Five-year-old Maren Worthen wore a pink sweatshirt and matching sweatpants as she walked to school on a recent Thursday morning.
It didn’t take long to get there. Maren’s classroom is her kitchen table.
Breakfast was banana bread and butter next to her sister Alexis, 8. Bailey, the family’s 11-year-old golden retriever, lapped Maren’s crumbs from under the table as Maren ate and chatted with her mother, Beth, about what to do first in school. James Worthen, Maren’s father, and Connor, her 11-year-old brother, weren’t home. The morning was too perfect to waste a chance deer hunting before school.
The Worthens educate their three children at their home near Casper, and have done so for six years. Home schooling gives the Worthens the flexibility to be able to travel with James, an attorney, and still get school work done, said Beth, 35.
For the Worthens, it’s a five-minute drive to a horde of social excursions. They pile into the family SUV each week to home-school gym class at the Boys and Girls Club, home-school science class at the Science Zone, and home-school art class at the Nicolaysen Art Museum. Their classroom has varied over the years from the family cabin near Lander during elk hunting season to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on a historical field trip.
But most days, like this one, start and end around the kitchen table. Maren picked the pink sweat suit this day because she knew she was headed to gym class at the Boys and Girls Club after lunch; she was going to see her friends.
On the ranch
Seventy miles from Casper and 30 miles from the nearest paved road, 5-year-old Tessa Anderson and her mother, Christine, read from a book they rented from the Natrona County Public Library the week before.
Christine, 46, home-schools her three youngest children on a 47,000-acre ranch north of Powder River, where cell phone service is only reached at the top of a nearby hill and water is hauled in once a week. Christine has a high school education. She relies on an online curriculum from Wyoming Connections Academy. Gym class usually means a quick jump on the trampoline or a game on the family’s Wii. Christine finds art activities for her kids on Pinterest.
The family travels to Casper twice a week for groceries, ranch supplies, a visit to church, and the occasional McDonald’s cheeseburger, Christine said.
If they want to visitor their nearest neighbor, they must drive 16 miles.
About 2,300 students are home-schooled in Wyoming, according to data from the Wyoming Department of Education. That figure has not changed significantly over the past decade, said Dianne Frazer, the agency’s home-school contact. The state asks local school districts to report the number of home-school families and students in their districts annually, Frazer said.
Beyond that, she said, home-school families are considered private schools.
Class for the Worthens begins around 9 a.m.
Alexis played with her mom’s hair as Beth arranged the family laptop on this Thursday morning. The Worthens follow a curriculum from Wyoming Connections Academy for their two older children. This day’s assignment for Alexis is a poem about a holiday. Each letter of the holiday’s title, Beth said, should have a word related to the holiday.
“That sounds hard,” Alexis said.
“Yeah,” Beth answered. “But I’ll help you.”
“Yay!” Alexis said, dropping her mom’s hair and reaching for the computer. “I love when Mom helps.”
Beth is both mom and teacher for her three kids. She has never taken a teaching course in her life. But that doesn’t stop her from being cheerleader, disciplinarian and instructor during her kids’ home-school classes.
“I’m their mom,” Beth said. “I know what their learning styles are. I know what motivates them.”
As for the rest, Beth said, “it’s just multitasking.” Her laptop sits next to the kids’. She does her work — for a variety of local nonprofits and the University of Wyoming Library Board — while they do theirs.
Meanwhile, at the garage, the door opened. James and Connor were back from the deer hunt. Alexis leaped from her chair and Maren ran from the kitchen to meet their brother and dad.
“So you got Bambi, huh, J?” Beth said to her husband, who grinned near the garage door in his camouflage overalls.
Connor picked up his sister and carried her into the garage. Maren wrapped her arms around his neck as he walked with her to the back of the family SUV, where a young deer lay wrapped in a tarp.
Hunting has been part of the family for generations, James said. His and his son’s schedules allow the two to get out together. John likes that his kids spend their days together, learning from each other.
“All right, bud,” James said. “Let me just get this started and then you can take over, OK?”
Connor did not flinch at the crunch of the deer’s forelegs being broken from their sockets. Pocketknife in hand, he watched his dad intently. In a little while Connor would join Alexis at the dining room table for his class work.
But for now, this too was a chance to learn.
In a rhinestone-studded belt and house slippers, Christine Anderson straightened blankets on a messy bed while her 14-year-old daughter, Shamra, worked at a desk nearby. Christine put away stray boots in the living room as little Tessa colored at the kitchen table. Shortly afterward, the coloring assignment was interrupted by a few bounces on the family’s couch.
Like Beth in Bar Nunn, Christine serves both as mother and teacher for her kids. She makes sure Zeb, 16, doesn’t fall behind on his school work when he spends long days helping his father, Paul, on the ranch.
“If he’s way behind I say, ‘No, you can’t go play with Dad,’” Christine said. “Dad would love his help every day.”
With Tessa, her youngest, Christine calls home school “constructive playtime.”
“We play school all day, and clear into the night,” Christine said. “She sometimes says, ‘Talk to me like a real teacher would, Mom.’”
Outside, several horses kicked up dust as their hooves scraped across the dry Wyoming ground. Wearing matching Wrangler blue jeans, Zeb and Paul strung barbed wire between thick fence posts damaged in an early October storm.
Life on the ranch is Paul’s dream. Zeb left his basketball team at an old high school “without complaints,” Christine said, to join his family in the move to Wyoming last year.
Christine never dreamed she would be home-schooling her children. Before moving to the ranch, she wondered whether her kids could catch a bus into Casper for school. Local school officials told her a Suburban leaves Powder River each morning carrying a few children the roughly 40 miles into Casper. Her kids could catch a ride, Christine recalled the bus driver saying, so long as they were in Powder River by 5:15 a.m. On a good day, Christine said, that drive alone takes her 40 minutes.
“I just said, scratch that,” Christine said. “I’d never see my kids.”
She worries whether Tessa, her youngest, will gain the social skills her siblings did — whether a home-school life on the ranch will prepare her for a society larger than her house. Still, she said, the nearest school employs one full-time teacher for the three students attending class there this year.
“If she’s the only person in her grade,” Christine said, “what’s the advantage of sending her to school?”