Black Hills homeschool community increasingly diverse

Ukulele lessons, frequent trips to the World Fossil Finder Museum, multiple languages and field trips to other states are part of increasingly diverse curriculum for some local homeschooling families.

Population growth in the Black Hills is changing the region’s homeschool community. It’s becoming a more inclusive environment for parents who appreciate homeschooling for its flexibility and opportunities to customize education to their children’s abilities and interests.

Jennifer Beving of Rapid City is the founder of Black Hills Home Educators, the region’s only non-religious homeschooling group. With close to 3,000 members, Beving said it’s the biggest, most active homeschooling group in the region.

“I tried to join these other local groups and you had these statements of faith (you had to agree to). I am not homeschooling for religious reasons,” Beving said. “I had friends who were from different religions and different cultures. I started my group where it’s open to any religions, all religions. Anyone’s welcome.

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“Eight or nine years ago, homeschooling was still tight-knit religious groups. That has slowly gone by the wayside,” Beving said, adding that faith-based homeschool groups still exist in the region.

Beving has observed a shift toward diversity in the Black Hills Home Educators, especially in recent years as people from throughout the nation moved to western South Dakota.

“When we started out, it was definitely a politically conservative group but it’s swung (away from that). I think we have people from all over the political spectrum. Religion is not a main thing,” she said. “If I had to guess, religion is far down on the reason why people are joining.”

“We have a lot of new residents who are homeschooling. It feels like it’s become way more mainstream,” Beving said.

Homeschooling is a less isolating experience than it was a few years ago, she said.

“So many people were so into the religious aspect of homeschooling … and now that we have more people, you can pretty much find your group,” Beving said. “For other people that have diverse views, they can find their people now.”

“That’s a lot of what Black Hills Home Educators does is try to connect people and get the resources out to people,” she said. “I’m always trying to brainstorm how to get ideas out there to help other people.”

Black Hills Home Educators host some classes and events, including fall and spring dances and a prom for students, Beving said.

“We have a lot of local businesses that have embraced us,” she said. “Our big event in the fall is we go to the Spearfish corn maze. We usually get about 800 people.”

Tailored to kids’ abilities

Beving was an attorney with a busy practice and a daughter who’d soon be starting kindergarten when a physician advised Beving to homeschool. Her daughter had a temporary speech delay the doctor said could pose a struggle in a public school environment.

“It ended up being something that worked out well for her. She’s now in an accredited online high school program,” Beving said. “There’s so many options on the internet or sometimes we’ll buy a class to supplement (the kids’ studies) if they need it. My 14-year-old will be really well prepared for college. She is learning to study.”

Beving also homeschools her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

“(Traditional school) doesn’t fit every child’s learning. If a child is having issues, whether bullying or mental health or whatever, I want the freedom to teach kids in the way they learn best,” she said.

“We give them a choice every year (whether they want to be homeschooled). They’re all competitive athletes so it’s nice not to add the stress of absences from school,” Beving said. “It’s been really nice. It’s been a flexible lifestyle. It allowed us to do more things as a family.”

Beving’s husband works from home, so the family eats breakfast and lunch together.

“I’ve really enjoyed it. I really appreciate that we’re able to live this lifestyle and still give our kids a decent education,” she said.

Some parents opted for homeschooling after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 and schools were trying distance learning. That’s also when more people began moving to South Dakota in search of more freedom, Beving said.

The influx of new residents in South Dakota prompted a change in laws around homeschooling, she said, which made homeschooling easier. Though Beving gave up her job as an attorney, the flexibility of homeschooling allows her to do some political consulting about education and school choice when people need assistance. She’s also writing a memoir.

“It’s the journey I went through giving up my career to stay home with kids. I think a lot of moms find themselves in that situation,” Beving said.

Though she’s been able to homeschool her children, that’s not an option for every parent. Beving believes in the need for strong public schools because they meet needs beyond education. For many students, school provides meals, clothing such as winter coats for children in need, and opportunities.

“School is the place where (kids) have that one person that checks up on them, and we need to make the education so good that kids can still have a chance to get ahead,” Beving said.

“There’s a lot of options. It’s an exciting time. I think we’ll see education shifting in how it looks but I am also a firm believer we need to make public schools better and not give up on public schools,” she said.

