Homeschooling in Alberta

with Julie Spackman

Julie's family photo

This is the main story of why we began homeschooling.

I will begin by telling you that even as I start typing these words, my stomach is in knots and my heart is pounding more than 7 years later, just thinking about all of this. It was a stressful and scary time, but not because of the actual homeschooling. The stress and scariness were thanks to the things that pushed us into homeschooling.

I will also say that in spite of the chaos and stress, the decision to homeschool was the best we've ever made as parents, and I'm actually grateful for the insanity that pushed us to it. As awful as it all was at the time.

When my girls were little, I was very involved as a mom. I like making things. And making things to help my babies learn was so fun! We did joyschool and playdates and all kinds of fun things together.

When they got old enough for kindergarten, I was excited to have time to do things on my own, but I also wanted to be actively involved in the school. I started out as a parent volunteer in my oldest daughter's classroom. But she had a really hard time saying goodbye to me whenever my volunteer shifts were over. By the time she was in first grade, it had gotten so bad with the tears that I told her if she kept crying when I was supposed to leave, that I wouldn't be able to volunteer in her classroom anymore. She thought about it and then came to me to say that she didn't think she could *not* cry when I left, so probably it would be better if I volunteered elsewhere. I was both heartbroken and so proud of her for being able to come to that conclusion and tell me about it.

It's important to note that in order to be a volunteer in the public schools in Calgary, parents are required to provide a police clearance and attend mandatory parent volunteer training.

After that conversation with my daughter, I switched to being a volunteer in the music and theater department for the school. I was in charge of keeping costumes and props (of which there were MANY) organized and clean. I also ended up being in charge of coordinating parent volunteers and overseeing rehearsals and stage management during production time. I ended up being the one who worked with the school's music teacher to revamp the school's song and recording the new accompaniment for it. I did all of the shopping anytime the costumes and props department needed something new. I was at every parent council meeting, and I was very involved at the school.

At the start of the next school year, our older two girls were in grade 2 and kindergarten. The school they attended had a new principal, and all of the parents of kindergarten students were invited to a small gathering to meet the principal. I had an idea for fundraising related to the music and theater department, and so asked the new principal if I might meet with her after that gathering. She said certainly and led me to her office and shut the door. I laughed, because she seemed to take my request for a meeting very seriously and I hadn't intended for it to be such a serious event, and I told her so. Her response to this day still feels strange to me. She said, "It's fine. You're not very intimidating." I brushed it off and we discussed my idea and moved on.

A little further into the new school year, our oldest started losing some of her spunk. She would leave each morning excited for life in grade 2, and then come home sad and deflated. Concerned, we asked her what was wrong, and she had stories of being bullied, both on the bus and in her classroom. We stopped using the school bus and instead drove both ways to school. I suggested setting up a meeting with her teacher and the parents of the bullies, but she was quick to say she didn't want that. I understood that she anticipated a meeting just making things worse. After some thought, I asked if she'd like me to volunteer in her classroom again, so that at least I'd be on hand if she needed me? She was quick to agree that yes, that was a good idea.

At this point in my life, two things happened simultaneously. The first was that I sent a note to my daughter's teacher letting her know that I'd like to volunteer in the classroom. I immediately received a response back saying that classroom volunteers were not currently needed, and that if that situation changed, I would be notified by the classroom volunteer coordinator.

The second thing that happened was that I became aware of the new Guidelines for Alberta Education. A lot of it was largely about creating "safe and inclusive" spaces for LGBTQ+ students and staff in the schools, allowing the creation of student clubs of Gay-Straight-Alliances, and adjusting bathroom and pronoun usage. But the more I dug into it, the more concerned I became and the more questions I had. There was a lot of mention in the guidelines about parents specifically being kept in the dark around what was going on with their children. With so much grey area, I wanted to know exactly how these "guidelines" were going to be implemented in my daughters' elementary school. I made so many phone calls. In looking back, it feels like I spent weeks on the phone trying to get straight answers. But literally every single person with the CBE who answered the phone to my question about the guidelines responded with, "What guidelines?" When I called the school, they told me to call the district. When I spoke to anybody at the district, they either told me to speak to my school's principal, or would tell me to call somebody else. That someone else would inevitably either ask me to call somebody else again, or they wouldn't even be employed by the CBE. Several weeks of a wild goose chase. I also realized that none of the other parents that I spoke with had any idea that the guidelines were in existence. At some point, I determined that it would be nice if there could be some kind of meeting that parents could attend to receive information about what was going on. This became the goal of my phone calls to the school district, to try to set something up. My wild goose chase of phone calls finally ended when I called the sister-in-law of a sister-in-law of my good friend. This trustee, the SiL of the SiL of the friend, was a member of my faith, and I was hopeful that perhaps she would lend a sympathetic ear and give me straight answers. She did in a way. Her answer was that nobody cared what parents had to say, nobody cared what parents thought about the guidelines or whether or not they were informed, and that I needed to stop wasting everybody's time.

