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Honors College Chronicles—The Story Behind the Story

Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship winner Elizabeth Paladin is, as the accompanying story notes, the fourth IUP student to receive the prestigious honor in the last five years. Paladin’s educational background, though, is different from the others.

When she came from the Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills to the Robert E. Cook Honors College more than two years ago, Paladin didn’t come from a conventional high school. She was, instead, a product of what might informally be called the School of Phyllis and Larry: Her entire K-12 education had been accomplished at home.

Elizabeth Paladin, left, with her parents, Phyllis and Larry

Elizabeth Paladin, left, with her parents, Phyllis and Larry

Phyllis and Larry Paladin, Elizabeth’s parents, homeschooled both their daughters for all of their K-12 years and both their sons for most of their elementary and secondary careers. (Their older son, Lawrence Paladin III, went on to enroll at IUP in 1996 as a member of the Robert E. Cook Honors College’s inaugural class. A classmate, Emily Duncan, later became his wife.)
In the late sixties, Phyllis Huber—her name then—and Larry Paladin met in Latin class at Trafford High School, not far from Pittsburgh. Phyllis was a year ahead of Larry, but even after she’d graduated and gone on to a major in Education of Exceptional Persons at IUP, she was Larry’s senior high prom date.

Larry, too, enrolled at IUP, where he majored in English and graduated with high honors in 1976—a year after Phyllis. In 1985, he received a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

Phyllis taught Special Education for a few years before she and Larry started having children—four within ten years. The first two—boys—went to a Christian school for a time, but eventually all four were learning at home.  

“We homeschooled for several reasons,” Larry said. “Teaching faith and morals was at the top of the list.”

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Phyllis said her background as a teacher, particularly a teacher accustomed to creating individualized curricula, meant she could respond precisely to her children’s “needs, their learning styles. I was able to find the best way for each of our children to learn. Homeschooling also provided flexibility for them to pursue special interests.”

Elizabeth, for example, was a musician who also loved science. Daniel loved to act in plays and did so in high school on a professional basis.

Phyllis said, “All four children have talents, skills, and abilities. When Beth was very young, we recognized that she loved learning.  She excelled in certain academic areas.”

By eighth grade, Elizabeth had completed algebra. She began playing the cello in fourth grade in the Penn Hills School District and later played in the middle school and high school orchestras. In her junior year, she auditioned for the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra, with which she performed two years.

Although Phyllis planned the children’s lessons, she and Larry were not their only teachers. The Paladins were part of an active homeschool co-op group, through which they bartered skills and orchestrated group activities. “The calculus teacher lived just up the street,” Phyllis said.

Larry is principal of a four-attorney general practice law firm in Penn Hills; his office is within walking distance of home. He was, he said, “able to be involved at different points during the children’s schooling.”

His English classes and those in constitutional law, U.S. government, and politics were often shared with other students in the homeschool co-op group. There were also Advanced Placement courses, which the Paladins made available “when we knew they would benefit others,” Larry said. “Thirteen was the most students I had,” he said, “but Phyllis had sixteen in a biology class that met in our home.”

The Paladins found a wide range of resources—from traditional to faith based. “The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system was a huge resource,” Phyllis said. “We also relied heavily on the Carnegie Science Center.”

“There are many, many homeschool groups in the eastern Pittsburgh suburbs, with easily two hundred homeschoolers,” she said. “Many meet around similar professions of faith.”

This spirit of cooperation is exemplified in a league of homeschool volleyball teams across the commonwealth. “Beth played volleyball from the ninth grade on,” Phyllis said. “It helped her develop relationships, as well as skills. She also played soccer when she was younger in a Penn Hills recreational league.”

Although, Larry noted, “some school districts are not so accommodating,” the Paladin children were welcomed in the Penn Hills School District’s extracurricular activities.

The Paladins limited each child to one sport at a time, and sports became a natural extension of academic pursuits. Phyllis’s professional experience with teaching children of varied skill sets within the same classroom helped her plan lessons for four children of different ages. “They could all be studying similar themes, but at different levels,” she said.

Far from enduring a claustrophobic existence, the Paladin siblings, Phyllis said, “frequently learned in settings outside the home.” In an article in PA Homeschoolers newsletter, she described how she, daughters Abigail and Elizabeth (then only nine), and a homeschool friend earned Presidential Fitness Endurance Walking awards. To meet requirements, each had to walk a minimum of 125 miles—in increments of no more than two-and-a-half hours a day.

“We saw some breathtaking beauty as we walked along routes and trails in our own neighborhood and in area state parks,” Phyllis wrote. “I’ll never forget coming upon three deer feeding early one morning as we arrived to walk in Penn Hills Park. We all have the satisfaction of knowing that we set out to accomplish a challenging task, and we did it.”

A flexible schedule meant visits to the Pittsburgh Zoo on weekdays and family vacations after Labor Day. Elizabeth’s stints with the phage hunter program (in which students help to identify viruses that infect bacteria) at the University of Pittsburgh could occur on a schedule difficult for a conventional high school student.

The Paladins’school year ran from July 1 to June 30, but the summer schedule was lighter. Phyllis carefully documented instructional hours in order to meet state requirements.

Today, no longer a homeschool teacher, Phyllis serves as a homeschool evaluator and a consultant for special-needs families. She also helps members of her extended family, works part time in Larry’s law office, and spends as much time as possible with the couple’s grandchildren, who were expected by October to total eight.

Homeschool graduates are no rarity in the Robert E. Cook Honors College: Elizabeth said several of her classmates are in that category. She believes, she said, that “homeschooling helps students excel in critical thinking, in writing, and in working in groups with other students.”

Elizabeth spent last summer in a research internship at Pittsburgh’s Hillman Cancer Center. Research may well be her career choice, but one wonders, far down the road, when she has established her career and family, will she homeschool her children?

“It’s definitely something I want to keep open as an option,” she said.