Road Scholars: When these families travel, school comes along for the ride
Linda Jacobson | January 29, 2024
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Palm Desert, California
Jon and Sam Bastianelli looked on patiently as their oldest son, the “history buff,” examined the axes, shovels and old farming tools displayed in a blacksmith shop at the Coachella Valley History Museum.
His younger siblings crushed pumpkin seeds with a mortar and pestle in an exhibit honoring the Cahuilla tribe, the first inhabitants of the region. Then they all listened as a volunteer explained the inner workings of a washing machine from 1910.
This wasn’t just a quick detour during their family vacation. You could call it homeschooling, but home in this case is a customized Country Coach RV with a bunk room for the kids — and school is wherever they choose to go next.
The Bastianellis are among a growing number of families who don’t let having school-age children get in the way of seeing the U.S. — or even the world. These “roadschoolers” say their well-traveled kids are getting far more knowledge and real-life experience than they ever could from a book, a computer or even a typical classroom teacher.
“You get sights, sounds and smells — all the things your memory works on at the same time,” Jon said. Cultural visits like this one typically lead to a “rabbit hole of questions” later, Sam added.
Led by remote workers who took social distancing to the extreme, RV sales soared during the height of the pandemic. But these buyers differed from the empty-nesters and retirees that long defined this subculture. The newbees are younger — by about 20 years — and more racially diverse. These mobile families include a mix of traditional homeschoolers and newcomers who pulled up stakes during COVID. In fact, with RV sales returning to pre-pandemic levels, industry leaders are counting on this budding customer base for future growth.
“This has always been an older generation, and now it’s become our generation,” said Christian Axness, 37, who left Sarasota, Florida, behind in 2017 with her husband and two children, 2 and 4 at the time. Last year, she co-founded Republic of Nomads with Stephanie Simpson, a former private school teacher from Indiana, where the majority of RVs are manufactured. They plan group outings like the museum visit so parents don’t have to do it on their own.
Over the past year, they’ve organized trips to the Black Hills of South Dakota to study Native American culture and to Bend, Oregon, to hike around the cinder cone of an ancient volcano where lava flowed a thousand years ago.
With a combined 18 years as “fulltimers” — as those who live out of their vehicles call themselves — Axness and Simpson negotiate reduced homeschooling rates for participants at national parks and museums. Some of their events are free, while a weeklong camping adventure under the stars might run around $300. In 2022, they rented an observatory in Joshua Tree where students talked to local astronomers. In January, they took off for Baja, California, to pack in Spanish lessons, oceanography and windsurfing.
“These are not just surface-level experiences,” Axness said, “but immersive events because of the nature of our lifestyles.”
While a non-stop road trip might sound lavish, it doesn’t have to be. Full-time RVers range from families who aim to live debt free to those who drive six-figure luxury vehicles. For many families, monthly living expenses are about the same as if they lived at home, said Tiffany Johnsrud, a mom of three from Dubuque, Iowa.
“We’re not spending money on soccer and softball,” she said. “We’re spending it on experiences.”
The RV Industry Association started to pay more attention to roadschoolers in the fall of 2020, when more than half of the nation’s schools offered only remote learning. Its biannual survey showed that 45% of RVers were also educating children.
Drawing on this growing segment of the RV population, Fulltime Families, a membership organization, has a Facebook group for roadschoolers. And Kay Akpan, a Black roadschooling mom with a large Instagram following, founded a nonprofit and launched a Facebook page to connect Black families trading daily carpool lines for interstate rest areas. RV Industry Association data shows that among new buyers, 14% are Black, more than double the rate before COVID.
“There are people who are making more of this lifestyle change,” said Monika Geraci, spokeswoman for the association. “It’s not just a pandemic thing.”
When Dubuque schools shut down because of COVID, Johnsrud called it a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to tour the country. Fourteen-year-old Miley, the oldest kid in the family, was a bit skeptical.
“I thought it was a joke at first,” she said.
But their family of five had previously discussed moving into a tiny house, so getting one with wheels wasn’t a stretch.