The other thing I was working on at the same time was trying to get information from my own school through the parent board. Keep in mind that I was an active parent participant in the school, and I attended every meeting and was very involved. I knew the other parents on the board. Not well, but we certainly weren't strangers! The principal emailed me the same links I'd already found on the CBE website in response to my email, and on the phone, encouraged me to call my trustee. I was told to contact the parent member who oversaw the agenda to ask her to put "the guidelines" on there for discussion at the next meeting. I did this. I also let the president of the board know that this item was on the agenda. My hope was that somebody would let us parents know what was going on.

During all of this madness, I received that note back from my daughter's grade 2 teacher about not needing volunteers in the classroom. I felt pretty upset by this, because every day, our daughter was seeming to fade more and more after school. I was gearing up to let the teacher know that I'd be coming and just hanging out in the classroom, wanted or not, when the next parent council meeting happened.

When I got to the meeting, I noticed two things. First, the woman over the agendas had a friend who I'd never seen before. She had very short hair and seemed hostile toward me, even though I didn't know who she was. The second thing I noticed was that discussing/presenting the guidelines was not on the agenda at all. I immediately felt my stomach go in knots. When I asked about the omission, I was told that I was welcome to talk about the guidelines after the last agenda item. This was NOT what I wanted! I didn't want to be the one to present about this! I wanted somebody else, somebody who knew what was going on, to present about the guidelines. I felt blindsided.

Unfortunately, I'm not one to back down from a challenge. And it seemed that the only way I was going to get any answers was to begin the discussion. So while the meeting began, I started attempting to gather my thoughts. My understanding was that I needed to present what the guidelines were for parents who might not have heard about them. I saw this as an opportunity to present my concerns, and then ask questions and hope for answers. I also knew that this was a very volatile topic, and that I needed to tread carefully and be professional. My goal was to be unemotional in my speech and manner. I decided to explain briefly what the guidelines were about and then share my top 3 concerns.

As the meeting went on, the principal was very excited to share with us some good news. She was very proud to announce that she had single-handedly arranged an assembly at the local middle school for the grade 9 class. At this assembly, she had explained to the students how desperately the elementary school needed "Reader Leaders", because the students were struggling so greatly to learn how to read. Her proposition to the grade 9 students was that they give up their Fridays of learning each week to come and help out in the elementary school. And her assembly was so successful that, lo and behold, every single grade 9 student volunteered to participate. Every single one. The principal was SO proud to tell us this fabulous news, and to also inform us that the program had already begun a few weeks before, and that it was going very well.

I felt very surprised by this. As a parent volunteer, I had been turned away. Where was the desperation that the school was feeling, that it required an entire class of grade 9s to miss an entire day of school every week?

When we got to the end of the agenda items, it was my turn. I remember that I had three points of concern, because three seemed like a good number for a presentation, but I don't recall what my 2nd and 3rd points were going to be, because I was never given a chance to share them. I remember how nervous I was. I remember how hard I worked to be impassive, to be professional, but that the entire time that I spoke, the woman in charge of the agenda and her short-haired friend spoke over me and called me names. They called me "bigot" and "ignorant" and all sorts of things, and nobody asked them to stop.

I only got to share my first point. My first point was that I was concerned that in the areas of students being allowed to change their name or their gender, even on local school records, that parents were excluded from the conversation, intentionally not informed, and even painted as villains in the wording. That I felt this was wrong, because even though there are some parents who make mistakes and poor choices, that for the most part, parents in Alberta love their children and are doing their best.

The entire time that I spoke, I was being called names. After I finished making my first point, the principal stopped me. I remember her words very clearly. She said: "Julie, I admire your optimism, but in my thirty-plus years of education, I know you're wrong. I know that parents in Alberta do NOT love their children."

Then, the principal turned to the woman taking the minutes and said that if anybody was interested in the guidelines, they could go to the CBE website for more information. And so I tried to speak up, since we were adding websites, to ask that she include the website for Parents for Choice in Education, or And the principal cut me off and said that if anybody was actually interested in what Julie had to say, they could email her. And she ended the meeting, and that was that. Nobody else spoke up.

