Why should schools be the only “safe haven”?

Any time I talk about making unschooling a viable alternative for everyone, someone inevitably points out that for kids from unstable homes or in abject poverty, it simply cannot work.     This is also an argument you hear when talking about doing away with compulsory schooling.   Someone will always mention those caring teachers who provide the only stability or safe place for the children they teach; children whose parents are abusive, or in prison or on drugs or working 16 hours a day to try and make ends meet.

For these children, people say, school is their only safe haven and their only chance to rise above their circumstances.   This is in part the argument behind the current push for universal Pre-K  (that and a completely unsubstantiated belief that when it comes to schooling there is no better solution than MORE).

While thinking about this issue I came across an article in the Jan/Feb 1994 Growing Without Schooling which directly addresses this problem.  (Weird how that seems to happen!)  Titled “Neither School Nor Home – Finding a Third Alternative” it was written by Kathryn Ridiman, a young woman who found support, safety and purpose, but not at home or at school.

“My life was bizarre.  At home I was battered and demeaned — or at best ignored.  At school I was an outsider… My real life, where I was competent, nurtured and accepted, took place far from my school and my family. At 15, I managed a suburban riding stable and took care of 60 horses.”

Ridiman walked out of school when she was 16.  The stables gave her responsibility, purpose, and a safe haven.   Despite her “drop out” status, she enrolled in and graduated from community college with a B.A. in Psychology and a B.S. in Applied Sociology and Anthropology.  She graduated cum laude.   At the time she wrote the article, she had a daughter of her own who she was homeschooling.  She knew from experience that the best education is the one we get for ourselves.

“As long as you are reading and actively exploring things that interest you, you are educating yourself.  Your formal education is relatively unimportant.  A diploma is just a piece of paper.”

In the same issue of GWS, Editor Susannah Sheffer commented on Ridiman’s article, saying:

“Often when I speak about homeschooling to groups, someone raises the question ‘But what about kids with a difficult home life?  Don’t they need school as a haven?’   I would like to be able to show them Kathryn’s letter in answer… …Even if schools are indeed havens for some kids, for many other kids they are another place to feel humiliated, unappreciated, stupid, incompetent and cut off from their real concerns.  The question that seems crucial to me is, how can we give kids access to many different kinds of places, besides either school or home, so that when home is miserable and school presents its own set of frustrations, there is an alternative?”

Exactly.  The problem that we all have – that I have as well – when addressing the issue of how to help kids with horrible home lives, is that we are still thinking in terms of “school”.   Such families can’t homeschool – there is no curriculum tailored to fit a family where a parent is abusive or simply not there.    Even when we talk about ‘unschooling’ we are thinking in terms of a parent or guardian being present, willing and able to encourage the child in their interests.

This is limited thinking.

Kathryn Ridiman found her safe haven and much of her education while caring for horses at a stable.  No parents anywhere in sight; no school either.    What similar opportunities might be open to children from even the worst financial or familial circumstances if only we’d take the time to discover them?


Quotes from Growing Without Schooling copyright 2013 by HoltGWS LLC are used with permission.





3 comments on “Why should schools be the only “safe haven”?

  1. Laurie says:

    It is important to note that making unschooling a viable option, and no longer having school be compulsory, does not mean that school is no longer a choice! In fact, it means that school would be a choice rather than a forced issue. My experience tells me that child-led learning, and homeschooling, are the best options. But I am a fool if I think that my way should be the only way for everyone. We need a huge variety of good choices, rich with alternatives. For some families (such as parents and children who do not get along, or both parents working full-time with young kids), school will always be an important option. I would like to see schools become less prison-like, and feel more like true safe havens, where children are comfortable enough to speak up and even feel heard! Well, I can dream, can’t I?

    • Amy says:

      Laurie, I agree that if children choose a classroom for themselves then that should be their option. What I don’t agree with is the idea that for “underprivileged” kids, the current compulsory system is the best because it gives them security and structure. They might be much better served, as Kathryn Ridiman was, finding that structure in a place of their own choosing that isn’t school.

      The key, as you say, is choice.


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