Landfalls in Homeschooling

For Lambert Block, his longest voyage lasted 16 years and resulted in safe passages for his children into Ivy League Colleges. From our September 2004 issue.

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Cruising families take to homeschooling out of necessity, though it’s as much a part of the dream as waterfalls and sunsets. Luci, and me, the Calvert School (www.calvertschool.org) in Baltimore was boss, and our kids, Gerry and Kate, completed the eight-year curriculum. Calvert is a godsend for cruisers, and we have nothing but praise for the school. We did suffer, however, not by their hand but by the vagaries of overseas mail delivery.

We therefore found we couldn’t use Calvert’s Advisory Teaching Service because it so complicated our passagemaking. Thus, we didn’t send in our kids’ work for grading and teacher evaluation. We did that on the boat. We also never pushed formal schooling on the children while we were on an ocean passage—coastal and inter-island, yes; ocean, no.

With the finish of eighth grade, the Calvert program ends, and things get a little more serious. This is a point of no return for homeschooling cruisers, and attrition surely sets in. Grades nine through 12 provide the transcript for college admissions offices, and at this stage, you’re forced to choose a provider: a boarding school, a correspondence school, or true homeschooling, in which you have all the responsibility. The Internet came along just in time. Correspondence school was our choice, and we’ve never looked back. We chose the program of the North Dakota Division of Independent Study, headquartered in Fargo, North Dakota. It provides a wonderful and complete course catalog, and the teachers are first-rate.

Regardless of which provider you choose, it’s good to get an entry application from the website of the college on which your child has set his or her sights. The freshest versions are generally available in September. Using this application as your target, you can chart the student’s next four years of instruction.

For us, the application process itself forced a rather unexpected change in cruising destinations. We found it impossible to seriously cruise during the year and a half preceding my son’s college application. With SATs (Scholastic Assessment Tests), ACTs (American College Tests), five SAT IIs (focusing on specific subjects), two teacher’s recommendations, essays, and the very forms themselves, not to mention the schooling, we couldn’t be out and about for more than a couple of weeks.

We had to remove ourselves from horizon temptation, so we left Maine, sailed across the Gulf of Mexico, and anchored in Clear Lake, Texas. From there, we all went into the trenches, and my son was accepted as an “early decision” at Columbia University, in New York City. The following August, we took a mooring on the Hudson River, and my son traded his forepeak berth for a dorm room. This was our first “landfall.”

As my daughter was three years behind in the process, we knew we’d soon be harborbound again, this time in the Bahamas. There we focused on finishing the college-entrance voyage we started years ago. My daughter was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania, and we’re glowing with pride. This was our second and final landfall as seafaring homeschoolers.

Homeschooling has worked very well for our family. We found that if we taught the courses one subject at a time, we could better manage the interruptions that go with life afloat. The children made huge sacrifices, and their rewards were in question right up to the end. But as we look back, we see the advantages—such as being able to alter the traditional teaching process.

Generally speaking, a typical high-school course takes about six weeks to complete if it’s conducted nonstop. Of course, many subjects require two semesters to complete, and the time doubles. Yet it’s a real advantage to go “cover to cover” in this way because the subjects are better mastered when the concepts flow, and you don’t move on until each concept is worked out. Time management plays a part here, but things move more quickly when they’re compressed.

We found a manageable harmony in schooling the kids 12 months a year rather than the customary nine plus a long, relaxing summer break. Downtime for our students was most often linked to boat problems or passagemaking in those middle years. We moved around constantly, and they learned to cope. Later, as both kids became self-propelled as students, there were breaks for SAT preparation and testing. These tests go on forever, and the results aren’t taken lightly. Homeschoolers can do a lot with test prep, and ours did. That in itself is quite helpful.

To sailing families who plan to homeschool past the eighth grade, I offer a final word of encouragement and advice: Colleges that offer “need-blind admissions” (on merit only, without knowledge of your ability to pay) and “demonstrated-need assistance” (the difference between a family’s tuition contribution and the cost of attendance) are worthy of all the effort you and your children can make. These schools love diversity, and they offer tailored grants that will make all the difference financially.

The last bonus is, to us, the most apparent, and it's one that played to the heart of our passion. We kept moving. For as travel opened the doors to learning, sailing became the teacher and the oceans became the classroom. This aspect develops with time and the ability to execute the passages. Thus, a good boat is the essential advantage.

Florida resident Lambert Block and his family have cruised the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans and the Caribbean Sea in their 38-foot sloop, Toucan, and, since 1991, in their Hallberg-Rassy 49, Flight.