By Larissa Phillips
For most New York City parents, education is the issue that never goes away. Will Pre-K be eliminated? Will class size go up? How will my child’s school fare in the standardized test scores? Will my child be reading sanitized versions of history and literature?
But for one group of parents, the whims of Albany policy-makers, the efforts of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and issues such as test scores and school violence, are not so relevant. Their children are not subject to the inclinations of the politicians or the economy. Their children do not go to school.
Homeschooling used to seem like the province of aging hippies and fundamentalist Christians. Rather than subject their children to the evils of society, popular opinion supposed these reputedly selfish or, perhaps, just plain crazy parents preferred to cloister their kids at home. The public (and, often, the school board and the state) charged that the kids were deprived of normal socialization, an objective curriculum and a decent education. Possibly, it was the arrogance that irked onlookers the most. How could one set of parents hope to provide the same range and depth of knowledge as an entire school setting?
Although homeschooling was a normal part of American life until 100 years ago (Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Rachel Carson and others were schooled at home), today’s parents have been harassed and jailed for keeping their children out of school. According to the Homeschooling Legal Defense Association, as recently as January of this year, a homeschooled Texas teenager was placed in juvenile detention for two weeks over the Christmas holidays, for truancy. Last summer, a Colorado family was wrongfully accused of neglect for homeschooling their daughter, and a Michigan family had its social security benefits unlawfully reduced because they were homeschooling their special needs daughter. Perhaps, just as tryingly, many have been castigated by family and friends and accused of abuse and neglect.
But is homeschooling really so bad? And more to the point: Is it maybe a good thing?
In recent years, the number of homeschooling families has skyrocketed. With these growing numbers (and the advent of the Internet), options have increased. Today, homeschooling styles are as diverse as parenting styles. They range from families who emulate the school day as nearly as possible (sitting down at 9 a.m. to cover the range of subjects, one by one, that a traditional classroom would cover) to the "unschoolers," who believe that the natural curiosity of a child will provide sufficient guidance and that any parental direction can be damaging to a child’s spirit.
In between, there is every possible combination and variation of the two extremes. As one New York City homeschooler put it, "You can only imagine how strong-willed the average homeschooler is. You end up getting an integral group of parents who are as diverse as you can possibly imagine."
One thing most homeschoolers have in common is their eagerness to take advantage of the educational opportunities around them. Far from the old image of the isolated family unit steering clear of every possible influence except for their own, most homeschooling families seem to be finding influences from a variety of sources. Between computer programs, curricula available on the Internet, the library, museums and local study groups, the opportunities seem endless. As local and national networking increases, opportunities increase exponentially.
Growth of Homeschooling
And the numbers keep growing. According to former Department of Education researcher Patricia M. Lines, somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million children are being schooled at home. Compare this to about 50 million children being schooled in public and private schools and only about 400,000 in charter schools. Compare to 20 years ago, when only 50,000 kids were being homeschooled. The number of homeschoolers is growing by about 15 percent a year.
People keep their children home for a variety of reasons. The most popular seems to be a pursuit of academic excellence, something perceived as unavailable in the schools. Julie Gabriel, a Park Slope mother of a 6-year-old, says she didn’t want to repeat her own experience in school. "Mostly, I remember working out how long it would take me to get out of school," she says. "I thought this would give Danny more freedom to choose what he wanted to study." Plus, she says, she enjoys being with him. "I love his questions. I love looking up the answers with him."
Some parents feel their children’s needs are not being served. "We decided to homeschool our son because he was not comfortable in his junior high school classroom," says Linda Smith (not her real last name), who is new to homeschooling this year. Her mildly autistic son was in an inclusion class, but not faring well. "It got to the point where he just didn't want to go." After asking the school for help and essentially being ignored, this mom decided to keep her son at home.
Judie Whitaker, a Manhattan mom, homeschooled her son, who has attention deficit disorder, for one year, after she decided his needs were being ignored. "All the attention he was getting from the teachers was negative," she says. "I felt like he needed a successful year." The best place for that, in her opinion? Home.
Letting the Kids Decide
Many homeschooling parents decide to keep their children home because the children begged to stay, either because of overwhelming boredom or a negative reaction to a specific teacher. Brooklyn mom Estyr Carino sent her homeschooled 7-year-old daughter to school for two months, only to pull her back out. After complete freedom, she says, her 7-year-old was balking at the structure her mother was imposing. "She was refusing all lessons," says Carino. "This is my own personal parenting thing. Is it all fun and games all day? I don’t think so. If you don’t understand that it’s work first and then play, how are you going to get a job? One of my greatest pursuits is to get her to be a viable, contributing member of society."
