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For one Olympia family going back to school means rolling up the garage door

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Six-year-old Aaron Swanson looks up from his desk in the classroom his parents fashioned out of their garage in rural north Olympia.

It was common through the 1800s for American school children to attend a one-room schoolhouse. In 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Swanson family in rural north Olympia will attend a one-garage schoolhouse.

On a recent morning, Molly Swanson rolled up her garage door and welcomed a visitor into the classroom she and her husband created this summer as a place to educate four of their six children, plus two foster children.

“I call ourselves the Swallowtail Academy of Brilliant Boys,” Swanson said.

Yes, they’re all boys in grades ranging from first to eighth.

Swanson also has a preschooler and a 16-year-old who’s doing the Running Start program this fall through the local community college.

Not so long ago, Swanson’s garage looked like many garages.

“It was just a hot mess of junk,” she said.

But now it’s been transformed into an Instagram-ready classroom. There are Ikea desks and bookshelves, cozy rugs and curtains. Swanson and her husband Matt decided to convert their garage into a classroom after coming to a realization: remote learning through their local school district simply wasn’t going to work for their family.

Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Molly Swanson helps one of her children with school work in the garage she and her husband transformed into a home classroom.

“We’re one family, but our family highlights a lot of the problems that other people have,” Swanson explained.

For starters, the size of their family makes things complicated. Last spring, when school moved online, Swanson calculated that between all of her kids they had 32 Zoom meetings a week. It was overwhelming to keep track of and it revealed another problem many families face – unreliable internet service.

“There just wasn’t a way for us all to be [on] the internet at the same time,” said Swanson.

There were other issues too. For instance, one of their foster kids has an eye condition that makes it hard to use a computer screen. He was wracked with headaches after a day on the computer.

As the issues piled up, and with the start of a new school year looming, the Swansons made a decision. Instead of doing remote learning, they would homeschool their own kids -- something they’ve done before -- and enroll their foster children in a school-district supported home-schooling program.

“The more we thought about it, the more we understand that for the kids’ education this is what we got to do,” said Matt Swanson, who calls himself the principal of Swallowtail Academy.

But the Swansons are also quick to acknowledge they have advantages that other families don’t. First, they had the extra space to create a classroom. Also, both parents work from home and Molly is able take paid leave from her job for the next 12 weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act. After that, she plans to hand off the teaching to their child care provider who has an education background.

“Not everybody has that,” Swanson readily admits.

Olympia public schools start on September 7, but Swallowtail Academy opened a week early so Swanson could work out the kinks.

“We learned that we need snacks in the morning, because everyone was starving by lunchtime,” Swanson said.

A few Ikea shelves and desks, rugs and a temporary plywood wall is what it took for the Swanson family to turn their garage into a classroom for four of their six children, plus two foster children.

On a recent morning, Swanson moved about the garage classroom helping the younger kids with math and their letters. In the back, the middle schoolers worked mostly independently. Sam, one of Swanson’s foster kids, said so far he’s liking this better than regular school.

“It’s just easier to get our work done because there’s more distractions in public school and there’s less here,” he said.

Across the divider Caleb, an eighth grader, agreed. But he also said he’d like to be back in school.

“If there wasn’t this virus thing, I would probably go back just because friends and stuff like that,” he said.

Swanson doesn’t know how long she’ll be running Swallowtail Academy out of her garage. But she acknowledges this will test her patience and fortitude – it already has.

“You know, I’m a pretty good parent until 2 p.m. and at 2 p.m. it’s like I run out of my emotional reserves and I become irritable,” Swanson said.

That’s the point at which she ends the school day and tells the kids to go play outside.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."