Home sweet home-schooling in Park City

PARK CITY, Utah — Katie and Justin Johnson’s three children’s back to school supplies list includes their dining room table, big binders, engaged brains, and open minds.

They’ve found a work-life-school balance in their family between socialization, spirituality, schedules and structure, and not necessarily in that order.

By design, their Old Ranch Road home does not have a dedicated classroom space for the two twin eight-year-old daughters and four-year-old son accurately illustrated by all those, and only those fingers held up by him.

Sitting on their grandma Susan Barnes’ Park City porch on Labor Day weekend when asked their opinion on home-school, the students literally gave a thumbs up.

The three children are having a vastly different education experience than mom Katie had. She attended beloved Miss Billie’s for preschool, Parley’s Park Elementary School, followed by the then Middle School at Treasure Mountain, and graduated, class of ’02 from the Park City High School before continuing on to the University of Utah.

She was known by her maiden name back then, Grove. 

“Justin expressed me,” she said, “Honey, when we have kids, I’m really interested in home-schooling them. To which I replied, ‘No way!’ I figured by the time my kids were old enough to go to school, I would need a break and it would be time to send them out of the house.”

Neither grandma, who was one of seven siblings, nor dad were home-schooled either. The origin story is that when the three Johnson kids were old enough to start preschool, as Katie told TownLift, “A lot of parents are ready for a break by then, but, I really, yes loved them, but also just like, liked my kids more than I expected to, and had a lot of fun just being their mom 24/7. I was lucky that my job allowed for that.”

So, the dance major, with zero teaching tools or skills started off with some math flash cards and books which they read voraciously and they were learning to write. Then when they got to kindergarten age, boom, global pandemic.

“Wow!” Katie thought. “And so, it was like, okay, well they’ve never been in a public school setting before, and I’m certainly not sending them now. That kind of solidified for us, this is what were doing now.” She continued, “A lot of people go, ‘Oh, you know, we homeschooled during 2020, we could never do it any further, it was too challenging.’ But it wasn’t the same experience for us. They had to proctor someone else’s curriculum, with someone else’s guidance, with someone else’s grading system, with someone else’s schedule.” Whereas the Johnson’s were simply status quo and good to go.

Katie read blogs about home-schooling and saw some seminars and chose some software from the plethora of online options and the rest is history. “History”, by the way, is the answer Anna gives when asked what her favorite subject is, not to be confused with her sister Evie’s answer to what she wants to be when she grows up, “A veterinarian.”

Their grandma is a retired flight attendant, and dad Justin started his job as the golf pro at Park City Mountain’s Canyons Golf Course a week before his twins were born. No home-schooling in his past, he grew up attending public schools in Indiana before matriculating at North Carolina’s Methodist College earning a degree in business. “We’re nondenominational Christians, “Katie said, “and want a strong faith to be our kids’ world view and foundation. So, I love that I get to be the first one to teach our kids our truth.”

Katie is celebrating 16 years of not just marriage, but also working as a dance teacher at Park City’s Summit Dance Project, formerly Ballet West.. Her sister, Julie, has worked as a school teacher at both Little Miners and at Soaring Wings, sending her own kids, the close cousins, now to Trailside Elementary, so they’re all no strangers to the more traditional education path. In fact, Kathy Anderson, who was the director of the preschool programs for the Park City School District was Katie’s second grade teacher, she’s also had twins since then. Katie was her daughter’s first dance teacher. So there are tried and true  Park City lifelong connections and sound advise is continuously shared among them.

The Johnsons have the utmost respect for those in the mainstream education community. Katie knows that there are things that she doesn’t know, and to ensure that her children are receiving the all-important, all-around education they deserve, she’s quick to seek out  professional processes.

Back when mom Katie was in eighth grade, she did have occasion to sample homeschooling. She was being bullied and decided to step away. It ended up as a temporary step, popping in the big box of VHS tapes in the mornings mailed to her mom from the Florida organization they signed up for before the 13-year-old went to work in the afternoons at Kimball Junction’s Kenny Rogers Roasters. That was the old-school way of home-schooling and she returned to public school the next year.

Summer break 2023 was stellar for the Johnsons. They took the children on a road trip/field trip, along the way, seeing Mount Rushmore and singing songs in the car such as one’s they’ve all learned to love from Les Miserables and a Hamiltonesque one. Throughout the calendar, they typically plan to not take breaks that align with the calendar of the school district, instead choosing to dog-sit for their many friends and neighbors who are traveling with their children. Then they get the added advantage of less crowded travel at less traditional times.

They’re not alone, by Katie’s rough estimate, there are dozens of home-schooling families in Summit and Wasatch Counties. There’s not necessarily an official education-sharing program of, say, you do math on Mondays and we’ll do language arts on Tuesdays. It’s more so everybody kind of schools their way in their their space and then they get together for social activities.

Homeschoolers are more than welcome at all the usual suspect places where local children play sports, do art, perform music, go to day camp, etc., so much so that even the Park City High School Mountain Bike Team recently changed its nomenclature to the Park City Schools Mountain Bike Team. As such, Anna and Evie currently, seamlessly, play soccer in the Basin Rec. system, after years of dance classes with Mom, and they’re all avid skiers.

Grandma Susan is on board with home-schooling. The former concierge at the Mountainside Marriott especially likes how her grandchildren are far from sheltered, quite the contrary. Some homeschool situations are all about sheltering kids from the real world but her family simply sets out to be the first one’s to present to the kids the information that they see fit about the wide world around them and all it has to offer.

During the duration of the interview, Sam, Evie, and Anna proudly showed off their scooter skills, watered the plants with their Super Soakers, snuggled on laps, marveled at a big construction truck that drove by, laughed a lot, and created some family-themed art. 

Family-themed art. Photo: Michele Roepke // TownLift

Undaunted nowadays, Katie explains that, “Getting started is the hardest part.” Not logistically as much as confidence-wise. To mom-friends of hers who may be homeschool-curious but may not be sure if it’s the right fit, she says, “It’s basically just raising your kids, you teach them morals and you teach them manners and you teach them how to tie their shoes and unload the dishwasher, then as they grow and develop you learn the concepts to teach them the subject matter they need to learn.” She’s a realist too, admitting, “Everything has challenges. It wasn’t like, Oh, they’re magical readers and it’s been two days, and they can read novels, right? Nope, sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back, but we take it day by day and find the good moments, not unlike life.”

YouTube is another helpful resource, Katie said. For example, just the day before, they we were learning about the Ukrainian culture’s Easter egg melted wax process, and about the Korean War Memorials in Korea.

What does the future hold for the Johnson’s home-schooling? Katie has high hopes of staying the course until 12th grade graduation saying, “Part of it is, I don’t want them to like things simply because everybody at school likes them. I don’t want them to dress a certain way because everybody at school dresses a certain way. I want them to be who they want to be because that’s who they are made to be.”

“It’s working for us,” she adds. “Every now and then we ask our children, ‘Are you happy with home-school?’ There are pros and cons. If it’s ever not working, let’s talk together about other options.”

She ended by sharing one of their maxims, “We joke that, sleeping in, is a family value, and it’s only kind of a joke.”

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