Boating down the Chesapeake Bay on an Oceanography expedition, a laughing group of homeschooled teens is getting Corkey Feldmann's brand of hands-on science and loving every minute of it. Corkey knows each student well and strives to make Towle School (its unusual name honors a Feldmann relative) nurture them all.
Now in its third year, Towle School had a modest beginning. Corkey wanted to teach her son Ascher (now 14) fifth-grade science. Corkey has always loved science, children, and the learning process. She has earned a double degree in nursing and science and a Masters in management. She is also working on her Ph.D. in education and has been teaching nursing students at a community college for the past six years. Jack Feldmann, the quiet strength behind Corkey, is an Estate Manager, has a remodeling business, and is a full-time law student.
Corkey started Ascher's science class with nine students and finished with sixty-seven. At the year-end homeschool skating party, Corkey was mobbed by moms with junior and senior high-aged kids who were searching for "something" to fill needs for their older children, without giving up homeschooling. That "something" became Towle School.
Ascher and his older brother Brent (19) had both attended "very elitist schools, which left a lot to be desired educationally," says Corkey. "Ascher is very gifted in math, but he struggled to decode words. Even though his private school had a reading specialist, he coasted for two years. I felt so angry and hurt for him. Brent (then 14) took a class in American Classical Literature which included rock lyrics. I thought, 'Why are Jack and I paying all this money to have his mind polluted?'"
"Jack, the boys, and I prayed hard," laughs Corkey. "My husband and I talked about the loss of privacy that starting a school would cost our family, the time it would take, and the financial drain to get it started. We decided that if the Lord was asking us to do this, it would be His school, His kids, and we could trust His provision."
The Feldmanns had learned through the loss of 10 children by miscarriages, still birth, and a crib death, that God is sovereign. All of their multiple talents and abilities were not sufficient to deal with such tremendous grief and loss. This must be why Corkey and Jack are such gentle people.
Towle School's stated purpose is "to support the parent and child in their learning experience and to share our gifts and resources to enhance the secondary educational experience of the homeschooler." Towle offers an integrated curriculum for students between 6th and 12th grade. The classroom part of Towle is on Mondays from 8:15 to 4:15 in six periods. Four days a week, students complete assignments at home. Full- and part-time students may come to Towle taking anywhere from a whole day of classes, one core subject, or simply an elective. Mastery is achieved through repetition and incremental learning.
Corkey says, "Some have asked me if Towle School will go to younger grades or more days. Pretty soon we'd be a regular school like Harvard or Yale, by institutionalizing ourselves, and we'd lose the vision of a Christ-centered school. I'm a firm believer in the homeschooling process."
Mapping meetings are held in the classroom settings at Towle School at the start of each nine week quarter. Teachers present parents with an overview of the new quarter and a packet of information containing a course description, objectives, and assignments. "Parents must not believe we are teaching for them. We only have their child one day per week. Though we are teaching them to be self-learners, the parent must know the framework of their child's studies," says Corkey. "The seat of the student's education is a three-legged stool consisting of the student, parent, and Towle."
Students begin by learning the basic organizational skills on two orientation days before classes begin. Each child receives a Towle planner with a five-row, six-column format and is taught how to break assignments apart and jot short goals in their planner. The final column is used for notes between parents and teachers to keep tabs on each subject. Besides being taught how to break large goals into incremental steps, students are given the fundamentals of note taking and study skills. Says Corkey, "We offer new homeschoolers a well chosen, planned curricula. Students who have been homeschooled all along may have begun to wonder how they compare to a standard outside of their own family. We give these students accountability and structure."
Out of the 26 teachers at Towle, seven have Ph.D.s and eight have at least one Masters degree, quite an impressive staff considering it grew out of a barter system that allows each teacher free tuition for one student per class taught. A supervised study hall is provided for small children while the parent teaches. As one parent stated, "The teachers will bend over backwards for a student. They are tremendous!"
The teachers are sensitive to individual learning styles and suggest altered assignments accordingly. Teachers coordinate assignments between their classes to keep the work flow manageable for students. Mr. Toler, who teaches math, offers parents the chance to be homeschooled themselves by teaching a parent's math class to equip them to help their children at home. Just in case it's needed, he also works out the solutions to all homework problems ahead of time. "Mr. Toler has a Ph.D. in mathematics and is one of the A.P. calculus graders," say Corkey. "He has lots to offer the other parents and opened his Math for Parents class to other area homeschoolers." The attitude to support the homeschooling community in general pervades at Towle.
The history classes form the core of each grade level's integrated curricula. Sixth graders concentrate on ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Vikings. Art class carries the historical period further. In junior high, the students study the Medieval Renaissance, the Reformation, and the period of Exploration coordinated with earth science to weave in the theories of Galileo and others. Ninth graders get a whole year of geography, while the rest of high school integrates history and English, world history and world literature, American history and American literature, and European history and British literature. Bible history is an elective and relates to history in chronological order.
Teachers are encouraged to enhance or even supplant their class textbook with other resources. "They can follow the text closely or just use it as an outline. We give our teachers a lot of freedom. Our curriculum is a conglomeration of several methods: the Principle Approach, hands-on, and textbooks. It's not one set style because we don't want to follow a philosophy rigidly and fail to meet a students practical needs," say Corkey. "Our goal is to excel in academic achievement, but not all kids will excel under the same approach."
