Suppose you are systems engineer at NASA. Successfully getting to this point, you meet and marry a wonderful man and eventually have two more children (after escaping a previous marriage plagued with domestic abuse). You continue in your career while you and your spouse raise your children. The older children have already started school. However, suppose one of your children isn’t getting what he should from his education. You switch from public school to a Christian school, but it makes no difference. What do you do then?
When Helen Jackson was faced with this problem, she prayed about it and was led to quit her job at NASA and homeschool her children full time. While she “put her career on hold” to educate her children, she didn’t end it altogether. As the children got older, she started doing some part-time programming work and other forms of work like consulting. From there she phased back into engineering work. Once all the children had completed high school, eventually, after a few twists and turns, she got her Ph.D. from the Air Force Institute of Technology.
Nowadays, she is a research physicist for Battelle, a science and technology research company. She is currently developing software that can interpret X-ray images to look for objects that might represent a security threat. This line of research is possible because of the work of her late husband, who co-invented the X-ray spectrometer, which is a cornerstone in so much of imaging technology.
I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Jackson a few days ago, because she will be speaking at the Midwest Homeschool Convention and the California Homeschool Convention this year. I found her warm, engaging, exceedingly intelligent, and most importantly, profoundly wise. I learned a lot from the interview, and if you are able to attend, I strongly encourage you to go to one of the conventions and listen to her talks.
Dr. Jackson’s homeschooling story starts out with sacrifice. When she made the decision to homeschool her children, she had an excellent position at NASA. As an African-American woman, she was someone who the organization highlighted. People would come and take pictures of her, and at the time, she just thought it was part of the job. In reality, it was part of an effort by NASA (who was proud of having diversity in their scientific/ technical staff) to highlight that when you are talented, you can become an important part of the organization, regardless of race or gender.
She obviously had a bright future at NASA, but she put it all aside because her children needed something different from traditional schools. At the time, the older of her two sons was in sixth grade but scoring at the third-grade level on standardized tests. Her daughter (who was in seventh grade) was developing a bad attitude that was being reinforced by her peers in school. When she decided that the best option was to homeschool all her children, many of her colleagues in her circle, as well as family members, said it was a dumb thing to do.
I would have to agree that from a career standpoint alone, it was a dumb thing to do. Dr. Jackson was obviously a “rising star” at NASA. She probably could have moved quickly through the ranks and made a name for herself there. In addition to overcoming so many hurdles in her personal life, think about all the time and effort she spent in education and training! I asked her if she had thought that she might be wasting all her training and talent by staying home full time and educating her children. She said:
It never even crossed my mind.
Of course it didn’t. Dr. Jackson is a mother, and a mother puts the needs of her children above her own. Not surprisingly, her children’s academic improvement was swift when they started homeschooling. Why? As Dr. Jackson told me:
Homeschooling is a tutorial, which is the best form of education.
Today, her children are grown and quite successful. The son that was once underperforming three grade levels below his age now has an advanced technical degree. Her oldest child is a professor of epidemiology with over 30 publications. She has 3 masters degrees and a PhD. Her youngest daughter has a VP role in a nonprofit, with a specialized MBA. Her others sons: (1) owns a construction company which he started after graduating in chemical engineering, and (2) the youngest is a combat veteran Marine and a financial analyst consultant, with a masters degree in economics.
Of course, Dr. Jackson and her children had a lot of interesting experiences between the time they started homeschooling and the time the children went on to pursue their adult lives. They started homeschooling in Texas, when it technically wasn’t legal for them to homeschool. In the end, however, Dr. Jackson was a witness in Leeper vs. Arlington, the Texas court case that led to the legalization of homeschooling in that state. She said that the opponents of homeschooling were trying to characterize homeschooling parents as backwards and uneducated. As an expert witness, she helped to convince the court that this just wasn’t true. She also highlighted her children’s academic progress in homeschooling.
When the family moved to Pennsylvania, they found that it was hostile to homeschooling as well. At one point, the state even issued a warrant to have her children taken into custody because of “neglect,” which was a common charge levied against homeschoolers, because their children were not enrolled in a traditional school. She ended up testifying before the Pennsylvania House Subcommittee on Education, on behalf of a court case regarding the legality of homeschooling.
In other words, Dr. Jackson is a homeschooling pioneer. She not only started doing it before it was legal, but she helped to make it legal in at least two states. In the process, she and her family lost homes and livelihoods in two states, not something easy to recover from. It’s not surprising, then, that one of the messages she wants to share at the homeschool conventions is:
Don’t forget that someone had to make it legal for you.
Homeschooling is so common these days that it’s easy to forget this important point. It’s also easy to ignore the corollary: That it could become illegal at some point in the future, if homeschoolers do not remain vigilant.
There is so much that I could write about Dr. Jackson, but this article is already getting too long. I encourage you to hear the rest from Dr. Jackson herself. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed.