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Spelling champ learns talent at home

It's a typical school day for Christa Carpenter, the region's best speller. Instead of spelling, on this afternoon she works at her desk on algebra problems. The desk is in her pink and blue bedroom.

On a stool at the kitchen counter, Christa's older sister Cari is deciphering Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

And in a long narrow corridor between the garage and the laundry room, siblings Anne-Marie, 5; Mary Kathryn, 7; Kelli, 10; and Jay, 12, are learning about their Catholic faith.

Because it is a Wednesday afternoon, two "teachers" are on the job. Dad, Dr. Jay Carpenter, a Clearwater physician, is overseeing the work of Christa, 14, and Cari, 15. Mom, Jana Carpenter, is conducting the religion class while she breast-feeds baby Jim, who is 7 months.

Welcome to the Carpenter family home school on Island Estates in Clearwater. Founded six years ago, it is one of 1,046 operating today in Pinellas County.

"They're all different," said Cathy Cranfield with the school district's Partnership Schools and Child Care Department. "Most of them are doing a fine job."

Earlier this month, Christa proved the worth of her home-school education when she defeated 11 other spelling pros from middle schools in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties to win the Suncoast Spelling Bee. In the 24th round, she correctly spelled "cephalalgia," after her nearest competitor and close friend Brianna Satinoff misspelled it. Because she correctly spelled the word, Christa won another turn. She breezed through "hypotrophy." Her win was the first for a home-schooled student.

Before the regional spelling bee, Brianna, a sixth-grader at Kennedy Middle School in Clearwater, and Christa studied together.

"On that word, I had quizzed her on it and she had always gotten it right," Christa said. "I couldn't believe it when she missed it."

Because Christa is considered an eighth-grader, this would have been her last chance to compete. Brianna has two more chances.

"God looked down and gave Christa this win as a special gift," Mrs. Carpenter said.

To prepare for the national spelling bee on May 27 and 28, Christa spends at least an hour a day with various lists of difficult-to-spell words. Her two teachers have no intention of allowing her to abandon her other studies to study spelling exclusively. Spelling champions get no special consideration at the Carpenter home school.

Christa's day will continue to begin around 6:30 a.m. when everybody gets up and has breakfast. While Carpenter makes hospital rounds, Christa and each sibling except for baby Jim will be assigned a chore or two to complete before their father returns.

Once he's back, it's time for Latin. The children are on different levels of language study. Carpenter said he is a couple of chapters ahead of Cari.

Around 9:30, when Carpenter leaves to go to his office, Mrs. Carpenter takes over the schooling of Jay, Ann-Marie, Mary Kathryn and Kelli. They study reading, spelling, arithmetic, science, social studies and religion around two work tables in the long, narrow room. Christa and Cari, for the most part, work on their own.

All textbooks and reading lists are written and approved by the Catholic Church.

There is a break for lunch and everybody gets whatever they want out of the refrigerator. Then it's back to work until about 3 p.m., when Mrs. Carpenter packs up the van and heads to the Long Center where all the children, except for Jim and Cari, practice swimming with the Clearwater Aquatics Team.

Cari, a champion swimmer, gave up the sport a year ago.

After supper, the family watches Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Then the TV is turned off. There is no cable connected to the house. Some of the children work on school assignments, some play computer games. Christa spells.

From a list titled "Bizarre Words," she spells "pfeffernuss" for her mother.

"That's not so bizarre," she said. "I even know what that means. It's a cooking term." A check in a dictionary proves "pfeffernuss" is a spicy Christmas cookie.

Mrs. Carpenter said she pulled her children out of Catholic school six years ago after attending a DARE program. She said DARE, a drug awareness and prevention class taught by local law enforcement personnel, covered material she didn't want her children to learn. She said she also disapproves of sex education in schools.

Classes "go too far," she said. "Sex education is something that should be taught in the home." She said she got advice from friends on how to set up a home school and has been at it ever since.

"It becomes a way of life," said Mrs. Carpenter, who is a registered nurse. "It is a commitment."

It is such a commitment, the adults in the family rarely have a night out to themselves.

"We went away for a weekend a couple of years ago," Mrs. Carpenter said. "We were so miserable, we said we would never do that again."

Living in the sheltered environment of the Carpenter home, can the children get a fair glimpse of what life is like for the rest of the world?

"The truth is, we control their peer group as much as we can," Mrs. Carpenter said. "Right now, we're working hard to build a core set of values so that when they are exposed to other elements, they can make the right choices."

At 15, Cari said she has no desire to learn to drive and get a license. Her mother said Cari will probably be in college before she dates. That's fine with Cari. Like her parents, she views dating as something to do when you are ready to seek a lifetime mate. Right now, she's into basketball.

Clearwater psychologist Ruth Peters is a friend of the Carpenters and knows the children.

"They're awesome kids," Peters said.

Because the Carpenter children are involved in a number of outside activities and because of their religious beliefs, "home-schooling works best for them," Peters said. "It's not best for everyone."

She noted that both parents have professional degrees. "When parents aren't prepared academically and socially to do this, someone can lose," she said.

The school district's Cranfield said that at least 90 percent of the home-schooled children registered with her office are working above grade level. The district is pleased a home-schooled child won the regional spelling bee, she said.

"We think it's marvelous," Cranfield said. "It shows the Carpenters are doing a good job, and we think we do a good job too."

Christa says she doesn't have her heart set on winning the national spelling title. She intends to go to Washington, D.C., and do her best. "I hope I don't go out in the first round," she said. As for plans, she said she would like to go to college and medical school and become a neonatalogist.

"Spell that," her mother said.