FORT SMITH -- In August, nearly 460,000 students started back to school in Arkansas.
Almost 14,000 children and teenagers continued their studies at home, part of a homeschooling movement, which is growing in popularity and includes many Catholic families.
Mary Jo Honeycutt, a homeschooling mother of four in Fort Smith, said, "It's not for every family, but it's very good for our family because we can educate our children faster and better than the public schools do. If they get a concept, we go on, and we take as long as we need to if they don't."
Because Honeycutt has a disabled son and a learning-disabled son, being able to intensively address their educational needs is important, but she has discovered spiritual benefits as well.
"Marvin and I converted to Catholicism at Christ the King Church three years ago," Honeycutt said. "All of our children made their First Communions last Easter. They learned about baptism, Communion and reconciliation together.
"As a family we are learning what the Church gives us to rely on for comfort and our own guidance, using devotionals and studying 'The Word Among Us.'"
Honeycutt's husband, a former Baptist deacon, is earning his bachelor's degree in theology from St. Gregory University in Shawnee, Oka., through the diocese's Little Rock Theology Institute.
Another Christ the King parishioner, Jennifer Wright, likes "the freedom of being able to tailor what I'm teaching specifically" to the needs of her sons, Will, 12, and Walter, 10. She and her husband, John, have taken their children to visit some of the areas they've studied.
Last year they visited Rome, Umbria and Vatican City to study art and medieval history, and they are getting ready to make a trip to Milan and Florence.
They are currently hosting two German high school students so they can experience what it's like to live with people from different cultures.
The Wrights study the Bible as a family several times a week, discussing it from the Catholic point of view so that their sons will be able to understand its truths in depth and defend their Catholic beliefs.
Dianne and Steve Heinrichs have been homeschooling their five children -- Clare, 15; Joe and Ben, 13; Daniel, 10; and David, 5 -- for six years. After reading Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation, "Ecclesia in America," they were inspired by his words: "In order to be a true 'domestic church' the Christian family needs to be a setting in which parents hand down the faith, since they are 'for their children, by word and example, the first heralds of the faith.'"
The Heinrichs use a variety of curriculum materials and always includes daily prayer time and religion study in their school day. Like most homeschooled children, the Heinrichs kids participate in a variety of activities. Clare is preparing for confirmation at St. Boniface Church in Fort Smith, and Ben is currently attending a local private school. The children have been Boy Scouts and altar servers and participated in the Young Christian Musicians Ensemble, Youth Community Choir, Taekwondo and piano lessons.
A busy family of seven can often find that it's difficult to schedule family time, so Dianne Heinrichs appreciates homeschooling even more.
"It helps us depend on one another and has made our family closer," she said.
Homeschooling couples Christa and Thomas Bartok and Cassandra and Jay Poppe, parishioners at Sts. Sabina and Mary Church in Jenny Lind, meet several Sundays a month to share a potluck dinner and study religion together. The Bartoks have seven daughters ranging from 10 years old to 4 months; the Poppes have four children ranging from 12 to 4 years old.
Using the Catholic catechism, arts and crafts, holy cards and lives of the saints, the families discuss the family's role in religious formation, the saints, Church history and the relationship between faith and world events and personal decisions.
The Bartoks, Heinrichs and Honeycutts all participate in the twice-weekly classes at Grace Academy, a cooperative school where their children can enroll in enrichment and higher-level academic subjects. Dianne Heinrichs teaches piano and music at the academy and Thomas Bartok teaches honors biology.
Parents say they are also able to provide enrichment with the assistance of homeschool Web sites and special events. Twelve Catholic homeschooling conferences will be held nationwide in 2007.
Parents like Dianne Heinrichs feel homeschooling was what "God wanted us to do."
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