Parents will go to great lengths to do what’s best for their children. Driving hours for soccer tournaments? Sure. Working hard to put food on the table and the lights on? Absolutely.
Taking over the role as your child’s sole educator? A bit more questionable.
Twenty-eight years ago, Brad and Nancy Bjorkman of Elk River faced this exact decision with their first child. When Nancy — who used to be a schoolteacher by trade — brought up the prospect of homeschooling to her husband, he was skeptical to say the least.
“I said, ‘You want to do what to my daughter?’” he laughs.
But now, with four kids through school and settled into their adult lives, the Bjorkmans’ tone is a bit different.
Their admiration for abandoning the traditional public school model is clear, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many children out of the classroom and through the doors of their homeschool resource store this past year.
Heppner’s Legacy — a Christian education resource center located in Elk River — is the only homeschool store of its kind in the Midwest.
So when executive orders came down across the tri-state region and beyond in 2020, the Bjorkmans definitely felt its repercussions. The Bjorkmans own Heppner’s Legacy.
“Once the governor made his first announcement last June, we probably had 15 or 20 families standing at our door three hours before we opened that day with their phones in front of them, listening to the governor, in complete panic mode,” said Nancy Bjorkman.
“And it just started bubbling up from there, to the point that people were waiting an hour or two to get in the door,” she said. “We were putting in 70 hour weeks all summer long.”
The pair started running a workshop at night so they could meet the needs of these new homeschooling families without packing their store like sardines during a pandemic. This year was anything but the usual, where Heppner’s Legacy typically sees about 100 new families each summer between semesters.
“At the end of June, we started tallying on our chalkboard to see how many new home schoolers walked in the door,” said Nancy. “And by the end of September, it was nearly 1,100.”
According to the Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose district, homeschooler numbers have over doubled in the past year. 471 students in the BHM region — a total of 203 families — have made the switch, compared to a total of 224 homeschoolers last year.
As for St. Michael-Albertville, the district had a total of 250 students homeschooling at the beginning of the new year.
And while the Bjorkmans’ business may be booming, this phenomena speaks to a much larger crisis in the education system.
“Most people when they come to homeschooling, they’re escaping a problem,” said Brad Bjorkman.
The couple explained a variety of horror stories of panicked parents, unsure where to turn next. Straight-A students were flunking across the board; high schoolers losing motivation after deciding college isn’t for them. They said one particular case really stood out, when a mother turned to the store after her daughter tried to take her own life.
But this past year has impacted pretty much every kid out there, and teachers can only do so much through a screen.
“We are calling it the ‘COVID nudge,’ that a lot of people are like ‘I’ve thought about home schooling for a long time but now I have a reason to, for a couple of things,” said Nancy Bjorkman. “First of all, it’s not working for kids, and then the other thing is that they say ‘Distance learning is so ineffective, there is no way I can do worse.’”
The Bjorkmans think most of these families will stick with homeschooling in the long run, even though many of them come in with hopes of “getting over the hump.”
A quick scroll through local community boards will show you the discontent local families have with schools and the teeter-tottering between learning methods, but the discourse goes further. Recent announcements about draft changes to statewide social studies curriculum have also sounded the alarm for many parents, noting concerns over differing perspectives and how that will impact their children.
But the transition to homeschooling isn’t always traumatic. After one year of instructing their eldest child, the Bjorkmans never turned back.
“Obviously as far as the world’s standards academically, it all worked wonderfully,” said Nancy Bjorkman. Out of four kids, the Bjorkman children hold three master’s degrees and one PhD.
“But for us, we think the greatest treasures are our relationships with them, their relationships with each other ... all of these things that I think are more important,” she said.
After running a functional homeschooling home for many years, Brad found out he was going to lose his job in 2005.
“God had very different plans for us,” he said.
The Heppners — previous owners DuWayne and Miriam — ended up selling their business to the Bjorkmans, and the couple took over in early 2007.
There was no storefront; just stacks upon stacks of books and resources heaped in one of the spare rooms of the Bjorkman home.
By August of that year, Heppner’s Legacy had rented a storefront in Elk River, and four years later in 2011, a more permanent solution came about when the Christian bookstore decided to sell.
“Chuck Thompson [former building owner] came to us and said, ‘We’ve been praying about it, and we think you’re supposed to buy our building,’” said Nancy Bjorkman.
With relocation came more customers, and the Bjorkmans now run a well-oiled operation in their current location at 369 Jackson Avenue. Folks rarely spend less than a few hours within the loaded shop, as Nancy and Brad sit them down to chat about their child and their needs before diving into the curriculum.
The most important part about homeschooling — and frankly, education — to the Bjorkmans is personalization. “Every homeschooler is on an IEP (Individualized Education Program),” Brad Bjorkman said repeatedly.
While the duo give lots of suggestions for books to read and lessons to learn, they mainly hope to empower people to take charge of their children’s education.
They tell new families that they can always go back to public school; that changes can always be made to how they are teaching.
So as the chalkboard in Heppner’s Legacy reads — “Come for the books, stay for the therapy!”