Miley had no qualms about leaving. “I hated online school.” She said she learns more from books than virtual programs. But as a roadschooler, she gains much of her knowledge first hand.
“I can tell you facts about the cities, what there is to do there and the campground names,” she said. Her favorite excursion so far was to Oregon, where she tried “cold plunging” in freezing rivers. “We’ve seen so many waterfalls. The forests they have are just really pretty.”
Other families took to the road long before COVID. Victor and Robyn Robledo ran a gymnastics studio near San Diego, but sensed that many of the parents and children they served were stressed out. In 2015, they escaped that world and moved into their 30-foot class C rig. The family traveled through Europe and the U.S. — hiking, skiing, blogging and nurturing an adventurous spirit in their five children, who at the time ranged from 3 to 14.
Robyn, who has always homeschooled, covers core subjects, but mostly takes a “free-flowing” approach to her children’s education. One son wanted to learn everything he could about dogs. Her more entrepreneurial daughter helps run their “adventure travel brand,” offering apparel, virtual coaching and wellness courses. The middle daughter is a charcoal artist and teaches a mindfulness class for kids.
“The big hurdle for me was overcoming this fear that if my child doesn’t do traditional curriculum, how will they get into college,” Robyn said. She said her two youngest, now 12 and 15, “can’t do algebra” — a missing skill that would alarm traditionalists. But she doesn’t care. What’s important to her is that they work as part of a team and develop communication and problem-solving skills. “The ability to learn is more important than what you’re learning.”
Others take a more conventional approach. Axness estimated that about half the students in Republic of Nomads are also enrolled in online public schools.
Erica Pickett, a former Hartford County, Maryland, elementary school teacher, “launched out” with her family in 2022. She purchased a literature-based curriculum for her son and twin daughters that features some of the same books she used as a teacher. But they’re also regulars of the National Park Service’s free Junior Ranger program, where students earn badges based on activities at the park or historical site they’re visiting.
“If I have to put them in public schools, I don’t want them to be blown out of the water,” she said. “I know for sure my kids aren’t missing anything.”
Leaving the road
Most roadschoolers say they periodically check in to see whether their children still prefer the itinerant lifestyle. Some make it obvious they’re ready for a change.
After trekking through the nation’s wide-open spaces for the past seven years, 11-year-old Eloise Ridley longed for the four walls of a traditional classroom. Her father, Kevin, persuaded her to spend another year traveling by offering a winter at Disney World. But last year, they permanently parked their RV and enrolled Eloise and her 7-year-old sister Eliza at Pagosa Elementary in southwest Colorado.
“We don’t run a totalitarian dictatorship,” Kevin joked. “We let them participate in the family decisions.”
Prior to ending their travels, The Ridleys didn’t just go from one campground to the next. They were “boondockers,” living off-grid and relying on Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network to work online and connect their daughters to Florida Virtual School. Now the girls ride a school bus and bring classmates home for sleepovers.
For their parents, settling down was a sacrifice. They were “ambassadors” for Republic of Nomads and hosted an event for a couple dozen families in Baja last winter.
“Would Kevin and I rather be sitting on a beach right now? Probably,” said Emma. “But our kids come home everyday with big smiles on their faces.”
Others who left the road behind said it took just a few months before RV living — and the friendships they’d formed — called them back.
Those tight bonds were apparent on a recent evening at the Thousand Trails campground just off I-10 in Palm Springs. In a large clubhouse, several Republic of Nomad families gathered for a pre-Thanksgiving potluck. Parents sampled vegetable side dishes and pumpkin pie while children chased each other, played dominoes and jumped in the pool.
Many of these families travel together, creating a community of friends that’s not unlike what their children would enjoy in a normal neighborhood. Miley, the Iowa ninth-grader, also earns money babysitting and tutoring younger children from another family.
She’s still in touch with friends back home, but isn’t longing to return. Unless you count the one-room schoolhouse from 1909 at the Coachella museum, she and her siblings haven’t been in a traditional classroom since 2020. She even has plans to “move out” into her own van at 18 and keep traveling. She marveled at how much of the country she’s seen in four years.
“Until fifth grade,” she said, “I didn’t know there was any other state than Iowa.”