For Niskayuna families, home can be a great place to learn

Photo of the week: Janis Tan and her daughter, Lyra Lenigk, work on a nature journal about the dogwood tree. Photo by Rebecca IsenhartPhoto of the week: Janis Tan and her daughter, Lyra Lenigk, work on a nature journal about the dogwood tree. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart
Photo of the week: Janis Tan and her daughter, Lyra Lenigk, work on a nature journal about the dogwood tree. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Janis Tan and her daughter, Lyra Lenigk, work on a nature journal about the dogwood tree. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — At the beginning of each school year, Janis Tan offers her three daughters the option to enroll in public school. After quick consideration, their answer is always the same: No, thanks.

Tan’s daughters — Valerie, Sophia and Lyra Lenigk, ages 13, 11 and 5 — are home-schooled by their parents. Janis stays home and monitors the girls’ daily progress. Her husband, Ralf Lenigk, pitches in on subjects like chemistry experiments and foreign language instruction when he’s home from his job as a researcher at General Electric in Schenectady.

“One thing doesn’t always work for everybody,” Valerie said. For example, she likes to start her day by watching the news. After working on some core subjects like English and math, she switches her focus to online, college-level courses in paleontology, neurology and other subjects that interest her.

Sophia prefers to use her flexible time to learn about architecture. After her father installed a technical drawing program on the home computer a few years ago, she was hooked, and has been studying it ever since.

“I liked playing around with it, so I discovered I liked [architecture],” she said.

Her mom said that sort of discovery is at the heart of the family’s home-school philosophy.

“We’re trying to give them the time and space to tinker around,” Tan said.

Left to right: Janis Tan, Lyra Lenigk (front), Valerie Lenigk, and Sophia Lenigk pose next to some holiday decorations they made for their home. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Left to right: Janis Tan, Lyra Lenigk (front), Valerie Lenigk, and Sophia Lenigk pose next to some holiday decorations they made for their home. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

The three Lenigk sisters are nearly 10 percent of the registered home-schoolers in the district. Those 33 children are less than 1 percent of the district’s approximately 4,100 students, which is much less than the national average: Across the United States, about 3 percent of students are educated in the home.

Tan said part of the reason home-schooling is somewhat unusual in Niskayuna is likely because the school district is perceived as a high-quality place to learn. For that reason, her kids gave it a try when the family moved from Arizona to Niskayuna three years ago for Lenigk’s job at GE.

For about a year, the girls tried out public school.

Valerie was 10 years old at the time, and she said there were parts of the experience she enjoyed, but ultimately she missed the flexible learning style she grew up with.

“Of course, I can sit still,” she said, implying she’d really rather not.

“The lifestyle is different,” she added.

The family’s unlikely cultural background also makes home-schooling a good fit for the girls. Their mother grew up in Singapore, and their father in Germany; the two relocated to the United States about 14 years ago. Home schooling allows them to stay connected to their heritage.

Not long ago, Valerie and Sophia spent six weeks in Germany, shadowing cousins at their school. Next year, they’ll take a couple of weeks to visit China during the Chinese New Year in February.

“Usually, in [U.S. schools], they don’t take days off for the Chinese New Year,” Valerie said. “In China, they take 15 days off. It’s the biggest holiday of the year.”

The students take language lessons in both German and Chinese, too. Every day but Sunday, they’re expected to talk to one another in their mother’s native language, though they get a reprieve for math lessons, when they can speak English.

The family’s strengths in diversity turned out to be a bit of a weakness, at first, in United States history.

“When we approached the time we needed to learn American history, I was really stumped,” Tan said. “I was actually kind of nervous.”

They solved the problem by joining a group of Revolutionary War and French and Indian War re-enactors. As always, the girls were immersed in the subject — and they loved it.

“It really gives you more depth,” Valerie said. “It’s not just dates.”

They slept outside in tents, sewed their own clothes, prepared their own food, and Valerie even learned to brew the weak beer soldiers drank instead of water, which was often dangerously contaminated.

Naturally, as a young student, it’s fun and rewarding to travel, volunteer and focus on subjects that capture the most interest. But will the Lenigk sisters have any regrets when they grow old enough to get jobs, start apprenticeships, or attend college?

Sue Castillo’s kids would probably tell them not to worry about it.

Castillo and her husband, Jim, have five kids. The Niskayuna residents home-schooled each of them: Logan, age 3, and Sara, age 10, are still in the process. Amata, 23, Phillip, 21, and Tami, 19, have since graduated.

Sophia Lenigk shows off a robot she built with her dad, Ralf, and explains the ways she plans to program it. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Sophia Lenigk shows off a robot she built with her dad, Ralf, and explains the ways she plans to program it. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Castillo said her kids haven’t expressed any regret for the way they were educated. Amata graduated from Belhaven University in Mississippi last year, and Phillip studies at the Universal Technical Institute in North Carolina. Tami has two part-time jobs, including coaching a rowing team for home-schoolers, but is considering pursuing a college degree in sign language.

“The only thing I’ve heard from them is, from time to time, it’s just kind of awkward,” Castillo said. Especially her son, Phillip, who didn’t encounter many students who had been home-schooled when he went to college. But after a short time, people tend to forget all about their different educational backgrounds.

In fact, many people offer no resistance at all to the idea, including other parents she meets.

“People are like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool. I wish I could do that,’ ” Castillo said.

Similarly, Tan said she and her husband encourage their kids to be fearless about pursuing their interests — even after the traditional K-12 time frame ends.

“We are not actively pursuing the traditional life path or learning path,” Tan said. “You don’t have to do high school-college-job.

“We told them, ‘You don’t have to be afraid,’ ” she said.

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.