Have you ever wanted to just pack up your whole life and skip town? For most, the idea of getting away from it all is little more than a fantasy on a frazzled day. But for the Fiore family, it’s soon to be reality.
For the past 14 years, the family of four has lived in a log cabin by the Loch Raven Reservoir. Within the next year, however, they plan to trade in their more traditional home for a renovated school bus and the open road.
“It all started when my son Ben was in first grade,” explains Mary Fiore. “It was becoming clear that regular public school wasn’t a good fit for him. He wasn’t happy, almost becoming a shell of himself.”
Though Mary and her husband, James, knew they couldn’t keep Ben in public school, some private school options were cost-prohibitive. They decided to try homeschooling and soon found it was a perfect fit for Ben and his younger sister, Greta (now 7).
“During that first year, we realized that we no longer had to be on that nine-to-five, Monday-Friday grind,” Mary explains. “We started taking trips on ‘off’ times, not Christmas or Easter break, and we’d go to the zoo or the aquarium during the day, when no one else was around. We were freed up to live life a little differently than others were.”
The freedom was thrilling; so much so, in fact, that Mary began thinking bigger. What if they could do more than take these trips? What if their life could become a trip?
“I was looking at Airstream trailers, then RVs, but when I started looking up converted school buses, I knew that that was exactly what I wanted,” she says.
The more she searched, the more she learned: Families across the country were packing their whole lives into school-buses-turned-tiny-houses and traveling the nation, kids in tow.
Before they knew it, Mary and her husband were driving their new 40-foot bus back home to Maryland from Arizona, where they’d bought it from a respected dealer. (The bus business, as it turns out, is bigger in drier climates due to less risk of rust.) Now, they’re in the process of preparing it for full-time occupancy, with a fully functioning bathroom, kitchen and living area, as well as bunk beds for the kids and a fold out couch for mom and dad.
Though they don’t plan to embark for about a year, the Fiores are already hard at work downsizing to prepare for life on the road. Mary is currently the children’s teacher and James runs his own business, Maryland Home Theater. They haven’t yet decided whether to sell their house, but don’t plan to leave much in their wake.
“Probably about 80 percent of the stuff in our house never gets used, but it’s still hard to let go of things,” Mary says. “We’re going to be living a lot more simply. I’ve been trying to impress upon the kids that it’s not about stuff, it’s about experiences and being together, out in the world.”
As for the actual plan? That’s not entirely mapped out yet, but the kids hope to start with a trip to California, where they have family and friends they’ve made in the skateboarding community. Other potential destinations include Colorado, the Grand Canyon and various national parks.
But though the Fiores intend to explore as much of the country as possible, they won’t be treating their new life like an endless road trip. Mary says that she hopes to stay in each destination for a few weeks at least, allowing the family to get a fuller sense of the places they visit. Common traveling-family practices like ‘boondocking’ (parking in the middle of nowhere and seeing how things go) and ‘WWOOFing’ (working on organic farms in exchange for meals) allow for longer stays, and Mary says the family has no intention of breezing through location after location.
“Kids learn so much better when they’re intrinsically motivated,” she says. “I think these new places and communities will be our science and social studies. The nice thing about homeschooling is that we’re able to get a lot done in a short amount of time, so there’s room for the kids to be kids and explore.”
The Fiores hope, too, to link up with other families in the traveling community, providing a small social network for their children, as well as to cater to the kids’ passion for skateboarding. Greta is raring to go, Mary says, and though Ben was hesitant at first (“He’s a creature of habit”), he is now excited by the possibilities of the journey.
“The plan is to travel for a year and reevaluate,” Mary says. “If we’re loving it, we’ll keep going, and if it’s not what we thought it would be, we’ll go from there. Our extended family isn’t crazy about the word ‘indefinitely,’ but that’s sort of where we are.”
Mary can’t help but to be amazed about the direction her and her family’s life has taken, all as a result of their son’s dissatisfaction with traditional schooling.
“To be able to take that situation and see how it set us on this path — it just makes me think about taking these moments and turning them into something greater, and how that can just shift your whole life. This feels right. This feels like the direction that we should be moving in. We’re excited to get out there in the world and live.”
The National Home School Association does not track the number of families that take their learning on the go, whether it be “via bus, boat or otherwise,” writes J. Allen Weston, the association’s executive director. But, he continues, “I do know that many homeschoolers do this and are very successful at it.”
Much of the information about this trend comes from families who tried it themselves and have created blogs to document their journey.
“There really is a network of people that you can reach out to,” Mary Fiore says. She and her family recently had dinner with another Baltimore-area family that has spent more than a year traveling in an Airstream camper. One of the questions Fiore was eager to ask about was health insurance.
Dianna Broughton runs Traveling Homeschoolers and coordinates group trips, rail journeys, international trips, camps, sleepovers at museums or aquariums and retreats for homeschooling families.
“We travel to Disney World, Washington D.C., New York City, Alaska (and have done) rail journeys to New Orleans, San Francisco and the Grand Canyon,” Broughton says. “We have toured Italy, Ireland and France and have had retreats in the Smoky Mountains and in the Rockies.”
This year, the group is planning a Danube River cruise and a trip to Boston, among other journeys. Broughton herself is based in South Carolina and has been homeschooling for more than 20 years. She started organizing trips in 2006.
“This just evolved from doing field trips for my local group. I have families from all over the U.S. and beyond,” she says. “Thousands of homeschoolers have joined us over the years.”
The U.S. Department of Education estimates that just under 2 million, or 3 percent of the country’s school aged population, is currently home schooled. The number has grown in the past decade and education experts expect it to continue to increase.