High school sciences include the standard physical science, biology, chemistry and physics, but also include Corkey's emphasis on science as a tool to teach thinking skills. "In my first class period I teach students how to study science, what's a fact, what's empirical knowledge. Our text has a few mistakes in it, and I challenge students to find these by the end of the year." Corkey gets excited when she talks about science. "I hope to spark an interest in these kids that will last a lifetime! Chemistry is about the mathematics of reactions. Biology is about God's creative order and we take a lot of labs outside, including the ocean. Physics is how things work in real life, which is why we take a field trip to an amusement park at the end of the year. I want kids to love it!"
Fourth and fifth graders can enroll in a hands-on science class which Corkey still teaches. This class covers the fundamental blocks of science: physical science, ecology, entomology, physics, botany, energy, and weather. Corkey's creative approach includes bringing in a variety of tractor gears for the children to handle. They are challenged to build a bridge that the class can walk over and to enter projects into a school science fair.
Towle's electives include foreign languages, drama, and art. The Spanish teacher, who has a Master's in media education, makes tapes for students with instructions and pronunciations to use at home with the text. The Latin course integrates the text Ecce Romani with drama, history, and art. A formal art course develops skills in drawing, painting, pastels and so forth. The drama class even produces its own play! Corkey says, "Last year, the sixth through twelfth graders did Our Town. It was a great show! This is our largest class because it draws a lot of homeschoolers from the community."
To accommodate accelerated students, Towle provides options for early graduation. "We have independent high school reviews by certified high school teachers so that we can issue Carnegie units for credit. Several of our students are pursuing early graduation. Some of these plan to take an English course through a local community college, where one semester is equivalent to a full year of high school. We will help prep kids who want to take the A.P. test in any area. If a student has a particularly strong interest or ability, we will help find a mentor for him or her. Gifted students are invited to take any class at any age. When a student has met the required 20 credits for graduation, we can issue a diploma."
Recently, Towle held a graduation ceremony for five seniors. "The parents handed the graduates their diplomas because they are the real educators," says Corkey. "Towle is not an end, it is a means, a tool in the parent's hands, nothing more. A piece of paper shouldn't cut a young adult loose from his family, nor is a diploma an end-all. That's why we chose to end the ceremony singing praises to the Lord."
Though decidedly Christian in its curriculum and by-laws, Towle does not teach doctrine or carry out discipline of the students. "We feel it is the duty and the right of parents to teach their children doctrine, and we also don't think we are called to discipline children. The parents must prepare their children's hearts to be ready to learn at Towle. If they aren't prepared, they might as well just go home."
There is a double interview process for acceptance at Towle. "Because the students work in small groups, the children attending become very close. An antagonistic child wouldn't fit in. Our kids are always supervised by someone who has a relationship with the Lord," says Corkey, who is also concerned that students develop the skills needed to function in small groups. "These kids must have the listening and communication skills for group settings such as jobs, Bible studies, and community work." The student body is primarily from evangelical denominations, but includes Catholics, Mormons, and those without a religious orientation. "We let parents know we are coming from a strong Christian perspective, with all Christian teachers, text, and a strong pro-life anti-evolution stance."
"It is so cool there," says Dan Costa, a sophomore at Towle School. "I never had to work hard in public school, but all I do is study now. The kids really build each other up. There are no cliques. It's incredible, the teachers pray before classes. We try to keep Christ as our focus."
Corkey's voice lowers as she becomes contemplative, "Towle is not a perfect school. I ask the parents and teachers to give me a hard evaluation every six months. I want them to tell me what is working and what is weak. I am always open to looking at changes that need to be made, even for just one student. I also struggle with the pace and place of curriculum. Lower-end students may not always interact well with what is being taught. Tutoring is available all year for free. It's my concern that all the students gain the process of learning, not that they all achieve at the same level."
Towle School is supervised by a board of six dedicated parents who administrate the executive functions for the school. The board remains small to facilitate communication, especially since they've agreed to never leave a meeting without a consensus. "This led to some meetings that ran well after midnight," commented board member Wendy Bonnett a bit wryly, "but it works." The board is responsible for the budget and record-keeping, for soliciting funds, providing facilities, and running events. The board carries the vision for the school and keeps it in prayer.
Tuition is $1,100 per year per student or $1,000 for early enrollment. "We run on a shoe string, though we've been blessed with a lot of free lab equipment," says Corkey, whose many connections in the community are often called on to benefit the Towle students. Though Corkey will have to give up her teaching at the community college to focus on Towle next year, at this point she has drawn no salary. "I don't touch money," Corkey laughs. "I've been accused of laundering it. Parents will hand me tuition checks as I'm walking in the school - it goes in my pocket, and ends up in the wash. Jack made a box in the hall with a lock on it so I don't touch it!"
Towle School started last year with 24 students. "Our enrollment grew 400 percent this year to 100 full-time students plus about 50 part-time students. We don't want to accept so many students that we can't be good stewards," says Corkey. "We've agreed to only take 25 new students next year. We already have 100 signed up and a waiting list into 1998. We are working on a five- and ten-year plan as a board and following the Lord's lead all the way."
The Feldmanns have written two books. Bridging the Gap: The Towle Model is about the philosophy behind Towle and the principles of its educational model. The Nuts and Bolts of Towle is a "how to" book for every stage of setting up such a school, including all the forms and legal advice for each phase. Jack and Corkey are also willing to travel in order to help with the set up of similar schools.
While the Towle School seeks to minister to homeschoolers, Jack Feldmann notes with his soft spoken voice and a twinkle in his eye, "It's been a lot of hard work."
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