Wedged between music stands and backpacks, two dozen students ages 12-18 are practicing for an upcoming radio gig. After the God's Glory chamber ensemble plays a spirited Mozart divertimento, music director Terri Blackwell reminds them to "switch moods" before beginning Gabriel Faure's "Pavane": "Think of the melodic rise and fall we talked about earlier."
The musicians respond, playing with an expressive maturity beyond their age. Next, cellist Amie Blackwell, 15, takes her place at the piano, leading the chamber ensemble in "Distant Memories," a piece Amie wrote and orchestrated herself. When rehearsal is over, some members of God's Glory play volleyball in the gym while others skateboard in the parking lot.
Which school is responsible for the success of the ensemble? None. God's Glory is the pinnacle musical ensemble of the Providence Fine Arts Center, a St. Louis-area cooperative for homeschooling families dedicated to teaching the arts from a Christian worldview.
Providence started 10 years ago when Ms. Blackwell and a couple of other homeschooling moms, fighting the stereotype that homeschool students are isolated, developed a way for their children to practice playing their instruments with other kids. Mothers with backgrounds ranging from home economics to microbiology pooled their talents and volunteered their time to keep costs low.
Providence, still run by mother-teachers, has since grown to 180 students with a three-year waiting list, offering classes for instrumental music, choir, and drama to homeschoolers as young as 4 years old. Its mission: "To provide a fine arts program that will train up children to be excellent in the arts for the purpose of giving glory to God."
Little ones start the program learning the basics of music theory and rhythm from teacher Pam Zigo, who strives "to make their first taste of music fun" with games, simple instruments, and "lots of moving around." Following a classical approach, students learn the foundations of music before learning to play a particular instrument. When they turn 8, students attend a recorder class to put their theory into practice and learn to play as a group. After this, they are ready to pick an instrument and play in an orchestra. The rigorous curriculum builds on itself, rounding out the orchestra experience with music history and improvisational piano.
The program's focus on music theory and classical repertoire encourages students to enjoy more diverse musical styles than the average American Idol fan. "I don't like simplistic music," says Megan Sivcovich, 16. "It's boring." Eric Barfield, 18, agrees: "The theory that I've learned has helped me think that rock songs are so easy." But not everyone is a pure classicist. "I don't really listen to this kind of music, but it's cool because it widens my horizon," says 17-year-old guitarist Jordan Lake, who applies his music theory when he writes music for his own band, No Such Monster.
Presenting the arts from a Christian worldview can be a challenge since much of the current art scene is plagued with nihilism and marked with un-Christian elements, but Providence instructors teach discernment in the arts so that students might be "pure, not naïve." Drama director Karen Carvalho notes that many scripts are distasteful, containing foul language and content inappropriate for both the actors and the audience.
The Providence solution? Select students become drama interns, writing, producing, and directing their own plays. Besides learning how to create original works from a Christian perspective, young playwrights gain firsthand experience leading other students of varying ages. Teachers also pick their plays carefully, choosing the classic The Fiddler on the Roof for last year's culminating project. The musical was so successful that one audience member "forgot (she) was watching kids."
Homeschooling mother and Providence teacher Rhonda Barfield encourages other families to start fine arts co-ops with this advice: Recognize the talent within your circle. While some parents are gifted in music and drama, those with strong organization skills or business savvy are just as valuable. Work with a leadership committee and encourage every parent to be involved at some level.
Ms. Blackwell underscores the importance of Christian worldview: "We've put God first. We decided in the beginning that we were going to serve Him, to pray about everything, and to search His will for what we do."
Both Owen Davis and his daughter Aliyah, 16, have long, dark hair. She favors ripped jeans and big black T-shirts. His jeans have no holes, but he wears a black leather jacket. She's learning to play the electric guitar with plans to lead a band of homeschoolers in head-banging tunes. When he's not keeping time for their church's worship team, goateed Mr. Davis bangs out the back beat in a rock band whose repertoire includes Pink Floyd.
The duo recently took a road trip from Indiana to Milwaukee to see Aliyah's favorite band, Evanescence, perform at a rave. They stood in line for five hours to ensure a place in the front row. While Aliyah rocked away, Mr. Davis grasped the front rail with both hands and girded his 6-foot-3-inch frame around her, protecting her from the crush.
If either of the two was a teenaged dork, it is the public-schooled dad. "I was a social hermit-a marching band geek," said Mr. Davis who, unlike his daughter, didn't come to a saving faith in Christ until college.
Believing that it was "what God wanted us to do," Mr. Davis, a college math instructor, and his wife Dana, a former punk-rocking pastry chef who now works at a Christian bookstore, have homeschooled their children for 12 years. That put them at the forward edge of a movement that encompasses about 2 million children-a six-fold increase since 1994 and growing 15 percent annually.
Often stereotyped as a movement of conservative Christians at the fringe of society, homeschooling is now receiving what amounts to high praise in secular media. Time recently said homeschooling is "diverse" and "gets results." A University of Maryland study, among others, found homeschoolers scored 25 percentiles higher than public-school students on standardized tests and 80 points higher on the SAT.
Aliyah and her brother Noah, 17, increasingly pursue independent study while their younger brother Simeon, 8, benefits from more one-on-one attention with Dana. The children belong to two co-ops that allow them to study a variety of subjects with other children whose parents have expertise in different fields. Mr. Davis, who taught in a public high school for several years, said in comparison public schools are like "factories."
Homeschooling still faces accusations that it deprives children of socialization, but most families are diligent about making sure their children are engaged in a range of activities with other children. Like other homeschoolers, the Davis children play on homeschool sports teams. Aliyah takes music lessons and participated in a city-wide youth chorus. She and Noah are taking classes at the local community college to prepare them to enter Purdue University next fall.
Despite the concern over socialization, studies show that homeschoolers have equal or better social skills than public-schooled peers. A University of Florida researcher found that homeschoolers are more patient, less competitive, less likely to fight, and more likely to introduce themselves to new people and exchange addresses and phone numbers.
During her middle-school years, Aliyah expressed interest in going to public school because she was feeling left out and wanted to be part of a "cool crowd." That's changed since seeing how "mean" high-schoolers can be to each other. "I'd be a little less accepting of people," she said, "and I don't know if people would accept me."
Mrs. Davis is aware of the "uncool" public image some homeschoolers developed by being set apart, but she said it frees children like hers from peer pressure. "They are very much individuals," she said. "If you are an individual in high school, it's looked down upon." As homeschoolers "they can be what they want to be and do what they do best."
The Davises also teach something they say their children would never get in public school-a worldview from a Christian perspective. "They've learned how to look at things critically," Mrs. Davis said.