After the meeting, I felt pretty shocked. School was almost over, so I sat on a bench in the hallway to wait for the bell and take my kids home. Another mom came over and sat by me and said she also was concerned about the new guidelines. She told me that her son in middle school was feeling all kinds of stress because his biology teacher had taught the class that gender is a social construct and doesn't actually exist scientifically. She apologized for not speaking up and admitted that the feeling in the room was too scary to speak up.

After the meeting, I emailed the principal to ask:

As naïve as I was at the time, I wasn't so naïve as to think that all grade 9 students were wonderful people to be trusted in an elementary school. And with the new guidelines stating that students (and staff) could self-identify and use whichever bathroom felt right for the day, that meant that teenage boys could be allowed to be in the bathroom at the same time as my kindergarten little girl. I didn't feel good about that.

In reading back my emails with the principal, I'm struck by how friendly I am in my emails. As assertive as I wanted to be, I think I was very aware that this was the same woman who had allowed me to be called terrible things in her meeting, who interrupted and belittled me, and who clearly felt she was more important than a parent. My communication was positive and full of smilies.

This was her response to my questions:

I know that response sounds kind and professional. But the thing that stood out to me is that the grade 9 students would be using the same washrooms as the elementary students. And that, of course CBE students would not be required to have the same volunteer clearances as parents of the elementary students would have. I recognize that many in the world will think me silly, or even paranoid, but my gut feeling was that this was not a good thing for my babies.

That meeting was on a Wednesday morning. Thursday we sent our girls to school, but I felt completely sick about it. If the principal of that school was comfortable telling me, to my face and in front of other parents, that "parents in Alberta do not love their children", then what were they comfortable teaching my children when I wasn't even there? My husband and I discussed options. We prayed a lot. We began researching our options to homeschool.

Friday morning we kept the girls home from school. We baked cookies and talked about how 3 rows times 4 cookies equals a dozen cookies. We discussed what to name our new school and painted a poster together to be our new "school sign". We found a homeschool board that would take us on mid-year so that we wouldn't be guilty of truancy.

We didn't send the girls back to school to say goodbye. I did take their library books and the supplies that belonged to the school back to the office to return them. The principal was busy in her office when I arrived, and called me when I was on my way home. She suggested that I let the girls come back to school to say goodbye, and I immediately imagined her parading my girls in front of their classmates and listing all of the things they would be missing out on going forward, and making them cry. I declined. I believe I was polite when I declined, and the fact that my emails to her were filled with smilie faces seems to back that up. But when I said we would keep the girls home going forward, she accused me of having anger issues and suggested that I go for anger management classes. I thanked her for the suggestion and ended the call.

A few weeks later, after we had acquired desks and curriculum and I was in the middle of helping the girls with their math, I received another phone call from the principal. After answering, I had the phone held on my shoulder and I whispered a hint about math to one of my girls, and the principal asked what I had said, probably assuming it was directed at her and that she had missed it. I apologized and explained that I had been helping one of my girls with her math. This caused the principal to sputter and stumble in her speech for a moment, and I realized she was surprised that I was actively homeschooling my girls. She talked about truancy and how I was breaking the law by not sending them to school. I replied that I had already registered them with a recognized homeschool board, and that if she had checked, she would have known already that the school had received our paperwork and that everything was already arranged properly. I believe the phone call ended after that, and I don't know if there was another point to her phone call.

After that, I stopped answering calls from the principal, feeling that her goal was only to harrass me. When I let her know that email was the best way to contact me, I stopped hearing from her.

So. That's the story of what pushed us into homeschooling. I hope you can understand why, even almost a decade after all of that, I still shake when I tell that story. Maybe it'll be easier now that it's written and I can just share this link with people. But I also hope you hear me loud and clear when I say, emphatically, that if you are able to homeschool, I sincerely hope you will.

Because, even though this is the story of why we BEGAN homeschooling, we have discovered even more reasons that motivate us to KEEP homeschooling. Family bonding, academic achievement, development of talents, more family-oriented lifestyle, more individual learning, even interest-driven learning... the list is long. The investment of time and energy in your children is absolutely the best investment, in my opinion, that a parent can make. I think of the trajectory my children were on as traditional brick-and-mortar school students, and the path that they are on now, and it is night and day. I am so proud of them and of what they are becoming.