by Tina Manzer
Sixty-four-year-old Pamela Deese (“Miss Pam” to her students) is a homeschool pioneer. Twenty years ago, when she began teaching her kids in her home near Slidell, Louisiana, there were few local resources. Since then, “by accident or by God,” she created a unique not-for-profit center, Acorns 2 Oaks, that tutors 90-or-so students a year, and opened a for-profit store that provides curriculum, manipulatives, and other teaching tools to homeschool families year-round.
Miss Pam plans to retire next year, and two long-time tutors will take over the business. In the meantime, the teacher who never finished college continues to imbue the tutoring center with creativity, ingenuity, and family ideals. She is driving a current expansion of the store.
ED Dealer: What came first, the tutoring or the store?
Pamela Deese: Tutoring. I homeschooled three of my four children. My last two were among a group of 16 to 20 kids I taught each day in my garage, which I set up like a classroom. Another tutor came in to help me.
I knew all the kids, and we weren’t charging the parents anything for our services, but one day my insurance man came by and said, “You can’t do this.” When he left I sat in my garage, crying. The thought of buying or renting a building to continue was overwhelming.
As a blessing would have it, a family friend stopped in and said, “I have a building with space I can rent to you.” That was in 2001.
The parents of the kids I was teaching were willing to pay each month for tutoring, so I rented a room on the building’s second floor. When we left to go on vacation, I told the owner that if one of the three units on the first floor became available, I wanted to rent one and open a consignment bookstore. At the time, there was just one local book fair each year for homeschool parents.
While we were gone, a unit did open up and he saved it for me. We called it Home School Cottage.
It was a great opportunity for parents. They could come in and shop any time throughout the year. When the materials they put on consignment sold, they made a percentage and we made a percentage.
I just kept expanding and within two years I had rented the entire building.
In 2007 I moved to a storefront in this shopping center. Over the years (we’ve been here for 11), I expanded here, too. Today we occupy a total of four storefronts.
No, although at one point Home School Cottage got huge by our standards – nearly 1,400 square feet. I started spreading out beyond consignment to bring in new curriculum. Eventually, when we realized we needed manipulatives, we worked with companies like Melissa & Doug and Schylling. The products are fun, and kids should see that education is fun. They need to enjoy it!
In 2007, my daughter died. We have the honor of raising our granddaughter, who was then 3. Any extra time that I had went away then, and I just managed to keep the store open, with a lot of help.
Today, the store is only 700 or 800 square feet. It’s only open from 12:30 to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but if we’re here tutoring, people are welcome to shop. Seasoned homeschool moms can do that on their own, but most shoppers need help. I will also come here by appointment.
We’re in a “revamp” stage. For the first time, we all went to ASTRA’s Marketplace in New Orleans to look for products. We plan to carry new curricula, and we’re expanding into teacher aids. Education Station, the only store within a 60-mile radius that carried those products, has closed.
So Acorns 2 Oaks really grew.
Yes. During our biggest year we served 120 students, but that was too many. We lost the family feel, the closeness. Closer to 80 is ideal.
Are there are a lot of homeschool families in your area?
When I first started, I was family number 12. I think now there are more than 4,000, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen the figures. Families are homeschooling now for a lot of reasons. Also, there are many parents who would love to homeschool, but they work full time. When we tutor their kids here, they have to register with the state as a homeschool family.
Are there other places like yours?
In 2001, I knew of one other bookstore – in Texas. I was aware of a few tutoring centers – in Virginia. I had no model to follow, no mentor, and I made a lot of mistakes. Today, more places like mine are opening. I know that because the people come to visit me and see the center. They are benefiting from my mistakes.
Tell me about Acorns 2 Oaks.
It’s a 501c3 corporation, a DBA under Life Builders International, an evangelical ministry. I am the director, and it’s run by a board.
We offer group tutoring each day for junior- and senior-high students in nine different classrooms. We have three- and four-day programs for elementary-age children. We also offer homework labs and private tutoring for public and private-school students. We employ about 20 tutors and lots of mom volunteers.
We are in session for 30 weeks, but we are looking to go year-round.
Some students come here for the homework lab only, and some just for certain classes.
There are many opportunities for socialization and enrichment. Each month we have field trips – we call them “family adventures” because we ask the families to come along. We also have a family fishing club, an underwater robotics team, a yearbook club and a chess club.
What do you like best about your job?
Seeing the kids’ faces when they realize they can succeed here.
What’s your biggest challenge?
There’s never enough time to do all the things I want to do!