Consistency amid change

When the COVID-19 pandemic shifted public schools to online learning, the Hopkins family was living in Alaska. They lacked internet access needed for their daughters to switch to the public school’s online learning. That pushed Ashley Hopkins to homeschool her daughters, who are now 6 and 11.

Hopkins’ husband is in the Air Force. The family was transferred to Ellsworth Air Force Base in July 2021, and through the pandemic and a cross-country move, homeschooling has been a consistent part of the family’s routine.

“That’s why a lot of us in the military choose to homeschool. Especially if you’re Army (families), you move every two to three years. There could be huge gaps in your children’s education,” Hopkins said. “We’re Air Force. We don’t move as often but there’s lot of reasons why (people) homeschool.”

Hopkins, who is originally from Oklahoma, said if her husband was deployed, she could take her daughters to visit family out of state for a couple of months without disrupting their education because they can homeschool anywhere.

“I feel like homeschooling has been soured and people years ago ruined the homeschool idea and gave it a sour taste because maybe they abused it, or it was weird. I feel like people are trying to normalize it right now,” she said.

Hopkins feels fortunate that she was part of a huge homeschool community in Alaska, which has state regulations more structured than South Dakota’s that clearly defined the subjects parents had to teach.

“In Alaska, you submit quarterly work samples. You had guidance and direction,” Ashley said. “In South Dakota you’re not required to teach all the subjects. I was kind of taken aback by that.”

“I can honestly say had I not had the foundation and the learning in Alaska … I would have been terrified to homeschool,” she said.

Switching to homeschooling ultimately was “the best thing ever” for their family, Hopkins said. In Alaska, the family took advantage of a standardized testing option so Hopkins could be sure her oldest daughter was really learning. The girl scored at post-high school levels for some subjects.

“I was blown away,” Hopkins said. “If you put in the time with your child and they learn at a pace that is right for them, they’ll learn it. They’ll pick it up and they’ll absorb it. … I’m going to keep homeschooling. Why would I put her in school? This has been amazing.”

Hopkins’ younger daughter has been homeschooled since age 3. The family uses a 36-week curriculum and takes two or three weeks off during the summer before beginning summer studies. Essentially, they follow a year-round school schedule, Hopkins said, although their summer studies are subjects the girls decide they want to learn.

Hopkins’ younger daughter is learning Spanish because she finds it interesting, and she is learning to play the ukulele in classes with Rapid City Homeschool Music. Her reading skills are improving rapidly, and she’s good at math.

“I don’t sit and drill math facts at her for hours. We do a minimal time of reading every day but if she wants to read more, I’m all for it. I’m letting her learn at her pace and I’ve really seen massive improvement,” Hopkins said. “There’s more than one way to teach a subject. You have to think outside the box.”

Hopkins’ older daughter is learning aerial silks as her “extracurricular activity.” She’s learning Spanish, too, but is talented at drawing and spends much of her free time doing that.

Hopkins said she gives her daughters the option of public school but her older daughter especially likes the homeschool schedule and doesn’t want to return to public school.

Ellsworth Air Force Base has a homeschool group, Hopkins said, that includes about 100 families. The group offers activities such as weekly art classes, outdoor recreation and “all sorts of things going on all the time,” she said.

“It’s an opportunity to see their Air Force base homeschool friends and learn something. We do little Christmas parties on base or Valentine’s parties. We’re always looking for ways to get the kids together but sneak in learning,” Hopkins chuckled.

Hopkins appreciates the flexibility she and her children have. She doesn’t need to pull her daughters out of school for doctor and dentist appointments. In the era of growing numbers of mass shootings and bullying, she also believes homeschooling is a safer environment.

“It’s kind of freeing. … My kids aren’t forced to go sit in a building for eight hours a day. We spend however many hours we need on that day’s curriculum and then they can study other things,” Hopkins said. “Schools nowadays are kind of iffy with safety concerns. If they’re with me, I know where my kids are at.”

Multicultural education

Kaya Ramirez Wenninger of Rapid City spent her childhood in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, before cartels drove her family out of their remote village. Her mother relocated herself and her four children to Texas. The homeschool education Wenninger is crafting for her own children incorporates a broad worldview.

