Collier County homeschool graduates celebrate milestone

One performed a lively Irish dance and another used a touching slide-show presentation.

The 10 homeschooled high school graduates each thanked their parents and their God in a uniquely personal way during a Christian Home Educators Association of Collier County commencement ceremony at Center Point Community Church on Monday evening.

Each of the graduates received three minutes on stage, and while most spoke of their experiences and successes as homeschoolers, Jessica Berman performed the Irish dance, which started slow then had an audience of about 250 clapping to a happy beat.

Stephanie Nicholas’s slideshow had a “Who am I” theme, with answers ranging from Christian to writer, babysitter, animal lover and friend. At the end, the answer was high school graduate.

But most of the graduates gave short speeches, thanking their parents in more traditional ways.

“I have to thank Mom and Dad,” said Stephanie Elwell. “To take the time they took — and the decision was hard at the time — I have been so blessed.”

The evening was as satisfying for the parents as it was for the happy graduates, said Susanne Hernandez. She taught her son, Jeremiah, during his final two years of high school.

“It is challenging but it’s satisfying because I think you bond with your child stronger,” she said. “At the same time, you know he’s getting a quality education.”

Jeremiah Hernandez said switching from Gulf Coast High School to homeschooling was a difficult transition, but he enjoyed the extra free time homeschooling afforded and is now ready to begin studies to become a fireman, possibly at Edison State College.

“I don’t know where I am going, but I have my mind set on being a fireman, definitely,” he said.

Homeschooling has become a much more common since the state Legislature established it as an option in 1985.

According to the Florida Department of Education, 56,650 school-age Floridians were homeschooled during the 2007-08 academic year. The same study estimated that 887 Collier children were homeschooled that year.

The commencement event was the 19th for the CHEACC, said the group’s co-president, Andy Cathey. The group helps parents and students organize events like the commencement and monthly meetings, along with planning field trips and curricula.

“We don’t teach,” said Cathey. “We’re a support group.”

Cathey said 135 families currently belong to the group.

In addition to 13 graduating seniors, the group provides support for 99 students from pre-school through 11th grade. They all received diplomas to mark their promotion to new grade levels Monday.

Graduating senior Adam Bueltel used his three minutes to give those younger students a message.

“Take a hold of these years, take a hold of these moments,” he said. “They’re going to directly lead to who you are going to be the rest of your lives.”

E-mail Pete Bishop at lpbishop@comcast.net.

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