Unconventional classroom

Textbooks taught only some of the lessons for family on a roll

EDUARDO CONTRERAS / Union-Tribune

By Barbara Fitzsimmons

STAFF WRITER                                    

April 11, 1998

It was the perfect time for a midlife crisis. At 42, Mark Blondin had just been downsized out of his job as sales manager for a soft-drink company. Then his father died.

"I realized life is short, and you have to make the most of it," Blondin said of that day in June 1996. "Pretty soon I was out buying an RV."

Right there is the point where a practical wife might have stepped in and said, "Stop." But Betsy Blondin, also 42, did nothing of the sort.

Rather, she agreed to leave her own job as a newspaper reporter and photographer, pile their three children into the used RV they'd purchased and leave the small Michigan town where they had lived their lives, for parts unknown.

This wasn't just going to be a summer vacation. It was going to be a nine-month cross-country odyssey, with the children attending school on the Internet, and no plan to return to Michigan on a permanent basis.

Never mind that no one in the family knew how to maneuver a recreational vehicle or had a computer that could be used on the road. And they didn't know diddly about Web sites, though they'd agreed to develop one as part of the children's schooling.

They'd just have to learn.

It had the makings of a thorny disaster, but like many midlife crises, it would flower into something beautiful.

"It was a giant field trip, a grand experiment," Betsy said later. "It was a super special time we had to spend together before the children grow older and start going in their own directions."

Mark agrees. "It turned out to be a good trip."

End in sight

As they rolled across 25,000 miles in 40 states, the Blondins -- including 12-year-old twins Stacy and Kelly and 15-year-old Donald -- contemplated where they would eventually make a new home.

Arizona, which was warm and sunny and bustling with new growth, seemed like the most likely spot -- until they hit San Diego. The beaches, the weather, the scenery and the job market all made a lasting impression. As they headed north and then back toward Michigan, the family reached a consensus: San Diego County would be their new home.

After taking several months to tie up matters in Michigan, they are now getting settled into a house in Carlsbad.

The beginning of their adventure, in September 1996, may today seem like eons ago, but one need only visit their Internet Web site at
/
to travel back in time.

"I am looking forward to seeing our country, and hopefully giving our children a gift they will never forget," reads Betsy's Web page. "Especially, I hope they will learn that, although it is not always easy, unconventional choices in life can be made."

Wrote Mark on his page: "We will use the balance of our savings for this adventure. When it is over, I will hopefully have decided on a new career."

Donald, Stacy and Kelly have their own pages, too, as does the family's golden retriever, Buddy, who accompanied them on their trip.

The family learned to design Web pages as they traveled east from their home in Boyne City, Mich., then down the East Coast. A laptop computer and digital camera were borrowed from the school district the children attended via the Internet.

Once the family made the decision to take the trip, Mark said, everything else seemed to fall into place. While the average school district might not have allowed it, the Blondin children were able to continue their studies through a charter school in Charlevoix, Mich., called Northwest Academy. The school, which is science-and technology-based, had just opened, and officials there found the Blondins' proposal intriguing.

"It fit very well into what Northwest Academy is all about," said Pascale Asbury, school administrator. "We were very willing to give it a try."

Asbury said she knows of no other school that has tried this type of arrangement.

"It was brave of them," Betsy said.

Hands-on homework

The children studied math and other topics from school textbooks they brought along. They also got credit for visiting museums, parks and natural wonders in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Utah, Oregon, Montana, California, and elsewhere.

For science, they recorded weather and climate in each location they stopped. Where better to learn about the desert than in Tucson, or the beach than in San Diego?

"The great thing about doing schoolwork that way was that every day was different and interesting; it kept us alert," Donald said.

"It was really nice because we could go at our own pace," Stacy said.

If the three traveling students needed to discuss something with a teacher, they did so by e-mail.

As part of their arrangement with the school, the children also added to their Web site information about all of the places they stopped, so that classmates in Michigan could follow them along their route. The school has 80 students and 40 computers.

Physical education was easy: hiking, swimming and Rollerblading at their stops gave the children more exercise than they normally got at school.

"Overall, I would rate it as an exceptional learning experience," said school administrator Asbury. "It was also a great way for the kids here to learn what was going on in another part of the country."

Would the school do it again with another family?

"Absolutely."

Flexibility

Not that the trip didn't have its trying moments. There were times when the five family members had had enough of their small quarters.

"Fortunately, we were outside a lot, and everyone in this family is a pretty good sport," Betsy said.

Finding a telephone hookup they could use to get on the Internet wasn't always easy, either, nor was learning Web design on the run.

In the end, though, Mark not only succeeded at the computer work: He now hopes to make a new career in computers.

Before moving into their new home in Carlsbad, the Blondins wrote a paper on their travels and presented it at a conference sponsored by the National Parent Information Network.

They estimate that the trip cost them about $40,000, which includes the price of the RV and maintaining their house in Michigan while they were gone.

Currently, the children are settling into their new schools, and Mark and Betsy are looking for work.

Both Stacy and Kelly say they slightly prefer their current day-to-day routine over school on wheels.

"When you're gone, you miss your friends," Stacy said.

"This way, you get to see your friends every day, and it's more organized," Kelly said.

Donald, though, still has a touch of wanderlust.

"I'd go again," he said. "Right now."

Copyright 1998 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.