Published September 01. 2014 4:00AM Updated September 01. 2014 11:32PM
New London — For 10-year-old Skye Harris, the school year is beginning gradually.
Last week, her older sister, Maia Edwards, returned to the New London Science and Technology Magnet School for a busy year of college-level classes, band practice, junior ROTC and hanging out with friends.
But Skye stayed home, reviewing what she had learned last year. On a recent afternoon, she turned the kitchen counter into a lab bench, setting up a graduated cylinder and a box of cornstarch next to a bowl of homemade cookies.
"She's what we define as a 'quirky kid,'" said her mother, Trish Harris, of Skye, who wants to become a Mythbuster or a demolitions expert and requested C4 explosives for her birthday. Harris pulled Skye out of public school in the middle of her third-grade year. The now fifth-grader is "a completely different child" from her older sister, she said.
"Maia is an absolute social butterfly. She excels in places where there are people and noise and movement and activity and just things happening everywhere, teachers talking, kids flipping pencils," said Harris.
But Skye struggles with some sensory issues that, when she was surrounded by a busy classroom with strangers and lots of rules, sometimes led to anxiety and fear. Kindergarten, first and second grade went smoothly at Harbor School, where the staff knew the Harris family and teachers developed creative ways to work with Skye's quirks.
But Harbor then closed, and Skye moved to Winthrop Elementary Magnet School - a larger, unfamiliar environment. Disruptions like fire drills or rearranged desks would throw Skye off for the entire day. Getting Skye out of bed and ready for school became a fight. Getting her to do her homework after a stressful day was a fight. Sometimes Skye would be so stressed she wouldn't have an appetite for dinner, and that would become a fight too.
"She was just absolutely miserable," said Harris. It was affecting Skye's scores, which were all over the place: average report cards, stellar standardized exams and no grade above a 60 on a weekly quiz.
Harris and her husband, Larry, had a meeting with the school about the grades, but no one could explain the discrepancies.
"And we decided, OK, you know what, we can do better ourselves," said Harris. After observing how Skye's stress vanished during a family trip to New Mexico, they ordered an accredited homeschool curriculum called K12 and pulled her out of Winthrop.
Harris had nothing but good things to say about the New London school system, which has worked very well for Maia. But, she said, "what works for some kids doesn't work for other kids."
Tuesday, as fifth-graders around the region pull on their backpacks and board school buses, Skye will play and race around the house until her mother gets up. Then they'll have breakfast and, around 8 or 9, school will start.
Skye will sit at a desk in a room with orange walls and a window overlooking a flourishing garden. She'll pull notecards out of the clay pot where her mom leaves her daily tasks, and tackle her schoolwork in whatever order works for her, as long as she gets it all done.
She won't be the only one staying home. There are many local homeschool families, several of which meet each Tuesday as part of the Christian homeschooling group CHOOSE CT.
CHOOSE meets at local parks, where kids play and socialize and parents - about 25 of them, said Harris - share the joys and frustrations of homeschooling.
The group is also an important part of the routine for Heather Medic, who homeschoolers her 8- and 5-year-old boys in Waterford. They met with CHOOSE and another local homeschooling group last week at Mohegan Park in Norwich, and "everyone (was) kind of humming because it's the first week of school," said Medic.
Medic said homeschool for her family - a curriculum with lots of field trips to do things like determining the sex of crabs, frequent trips to the library, a co-op to learn things like drama and creative writing, and a classroom set aside for school work - is different from what other families might experience.
The back-to-school routine will be different, too. Although some lessons, like guitar and typing and math, have continued at a relaxed pace over the summer, the start of the school year will bring a stricter schedule and extracurricular activities such as judo and soccer.
Although school for the Medic family officially begins on Sept. 8, "we kind of don't stop," said Medic.
She said the boys are actually looking forward to the beginning of school.
And for Skye?
She said Sunday she's just "happy that I have no homework."
"It's better than public schools. You do really well, mom," she said.