us to study year-round. At our house, we had as our holidays from school Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving Day, the Fourth of July, whatever federal holidays my father had off from work and, of course, every Saturday and Sunday. On all other days, we were expected to be studying at our places at the kitchen table. As a small child, I was really not aware of the concept of summer vacation or spring break-these were carefully guarded secrets in the Swann household. Five days a week, twelve months a year, school was in session and Mother and we were hard at work.

Yet, although we were in school every day, our hours were not long. Most days we studied only three hours -- from 8:30 to 11:30 in the morning. The rest of our day was our own. We played outside, performed household chores, read books and generally did the things which interested us.

Never did my parents sit down and decide that we were going to be finished with school by a certain age. The acceleration was a natural but unexpected byproduct of the way that our school was organized. While we studied only three hours a day, those three hours were very concentrated. Mother was in the school room every moment, watching everything we did. We were not allowed to play, sing, laugh, or talk in the school room. When we finished one subject, she immediately assigned us the next one. We were able to accomplish a remarkable amount of work in that three-hour time period.

Ironically, as we progressed to the university and then later to graduate work, our hours in school actually decreased. When I was earning my master's degree, I spent between two and two and a half hours a day studying, yet I was able to earn my degree in eighteen months.

When I finished school, I had some doubts about the ultimate value of accelerated education. I had always loved school; I thought my studies were fascinating, and I knew that I could do the work. Some subjects were certainly more challenging than others, but I never found any subject on any level that I could not grasp with help from my mother. Still, I wondered what would happen to me and my brothers and sisters when we finished school. How would having a master's degree at sixteen ultimately benefit us?

Over the next few years I saw that my doubts were groundless and that my education at home would bring only good things into my life. After receiving my master's degree, I wrote the book No Regrets about our family's experiences with home education. The book was published in 1989, and in June of that same year I began teaching history at El Paso Community College. Although I was only eighteen years old at the time, I had exactly the same credentials which the college required of any instructor. As the administrator who interviewed me did not ask me my age, I did not volunteer the information. One month after I went to work, a story about my family appeared on the local news, but by then the officials at the college where I worked could see that I could do the job for which they had hired me, and they simply laughed about my being so young.

Over the next four years, I taught hundreds of students, worked for two different departments at the college, and was evaluated by several colleagues. I enjoyed a good rapport with both students and faculty, and no one ever told me that I did not belong or that I was too young or inexperienced to do the job.

I have also seen how accelerated education has given my brothers and sisters a head start on their careers. My brother Christopher began working as a photojournalist for the CBS affiliate in El Paso, Texas, when he was nineteen years old. Today, at 22, he is an excellent photojournalist with the top-ranked television station in El Paso. Likewise, my brother Dominic went to work for the local public television station a few weeks after receiving his master's degree. Not long afterwards, he was hired by the CBS affiliate, where now, at the age of nineteen, he works as a director.

My sister Francesca began teaching at El Paso Community College at age seventeen. Today, at age 20, she has three years of teaching experience. Although she does not plan to continue teaching at the college, her experience will help her tremendously in pursuing a career in a related field.

Accelerated education made it possible for the younger children to assume additional responsibility as well. Last year, my father, who is a financial consultant, opened a restaurant for a client. As he needed employees, he turned to family members, and recruited nearly all of us to work there. My brother Benjamin, who was fourteen, was finishing his bachelor's degree at the time. Because Benjamin was in college and working only two to two and a half hours a day, he was able to get up at six o' clock each weekday morning, work on his studies from 7:30 to 9:30 A.M. drive to the restaurant with my father and work from 11:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. each day. In addition, he worked a full day on Sundays. That year he worked a forty-hour week, completed his bachelor's degree, and earned all of the money he needed to pay for his master's degree.

Benjamin, now fifteen, is once again a full-time student and will graduate this December with his Master of Arts. He wants to go to law school, and he is currently looking into the possibility of earning a law degree at home. Because he is still very young, he can work, go to school for a few hours each day, earn his law degree, and begin his own practice in his early twenties.

Accelerated education gives a young person an early start on life. A young man or woman goes into the workforce and begins carving out a career. Not only does that individual learn what he or she would like to do in life but, just as importantly, that individual is able to eliminate those things which he or she does not want to do. Before marriage, before children, before making those commitments that limit the direction of a person's life, we are able to find out what we are best suited to do, to become established in a career and to realize some dreams of our own.

This April marks seven years since I received my master's degree from California State University. Today, at twenty-three, I no longer teach; I am now an editor for a publishing company in El Paso which produces nursing manuals. I still think often about my parents' school at home, and I am very grateful for the opportunities that my education has given me.

At the convention this year, a parent asked me if, given the opportunity, I would change anything about my educational experience. I replied, "When I have the chance to do this over again with my own children, I will do it as close to the way my mother did as possible. It worked well for us."


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