Shayna Brown pulled a dead frog preserved in formaldehyde out of a plastic bag and placed it on a tray in her family’s home office.

“When I was in school, we had cadavers. They smelled so bad,” the critical care nurse said.

Books splayed in front of her, Brown’s 12-year-old daughter Madison Brown sat before the frog, reluctant to touch it as her textbook instructed.

After the initial poke, Madison’s textbook led her to peel open the frog’s stiffened mouth and extend its tongue, measure the length of its hind- and fore-legs, cut open its chest and slice its heart in two, remove organs and identify each one.

As one of the approximately 600 students in Yakima County who are homeschooled — and about 22,000 statewide, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction — Madison was making her way through a staple of classroom science curriculum at home.

Every family approaches homeschooling in their own way. Even within the Brown family’s curriculum, there is room for flexibility. Labs like the frog dissection are optional purchases delivered to their door.

Both of Madison’s parents are critical care nurses, and they see value in partaking in at least some of the labs. For some others, Madison watches videos online rather than doing them herself.

The afternoon was an example of the multifaceted and flexible learning environment the Browns have cultivated.

Exploring frogs and science

The frog dissection was part of Madison’s life science course. It’s one of five subjects that Madison studies online through BJU Press online curriculum.

Throughout the lab assignment, Madison ping-ponged between disgust and curiosity. Her mom’s biology knowledge came in handy, providing scientific background to her observations:

  • Connective tissue made it difficult to cut away a stubborn flap of skin on the frog’s torso, Brown explained.
  • Frogs’ lungs are comically small because they don’t have a need for big lungs — they have the ability to breathe through their skin.
  • The frog’s heart, which resembled a giant ladybug, wasn’t filled with purple goop: “That’s blood that’s coagulated,” her mom explained.

“It’s different in a classroom when you can kind of joke and bounce stuff off of peers your own age,” Brown said.

Throughout the roughly 45-minute long dissection process, Madison’s siblings, 3 and 11, observed the process enthusiastically, chiming in every now and then to provide their own thoughts or questions.

By the time the assignment was done, Madison’s demeanor had changed and she continued cutting away at the amphibian in an effort to see its brain. She had just learned about the human brain, she said, which made her wonder how a frog’s might resemble it.

To her mom, dissections were also a fascinating opportunity. During her nursing studies, she dissected a cow heart, squid, pig and human cadavers, which she said were the most interesting. They showed “a lifetime of medical history” through the scars on the donated bodies. That was made possible by people who donated their bodies to science, she explained.

“That’s disgusting,” Madison said.

Creative learning

The Browns try to make learning engaging for their kids. Recently, the siblings watched a documentary on bridge engineering. Then they were tasked with a challenge: Each was given 125 Popsicle sticks and told to see who could build the sturdiest bridge spanning 2 feet, tested by how much weight it could hold.

Both kids are hands-on learners. Outside of his seven online courses, Jacob, a fifth grader, recently repaired the family’s vacuum as a form of mechanics exploration. Madison, now in seventh grade, made rice-filled hand warmers to sell online to fund a summer camp she hopes to attend.

The siblings also take private music lessons. Madison plays piano and Jacob plays guitar.

“They’re very musical,” said Jacob’s guitar instructor, Jeff Martin, a musician who teaches dozens of students a variety of instruments and regularly plays at venues around Yakima. His wife is Madison’s piano teacher.

Jacob has been playing guitar since he was about 6. A year and a half ago, he started taking lessons with Martin to work on rhythm.

“The rhythm is where the money is made,” Martin said, explaining that chords without the right rhythm couldn’t create the same feeling as a song played to the right beat.

Jacob, he said, is a skilled guitarist, learning to play challenging songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” within two lessons.

“He is extremely talented,” Martin said. Soon, he said, he plans to teach the burgeoning musician rockabilly tunes in an attempt to challenge him more. “He has met the challenges (I’ve given him). It’s really fun to teach him.”

Homeschooling choice

The Brown family had not always intended to homeschool their children, but when Madison was 2 they discovered she has life-threatening allergies. Worried about sending her to public school before she could manage them on her own, they homeschooled for preschool. Madison and Jacob have since alternated between homeschooling and attending Selah schools based on family circumstances. The parents’ 12-hour shifts at a local hospital have made it more feasible to have family time if they homeschooled, for example.

Next year, the family is considering sending Madison back to public school if plans to move to Selah work out. And they have ideas for further down the road, too.

“We do hope, pray and plan on them participating in Running Start,” said Brown.

In the meantime, the parents have tried to maintain a school-like structure, having the kids work quietly without talking and wait for snack and bathroom breaks, for example.

This year, Madison and Jacob started using BJU Press curriculum, which Brown said she and her husband, Jeremy Brown, like because they are more involved in grading than with the previous curriculum they used. The materials are also more engaging, with videos, online learning and textbooks guiding the students.

School days are flexible to accommodate their parents’ days off. Each of them works three 12-hour days a week, often having common days off during the week.

The family is fond of their public school experience, with Madison and Jacob torn between which they prefer. Even as they homeschool, Madison attends band class at Wilson Middle School in Yakima to play saxophone.

She’s among a growing population of homeschoolers over the last decade, said her band instructor John Ed Cunnington.

He’s right. There has been a gradual rise in the popularity of homeschooling over the past two decades, according to OSPI data. Statewide, there were 13,645 families providing a home-based education in the 2018-19 school year, compared to 11,393 two decades prior. In Yakima County, the number has hovered around 300 families for the past five school years.

Selah, West Valley and Yakima school districts have without exception had the largest number of families in the county opting to homeschool over the past 10 school years, according to OSPI data.

Cunnington said he had been impressed by the homeschool students who had studied under him, like Madison. She’s self-motivated, he said, and among the group of “A-quality type students.”

Reach Janelle Retka at or on Twitter: @janelleretka