Pointing the Way Home

Published author and educator Jessica Hembree never intended to homeschool her children. However, a first-grade bully and a ‘Field of Dreams’ moment launched the mother of three into her role as one of the state’s leading home education experts.

by Kari Apted

Jessica Hembree, for a homeschooling parent, spends a lot of time away from her house. In any given week, she can be found teaching at Summit Academy in Conyers or serving as an ambassador for the nation’s largest homeschool advocacy organization: the Home School Legal Defense Association. Her family faithfully attends church every Wednesday and Sunday. However, being home does not mean rest for this busy mother of three. She is either teaching students at her in-home Eagle Academy, making quilts or embroidery for her home-based business or educating her two youngest children.

The word “home” means a lot to Hembree. 

“Growing up, we moved around a lot,” she said. “My father had several issues that made it hard to keep a job. He was an alcoholic, and mental illness was involved. There were a lot of low-income situations. My sister Jennifer and I joked that if we weren’t visiting my father in jail, he was just drunk at home.”

(L TO R) Kaylie Lachance, Beau Stephens, Tessa Hall, Jessica Hembree, Hailey Nixon and Caleb Hembree 

Hembree admits it was difficult to watch her mother, Lori, pick up the slack while dealing with domestic abuse. It led Lori to begin drinking herself. 

“So then we had two alcoholic parents at home,” Hembree said, “but when I was 11, Mom finally got the courage to walk out.” 

While her father was at work, they loaded a U-Haul and drove from Kansas to Montana, Lori’s home state. After spending two months in a shelter, Lori managed to find housing. She worked three jobs while attending college to improve her daughters’ lives. She also worked hard to overcome her drinking problem. 

“We must’ve tried six, seven, eight options before we found our groove. What worked for one child didn’t work for the other.”

Jessica Hembree

“It was a struggle,” Hembree said. “We were always just getting by, but my mom is an amazingly strong woman and a definite inspiration to me. One of the coolest things is that my mom graduated college the same year I graduated from high school.” Hembree also credits her mom for her wide range of life skills. “She’s why I know how to sew, how to can, how to change a tire, all of those things.”

While attending college in Montana, Hembree met her future husband, Bryan, an airman at nearby Malmstrom Air Force Base. They wed and soon learned they were expecting their first child. Hembree had to withdraw from college due to severe morning sickness. When their daughter, Ayla, was 9 months old, Bryan received a job offer from his family in Covington, and they decided to move to Georgia.

“At that point, I’d been in Montana for eight years—the longest I’d ever lived in one place,” Hembree said. “We rented a pull-behind U-Haul, filled it with clothes and the baby’s stuff and moved 2,000 miles. We only took two pieces of furniture that my grandfather had made.” 

The family settled in and Hembree began working online on her education degree. Ayla was an avid learner, and the Hembrees were soon expecting another child, Zachary. While discussing preschool options, the topic of homeschooling arose. “I was a public-school kid,” Hembree said. “Bryan went to private and Christian schools. He knew about homeschooling, but I didn’t.” After obtaining her degree, Hembree planned to teach pre-K or kindergarten in the public school system. However, when Ayla began attending public school, the situation changed.

“She had problems with a bully, and it made things miserable for her. The first year with the bully wasn’t good, but her teacher helped her work through it. In the second year, the bully was in her class. Ayla actually became physically ill in the mornings,” Hembree said. That was when something clicked.

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“I realized I have a degree that says I’m qualified to teach other people’s kids. Why don’t I just teach my own?” By then, Hembree’s third child, Caleb, had been born, and they decided to give homeschooling a try. “I was so nervous,” Hembree said. “I couldn’t find people to talk to and wasn’t sure what I was doing, so I signed the kids up for Connections Academy—an online public school—and spent that year doing research. I looked into every homeschooling method, curriculum, co-op, everything.”

Ayla and Zachary spent two years learning at home with Connections Academy. By then, Hembree had met some homeschooling friends and felt more confident. She felt ready to try teaching them on her own, but new challenges ensued.

“We must’ve tried six, seven, eight options before we found our groove,” Hembree said. “What worked for one child didn’t work for the other. The third year was the point that I wanted to connect with more homeschoolers, but we weren’t really looking for classes. We just wanted other families to do fun activities with.”

Hembree revealed she had a “Field of Dreams” moment: If no one offered what she was looking for, she would have to make it herself. In November 2015, she created the Newton County Homeschool Co-op group on Facebook. They started with just five families, scheduling field trips and park outings. By the end of that year, the group had grown to 100 families. 

“Now, nine years later, we have almost 1,400 families,” Hembree said. The group even hosts a summer back-to-school expo and a high school graduation ceremony each spring. “It’s crazy to see how far we’ve come. I couldn’t take five families and turn it into 1,400, but God can.” 

When an affordable co-op her children attended decided to close, Hembree, who had been teaching there, opened her little house so the dozen or so students could complete the semester.

“The parents started asking what we were teaching next year and knew how much I loved their kids and teaching,” she said, “so we did it—a whole school year at my house. Later, we moved to a bigger house, where we could teach in different rooms simultaneously, and that’s when we officially made it Eagle Academy. Now I have three instructors teaching twice a week at my house.” 

Schoolhouse Teachers is an online curriculum of which Hembree has grown fond. She serves in their ambassador program, and they recently published her forensic science curriculum. 

“I shared that I had started college pursuing a degree in forensics with a minor in psychology and had already been teaching forensics for four years,” Hembree said. “They gave me six months to completely develop the text, worksheets, quizzes, labs and tests. By the grace of God, I managed to pull it all together.”

After learning that the HSLDA was looking for people in each state to talk to new families face-to-face about homeschooling, Hembree applied. 

“I was actually already doing that,” she said. “For years, I’d been mentoring new homeschooling families. Everyone wants to know, ‘How do I do it?’” Hembree first suggests parents learn the state’s requirements for homeschooling. Next, they must get to know their children’s learning styles. “There are thousands of options for curriculum, and a book learner won’t do well online,” she said. “A child who does well in the classroom may need co-op classes.” Hembree also asks families to remain adaptable. “If you’re looking for education alternatives, there are many options,” she said. “You can always find someone willing to sit down and talk with you to help you find your way. Some of us are trying our best to make sure that finding these people is easier than when we first started.” 

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted. 

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