Against All Odds

November 18, 2013—Josh Powell (C’14) isn’t your average Georgetown College student. He didn’t go to high school. He didn’t participate in extracurricular activities. And by the time he was ready to matriculate to college, major pieces of information were missing from his education—where South Africa was, what was on the periodic table of elements, how to do a basic algebra problem.

Powell, now 22, was homeschooled in rural Virginia by his mother, a Pentecostal Christian who believed it was her calling from God to educate her 12 children. His parents chose the religious exemption that allowed his family to opt out of any standardized education or testing. There was virtually no oversight or monitoring of what Powell and his siblings were or weren’t learning.

As a result of his homeschooling, which mainly consisted of Bible study, he says, Powell didn’t take a standardized test until he was 17 years old. That was the GED, which he needed if he ever wanted to pursue further education.

After three years at a local community college, Powell enrolled in Georgetown. He had always been drawn to Washington, DC, and Georgetown provided the academic rigor he was desperate for. The sociology major is now focusing on homeschooling for his senior thesis and wants to go into education after he graduates.

Powell’s questions about his own education began early. When he was 14, he asked his parents if he could enroll in public school. They said no. At 16, Powell became more disillusioned with what he viewed as his shoddy education.

“I was always really curious about what I w as missing. There was this sense of deprivation,” he said.

The feeling of missing out was acute. By the time he was middle school age, Powell’s mother had reached her limit in terms of what she could teach her bright son. Plus, she had numerous children to worry about. So she would give Powell a book, tell him to read it and then report back to her about what was in it.

This was far from the intellectual stimulation he craved. So he took to the public library to learn things for himself. He taught himself how to code websites and how to do amateur radio. He also started taking GED classes.

Powell also took it upon himself to petition the local school board and superintendent to intervene on his behalf regarding his substandard education. “I told them I was being denied opportunities and that I wasn’t getting the education I needed. They said, ‘Listen to your parents, son,’” he said. “It was one of my biggest frustrations.”

With 14 mouths to feed, Powell’s father’s wages as a handyman didn’t go far. The family was certainly poor. Had he gone to public school, Powell says, he could have gotten free or reduced lunch and could have had other needs met there.

But at school, children could get exposed to evil things, Powell’s parents rationalized. Plus, it was their duty to educate their children. “Their logic is that children are a blessing from God, so why would you want to limit blessings?” Powell said. “They felt it was their calling.”

But that calling meant there was no emphasis placed on higher education or the pursuit of any sort of career. Powell’s mother had a college degree, but her father only earned a GED. Neither encouraged their son to seek deeper educational opportunities.

“We talked more about character development and faith. There was no talk of college,” Powell said.

When Powell enrolled in Piedmont Virginia Community College, there was no resistance from his parents. But there was also no encouragement. It was there, he says, that he finally began to learn. But it wasn’t easy.

During the three years he was at community college, Powell had to make up for lost time. He enrolled in developmental math courses and had to learn how to write basic papers. He had to undo the damage done by his years of homeschooling.

Today, Powell is an outspoken advocate against religious-exemption-based homeschooling. Because families who choose that path do so for religious reasons, they ostensibly have carte blanche to teach (or not teach) their children whatever they please. Powell sees this as problematic.

“There is no data about religious exemption. There’s no supervision and no one knows what’s going on,” he said. “It’s dangerous for children.”

Powell’s 10-year-old brother doesn’t know how to read, showing how homeschooling can educationally handicap some children. He’s worried for his brothers and sisters, the youngest of whom is three. But he doesn’t blame his parents. And he doesn’t think homeschooling across the board is all bad; he just wants the religious-exemption statute to be more scrutinized.

“The system that allows this to happen is the problem,” he said.

After he graduates from Georgetown in the spring, Powell says he hopes to work to promote education equity. While he was able to overcome years of educational neglect, not everyone has the wherewithal.

“I realize what it means to be denied education, and how much people stepping in can help,” he said.

—Lauren Ober