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A Range of Harsh Lessons

Schoolyard slurs, an incest charge and county social services shatter a black family's Kiowa dream.

Despite the principal's corrective action, though, Earl and Diane felt uncomfortable with the situation.

"Columbine had happened," Diane says, "and I said, 'There's not going to be a Columbine on my children.'"

School didn't seem to be working out especially well for the children, anyway. According to a report drawn up by a court-appointed volunteer in January this year, Stephen, who had been enrolled in tenth grade at the Kiowa school, had been failing many of his classes, as was one of the younger boys. Quinn, a ninth-grader, was enrolled as a special-education student. Almost all of the Veasey kids showed delays in reading and math, the volunteer reported.

Sam Riddle (left), Diane Veasey and the Reverend Michael Shoels have expressed outrage over Elbert County's tactics.
Anthony Camera
Sam Riddle (left), Diane Veasey and the Reverend Michael Shoels have expressed outrage over Elbert County's tactics.

It appeared that the children hadn't benefited much from their years of public education.

In October, the Veaseys decided to pull their kids from the Kiowa school and teach them at home. Colorado law is liberal with regard to home schooling; it was designed to be so. According to the state's School Attendance Law, "the General Assembly declares that it is the primary right and obligation of the parent to choose the proper education and training for children under his care and supervision. It is recognized that home-based education is a legitimate alternative to classroom attendance for the instruction of children and that any regulation of nonpublic home-based educational programs should be sufficiently flexible to accommodate a variety of circumstances. The general assembly further declares that nonpublic home-based educational programs shall be subject only to minimum state controls which are currently applicable to other forms of nonpublic education."

A parent or adult relative who chooses to home-school children is not required to be a licensed teacher. Non-relatives are required to be licensed and qualified by the state. Home-school students must be tested and evaluated every two years beginning at the third-grade level. If a student's test scores show him to be doing poorly, the school district can require his parents to place him in a public, parochial or independent school until the next testing period.

After several months of teaching the kids on her own, Diane decided they would be better served by a licensed educator. The Veaseys took out a help-wanted ad, conducted interviews and settled on Joan Joyce Mortensen, who had worked for ten years as a secondary teacher with Denver Public Schools.

Mortensen had decided to give up her job working in public school so she could spend more time with her daughter, she says, and she had recently remarried and hoped to have another child. "I wanted to be home and pull away from the district," she explains.

Mortensen began working with the Veasey children in January 2000. She taught ten of the children plus her own five-year-old, whom she brought along to the Veasey home Monday through Thursday, which is when the classes were held.

The Veaseys had converted a large room downstairs into a classroom. They'd set up a large folding table with chairs for all of the kids. A grease-pen board set at the end of the room served as their version of a chalkboard; Mortensen used it for lecture notes, for working on maps and for writing down assignments. She had amassed a large number of books from her years of teaching in the public schools, and she brought those with her.

The school day started promptly at 8:30 a.m.

The three Veasey girls, in particular, were always "beautifully dressed" for class when she arrived, Mortensen remembers. "Their hair was done; they had matching little outfits.

"The house smelled like bacon. It was a perfect family."

Mortensen says she was amazed by how smoothly things worked at the Veasey home. Diane, she says, "seemed very much a pro at parenting. They were so organized it was amazing. Things worked like clockwork. The kids knew what was expected and they helped out when they needed to. They were so well-behaved."

Mortensen would begin the day's lesson with a discussion of current events. The children had to keep a notebook about articles they found interesting, and Mortensen would ask them questions about the articles to test their comprehension.

Mortensen worked from lesson plans, and the work might vary from one day to the next. "Certain days I would teach science or social studies all morning," she says. She taught them geography and history, social studies and math.

The kids got a half-hour break at 11:30, and they'd all run upstairs for lunch, Mortensen says. Class resumed again at noon, and school ended for the day at 3 p.m.

For the most part, Mortensen was pleased with the children's interest and progress. In her mind, only one of the girls, now twelve, seemed to exhibit any learning difficulties.

"She had some problems with reading and math," Mortensen says. "I tended to think she might be borderline special ed, but it wasn't something to become severely concerned about. I modified her work, just as if she was a special-ed student who had been mainstreamed.

"I might give her a different type of work to get the same outcome. For example, if I'm giving a multiple-choice test, I might give it to her orally instead of written."

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