“I have some conservative tendencies, but as a political independent, veteran and Mexican, my priority is to show my children the depth of cultures that make up our country,” Wenninger said.

“We’ve become a bigger culture,” she said of minorities in the United States. “We’re still a small minority but we’re here. … In South Dakota specifically, we are getting more populated with (people of) different backgrounds, so we want more (for our children’s education) because we know more is out there.”

Multiple factors contributed to the Wenningers’ decision to homeschool, including the cost of daycare, and the class sizes and quality of South Dakota public schools. Wenninger also wanted to be involved in her children’s education, and she’s become politically active in working to improve homeschool laws in South Dakota.

“I’m the parent. I know my children. I’m going to do my best by them and I want that right to continue to be protected,” Wenninger said.

The Wenningers’ 15-year-old daughter attends public school by her own choice, but the Wenningers’ sons, ages 6 and 4, are homeschooled.

Wenninger incorporates hers and her husband’s cultural heritage into homeschooling by teaching her children Spanish and German as their second and third languages. They also began learning American Sign Language when they were toddlers.

“I’m using American Sign Language to translate in Spanish and German to make that connection,” Wenninger said. “We also know our constellations and solar system (in sign language).”

Wenninger remembers the culture shock of moving from Mexico to the United States and coping with the language barrier. Wenninger was the only one of her siblings to graduate from high school. Her siblings endured so much bullying that they dropped out of school. After high school, Wenninger was accepted into a medical program in the Army and earned degrees in health science and health care. She worked in radiology at Madigan Army Medical Center, which was a trauma center during the years that Operation Iraqi Freedom was going on.

“I totally appreciate my time there. You do get to see what American freedom is all about. It helped me make friends and it helped me understand the rest of the country,” Wenninger said.

Her husband, Jerome, is a physician and an Army veteran who was born in Germany, though Jerome’s father was born in Lemmon, S.D. and later graduated from South Dakota Mines. Wenninger chuckles at the coincidence that she and her husband are soldiers born in other countries who ended up marrying and raising their family in her father-in-law’s home state. 

Homeschooling allows Wenninger to teach her children about the diverse cultures in their own family and the world, and to be accepting of other cultures and religions. Wenninger also tailors or creates immersive, hands-on curriculum and field trips to match her children’s interests.

Her 6-year-old son is super-passionate about the solar system, Wenninger said.

“It motivates him. He learned a lot of colors, numbers and sight words just based on the solar system,” she said. “He’ll tell you his favorite star. He was fascinated with black holes (and) spaghettification (an object being stretched in the direction of a black hole.) … He’ll tell you (about) the biggest black hole in our universe.”

Wenninger searches online for videos, articles and information about the solar system or other subjects her children are studying.

“There are so many resources out there that are free that can help you teach your child anything you can think of,” she said.

Her 4-year-old son likes the solar system too, but is more interested in dinosaurs, fossils and sea creatures. Those interests prompted a field trip to Utah and Arizona and White Sands National Monument in New Mexico to follow the path of a sea bed.

When her children studied Paul Revere, the family made a quick trip to Boston to visit the sites where history had occurred.

Wenninger acknowledges that being able to homeschool and to include travel in her children’s curriculum is a huge privilege.

“There is a learning curve not every parent wants to deal with,” she said. “Not everybody can just pack up their kids (and travel). Not everybody can do it, but if you’re able to do it, why not?”

A closer-knit family

Safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Wood family of Rapid City to move their children from public school to homeschooling. Allison Wood is a physician and, with an already limited supply of doctors in Rapid City, she wanted to protect her own health for the sake of her family and her patients.

“We’re a Christian family but that has zero to do with why we homeschool. We have absolutely no problem with public school for kids,” Wood said. “Many of us opted to homeschool our kids to decrease the risk of everyone getting sick.”

The entire family has been pleasantly surprised by how well homeschooling works for them, though it requires juggling work schedules, the help of a nanny, and a lot of coffee, Wood said.

“We didn’t know what we were doing. We thought homeschooling was going to crash and burn but it didn’t. All of a sudden we were taking walks as a family and our elementary school kids were telling us their hopes and dreams,” Wood said. “We’re getting so much time together. We started realizing we were all getting closer as a family and that was nice. … We legitimately like spending time together.”