Several weeks of school convinced her daughter that structured lessons at home were preferable to structured lessons at school. "Basically, it was being away and being away from the things I was doing with my youngest," says Carino. "And the boredom."
Among many homeschoolers, it’s common to take children in and out of school as fits the needs of the child. "People do go in and out a lot," says Eileen Blau, whose daughters both elected to go to public school after a few early years at home. "There was this fluidity. Some people knew that was their thing. A lot of people did it just in the early years."
"I listen to him," says Brooklynite Deborah Monlux of her 13-year-old son, who is being conventionally schooled this year for the first time. "I make parent judgments. I say, you started this year, you’re going to finish it. We look at it year by year." But if her son is not happy with his high school placement, she says, "He’s out."
Sasha Luci, a single mother in Elmhurst, Queens, who is unschooling her 6-year-old, believes that her son’s interests provide the best road to learning. “We do what he feels like doing,” she says. “Some days he just wants to do art all day. We bake a lot. He’s inadvertently learning math. He’s 6 and he’s already started to know fractions. He’s got pen pals. Sometimes he just wants to ride on his skateboard all day. There’s no average day in the life in the unschooler.” But, it all, she believes, leads to learning, and a strong sense of self.
Nationally and locally, other parents cite a fear of school violence, negative influence from other children and uncaring teachers as their reasons.
According to statistics, concern for academics is an excellent reason to homeschool. As more colleges, universities and national tests ask students to identify themselves as homeschoolers, a body of statistics is emerging. (Some experts caution that the numbers are suspect, since many homeschoolers prefer not to identify themselves as such, for fear of prejudice.)
On the SAT, the ACT and the SAT2, homeschooled kids score consistently higher than the national average, according to the National Home Education Research Institute, in a study sponsored by the Home School Legal Defense Association – except in math, which, in the ACT, has been a few points lower. Whiz kids like homeschooled Brooklynite Rebecca Sealfon, who, in 1997, won the National Spelling Bee, speak for themselves. In 2000, the top three finalists of the National Spelling Bee were homeschooled. Also, in 2000, Stanford University accepted 27 percent of its homeschooled applicants, almost twice the rate of its conventionally schooled applicants. Once in college, homeschooled kids fare well, with excellent GPAs. In addition, they are, supporters argue, better prepared for the more independent type of study and lifestyle expected of college students.
Common sense would support the statistics as well. What educator won’t concede that small class size, individual attention and committed, involved teachers are essential components of an effective learning environment? Whether a child is lagging on a subject or is already leaps and bounds ahead of the norm, a sensitive teacher and a tailored curriculum would seem to be the best response. In a conventional (usually large) classroom, students who have mastered a skill, finished reading the chapter or already figured out the answer have to wait until the rest of the class catches up. Kids who haven’t mastered the skill often take the bad grade and move on with the rest of the class, still in the dark. Homeschooled kids move at their own pace.
Monlux, whose 13-year-old son, Cody, is in public school after years of homeschooling, has seen the difference firsthand. Since making the switch to public school, her son’s math scores have come down. Even so, he won the math fair (doing binary pixels on a computer), is on the honor roll and approaches projects in a manner typical of homeschoolers, which Monlux describes as "Spend time, go deeper, be an individual." Asked to convert a doll into a character from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," she says, Cody went far past the perfunctory glitter paint most of the class decided to do.
"He said, ‘I’m into electricity,’" she says. "So he went to Radio Shack." After stripping the Ken doll, the seventh grader created a set of wings and hooked up a battery pack that made the wings light up. When he brought his creation into class, Monlux says, the kids were awed. "He told them, ‘Oh, I’ve been into electricity since I was 3 years old.’" Not bad for a 13-year-old.
The Social Question
But, so what about academic achievement? A high GPA is not the only thing a child needs in order to fare well as a healthy human being. "All of us homeschooling veterans," says Monlux, "the thing we hear the most is, ‘What about the socialization?’" Indeed, the old idea – of religious fundamentalists or fanatical hippies sheltering their children from any viewpoint but their own – may be the most damaging image that homeschoolers deal with. But most insist that their children have active groups of friends and active study groups.
"When he was little, Cody had no problem with socializing," Monlux maintains. "We were always doing field trips with other kids." With the help of the homeschooling groups like the New York City Home Educators Alliance (NYCHEA), Monlux was able to organize trips to museums, reading groups, music groups and arts trips. (NYCHEA could not be reached for comment.)
"There are all sorts of shows that are offered to schools for little or no money," agrees Julie Gabriel. Once parents find out about an interesting destination, they can put the word out to their network of homeschooling friends or, perhaps, through the NYCHEA newsletter and soon a group is headed out. "There was a tour of a donut factory and a bread factory," she says. "There are classes for older kids. There’s a writing club. There’s a reading group for ages 9 and up at a library in Inwood." Every Wednesday, Gabriel’s husband coaches a homeschooling soccer league at Pier 40 in Manhattan. On Tuesdays there is a track club. Homeschoolers maintain that these all-ages groups are actually better opportunities for socialization than those which are offered in the schools.
