Garage science

Elementary-age students gather for art, science classes every week
Home school science teacher Amber Cunningham explains a project on the solar system to her son, Keelan, 9, and Aspen Olson, 7, during their class Wednesday.

A new subdivision in the Mendenhall Valley has become home to a classroom of sorts — for children who are home-schooled.


Last year, Amber Cunningham began teaching science classes aimed at home-schooled children at the elementary school level.

“I was doing it for my kids,” Cunningham explained. “And science is messy, and you get one thing out and you want just a whole bunch of people to do it at one time rather than just my kids.”

Coordinating with Cunningham, fellow home school parent Bobbi Epperly has started a weekly art class this year for some of the same kids who attend Cunningham’s class. Both classes are held in Cunningham’s garage on Easy Street.

“There’s people out there that don’t want to necessarily get acrylic paints out on their kitchen tables, and to be able to come here and let them essentially make a mess on our tables or in our classroom, and we clean it up … they don’t have to worry about it,” said Epperly, who owns arts supply store The Art Department ( “(The kids) just go home with their projects.”

On Monday, Epperly’s students used multimedia to create colorful seaside landscapes.

Two afternoons later, during science class, Cunningham’s students acted out scenes from a book about Neil Armstrong, learned about gravity and centrifugal force, and went outside, taking advantage of a rare sunny autumn day in Juneau, for an “experiment” modeling the solar system.

Watching her daughter Sashi participate outside, parent Mia League beamed.

“She loves the class,” League said. “It depends on the week, but mostly, she comes home and she’s excited about all the learning she’s done, and she will regurgitate everything, which means it’s sunk in, which is great. Recall is excellent.”

Cunningham and Epperly’s classes are done as home school cooperatives through Raven Correspondence School, said Raven advisory teacher Joy Shier.

“What (Cunningham) does is she submits an … outline for class, and then we look at it and try to build it,” Shier said.

Raven students, as well as students in HomeBRIDGE and Interior Distance Education of Alaska, are represented in the classes.

Bringing students who are educated at home, as opposed to in classrooms, together for a group class once or twice a week offers a benefit to them, Epperly and Cunningham suggested.

“This is their opportunity to socialize with their peers,” Epperly said.

Cunningham remarked, “People are looking for things to do outside of (home school) to get a little bit of socialization, but not the mass socialization.”

Having that exposure is “a whole lot of fun” for the students, said Shier.

“A lot of times, programs are really enhanced when you can get all the kids together,” Shier said.

Epperly said she has 17 students, while Cunningham’s class Wednesday started out with 12 students. One boy left early after appearing to disengage from the activities.

That happens, Epperly said.

“There are days in my class where there are kids that are just aren’t really in the mood of doing the project that we’re doing,” said Epperly. “And if they’re truly, truly heartfelt, don’t want to do it, they can do their own free thing … with the materials that they have at hand.”

Sashi League is in her second year of Cunningham’s class. Cunningham said that most students, like Sashi, have returned after being in her class last year.

“I’ve only had four kids not come back and they all went to … public school,” said Cunningham. “So that’s why they didn’t come back. And so I filled those spots.”

For one semester of weekly art classes, including materials, tuition is $325. Science class on Wednesdays is a bit cheaper at $225.

“It pays for our time and it pays for our materials,” Epperly explained. “Materials is the big one.”

Because Cunningham and Epperly do charge tuition that can be taken out of a home school family’s allotment, Shier said Raven has had to verify that they are qualified to teach their subjects and that their lesson plan complies with statewide standards.

“We have to go through a process to make sure that Bobbi is not just a mom that likes to do art, but she has qualifications to teach art,” said Shier. “And we have done that.”

Epperly said she is hoping to expand her offering of classes and move into her own dedicated space. Right now, her art materials are covered up by canvas and pushed to the sides of Cunningham’s garage when class is not being held.

“I would like to expand,” Epperly said. “I hope to have a different facility next year, and to actually break the kids down into age groups.”

Epperly added, “It’s a fun class, but having kindergarten through fourth (grade), it’s a big age range. … Their capabilities are totally different. And their attention spans — oh my goodness.”

Mia League’s oldest child is in eighth grade and is also a Raven student. While League said he is kept busy on the Raven Student Council, she wishes he could participate in a class like Sashi’s.

“I would like to have something like this for the older kids,” League said.

There are some activities, such as through the Raven Student Council for middle-schoolers and career exploration classes for high-schoolers, that give older students a chance to get together in group settings, Shier said. But, she acknowledged, “There isn’t as much.”

Parents are welcome to organize more events, groups and classes like Cunningham and Epperly have done, Shier added.

For Raven, Shier said, “We’re very, very grateful for both Bobbi and Amber Cunningham.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at


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