Wood has a degree in elementary education and taught for four years before pursuing her dream of medical school. Her husband, Scott, is a bioengineer at South Dakota Mines. Homeschooling allows the couple to adjust curriculum to each of their children’s needs.

Their oldest, age 9, “was flying through the curriculum as soon as he started being challenged. He was so happy and that was really neat to see,” Wood said. “He’s starting pre-algebra this spring.”

“We can tailor the curriculum to each child. It’s so nice. If you’re doing a program and it’s not working for you, you throw it out and try something different,” she said.

“You can go to the library and read whatever floats your boat. I like that we can do that,” Wood said.

The Woods’ younger children are 8 and 4. Though her oldest two children are close in age, they are “night and day different,” she said.

“Homeschooling gives us the flexibility to meet them where they are and celebrate their differences, and I think they’re thriving from that,” Wood said.

The children will be given the option every year to return to public school. Wood said she and her husband make a point of having their children in activities with other kids such as Scouting and sports so they don’t get isolated. A bonus of homeschooling is a flexible schedule that gives the kids time for activities without missing school days.

The family have also been “road warriors,” Wood said, traveling in off-peak times on extended field trips. They’ve visited places such as plantations in South Carolina and Arches National Park in Utah, and they’ve learned about marine animals and studied the physics of waves at the beach.

Traveling to the locations is educational, too, because the children are learning to read maps and map out the family’s destinations.

In the coming year, the family is planning fewer, but bigger, trips such as a visit to Costa Rica.

“We’re very fortunate to have the resources to be able to do some traveling. We recognize how fortunate we are,” Wood said.

Nurturing a child’s interests

Amanda Catanio Felizardo, her husband and their 6-year-old son moved to the Black Hills from Maryland two years ago to live closer to family. Though Felizardo describes herself as a conservative Christian, her family chose to begin homeschooling this year not for religious reasons, but to give their son educational opportunities beyond what he could find in public school.

“Yes, it always boils down to values and things I want my child to learn versus not learn,” Felizardo said. “I just want to enjoy life with him. Homeschooling is not to control him or keep him in a bubble. I want my son to be very smart. I want to see him reach his full potential.”

The Felizardo family became first-time farmers and ranchers when they relocated to South Dakota. They’re learning as they go while raising cattle, alpacas, bees, goats, chickens and ducks.

Felizardo’s husband is a software engineer who works remotely. Felizardo works with her mother and stepfather at their businesses, including the World Fossil Finder Museum in Hot Springs.

Though Felizardo originally believed she’d send her son to public school, her husband dreamed of homeschooling. That option has turned out to be the best for their son and their lifestyle, which Felizardo describes as a lot of juggling.

“It’s a tight schedule. I do his schooling for two hours every morning from 7 to 9 a.m. We just sit there and learn and do his schoolwork and I teach him his lessons,” Felizardo said. “He’s in kindergarten but … we’re almost done with kindergarten curriculum. I might push him through to first grade after the new year.”

Her son loves engineering, biology, and learning about the inner workings of the animal kingdom, Felizardo said, so he frequently accompanies his mother to the World Fossil Finder Museum.

“My docents and my collections manager take him and teach him. He gets hands-on experience learning about everything he loves,” Felizardo said. “We let him explore his interests as opposed to being in a classroom all day and doing what the other kids are doing.”

The World Fossil Finder Museum offers science classes for others in the homeschool community as well, she said.

Describing her son as “a big thinker,” Felizardo believes public school would not be a good fit for him.

“He’s too free-minded. If he’s not interested, he’s not doing it. He’s on his own playing field and if you don’t play in his ballpark, you don’t get much done,” she said. “You have to be creative. If he’s into something, you’ve got to use that as a tool for teaching.”

Homeschooling also gives Felizardo and her husband more time with their only child.

“To bring my son along, to incorporate him into my professional life as well as being home and present for him, it’s a blessing for it to work out that way,” she said.

“I guess being an older mom, I appreciate the fact more that I have to keep every moment I can with him,” said Felizardo, 38. “I want to watch him grow. I want to see who is he and I want to explore life with him. I want to enjoy my son’s childhood … and make the most of the life we have together before he grows up.”

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