The question is baffling to many. “I don’t even know where that question came from,” says Luci. “They go to the park every day. They’re at the library. They’re meeting other kids of all ages.” She says her son spends time with toddlers, senior citizens and people of different races, and from different backgrounds.
"Homeschooling kids generally don’t set up these artificial barriers between age," agrees Eileen Blau, a special-ed teacher who homeschooled both of her daughters years ago in Flushing, Queens. (They now live in Brooklyn.) "That really struck me when I started going to the groups. When the homeschooling kids get together, it’s sort of like everybody’s in the group together. The older kids would sit the younger kids down and read to them."
Judie Whitaker agrees. "The socializing I remember learning in school," she says, "was not the kind of socializing I want my son to learn. It’s about who’s wearing the best clothes. Who’s the most popular. How to be nasty to the kids who are different. How to line up."
he Legal Question
Another stumbling block that homeschooling parents encounter is the legality of pulling a child out of school. Although homeschooling is legal in every state, the paperwork can be overwhelming. As it stands now, the parent who wants to begin homeschooling writes a letter of intent to the school board, which must answer the letter within 10 days of receipt. The school board’s response details the specifics of the law governing home schooling in the state of New York and requests an Individualized Home Instruction Plan (IHIP). The parent then sets up a schedule for submitting quarterly reports on the child and an annual assessment. The school board either approves the IHIP or sends it back to the parent for revision. Upon approval, the child is officially registered as a homeschooled student and the parent is notified by mail. The family is later checked on by school board officials, with the experience depending on the individual assigned to the case. If it sounds like a bureaucratic hassle, most homeschooling parents will agree that it is. "I’ve heard varying stories," says Estyr Carino, who is homeschooling her two daughters, only one of whom is officially school age. "This is my first year with the Board of Ed. I’ve had to hand in paperwork. All of a sudden, I had to have a regimented thing."
The Money Question
"I never worked," says Monlux. "[Schooling Cody] was my full-time job. We took the cut. It doesn’t work for everyone. You learn to be resourceful.
Linda Smith, however, is managing to homeschool her 11-year-old son while working full time. "[It’s] a tough chore," she admits. "My husband and I both have pretty relaxed offices, so he’ll come to work with one of us. When we come home – I'm home by five – we'll do lessons in math, grammar, science, geography. Later in the evening, we'll read together and talk about what we've read. Still, she says, it is worth it. After pulling him out because of a combination of negative factors ("We never really pinpointed the reason," she says, "Too noisy, too big, too many distractions, nasty kids."), she loves watching her son thrive at home. "He goes at his own pace and I love the look on his face when he really ‘gets’ something. He's a whiz at math and the computer. And we can spend more time on his interests – dinosaurs, animals, the planets. He's more relaxed and loves to learn new things."
Talking to homeschooling parents, it’s difficult to categorically dismiss their efforts and beliefs. Certainly, there are some homeschoolers who are not turning out champion children, homeschoolers who are, in fact, failing their children. There are homeschooled children who are testing below the national average and growing up unsocialized and poorly educated. But there are these results among conventionally schooled children as well. Perhaps when the school years are done, when the college transcripts have been mailed off, when all has been studied and read and explored, what counts the most is an involved parent paying attention to his or her child, regardless of where the child was schooled.
• Homeschooling Legal Defense Association – www.hslda.org – A clearinghouse of legal information, resources and news about homeschooling, both national and global.
• Loving Education at Home (LEAH) – www.leah.org/regions/downstate.html – A statewide network of Christian homeschoolers with several New York City branches.
• New York City Home Educators Alliance (NYCHEA) – 212-505-9884; www.nychea.org – An active network of homeschooling parents, with a variety of activities and support services for city homeschoolers.
• New York State Education Department – www.nysed.gov and www.emsc.nysed.gov:80/rscs/nonpub/homeschoolingqanda.htm – A detailed list of questions and answers regarding the state's position on homeschooling.
• Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling, by John Holt, Perseus Publishing, 2003. The classic work on homeschooling by a seasoned educator who believes that the traditional classroom model no longer works
• Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto, New Society Publishing, 1992. A radical treatise by a 26-year veteran of the New York City school system.
• Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, by David Guterson, Harvest Books, 1993. A beautifully written examination of the writer’s decision to homeschool his children, despite the fact that he is a high school teacher. Written by the author of Snow Falling on Cedars.
Larissa Phillips is a freelance writer an former editor of New York Family.