Home for the holidays: And every other day, too

Published December 18, 2003 in issue #0250 of the Hook

Caryn Hamilton and son Ellis

For those who view homework as that nightly race between parent and child to see who will begin banging their head on the kitchen table first, the concept of home schooling might seem as appealing as chewing tinfoil.

But it's a trend that's catching on. The most current government estimate puts the number around 850,000 kids– three times what it was a decade earlier. Jostens, noted high school ring maker, has even begun peddling accessories to the graduating home-schoolee.


Not just for the Christian right anymore

 Until recently, educating at home was thought to be the domain of the religious right, and for good reason. Mike Farris, the unsuccessful 1993 fundamentalist Republican candidate for Lt. Governor positioned himself front and center of the cause. But Farris, chairman and co-founder of the 70,000 member national Home School Legal Defense Association and president of Patrick Henry College– an institution offering the "godly leadership that America so desperately needs"– may not represent the majority of home-schoolers.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 1.7 percent of all students are now home-schooled. That means growing numbers of parents including atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims– as well as the Christians who have long held the home-schooling spotlight– are choosing this route.

Silvia Barrett with children Thomas (4) and Emily (7)

 In Virginia, the divergence in the home-school movement is illustrated by the existence of two distinct legislative watchdog groups.

"Committed to helping parents fulfill their God-given right and responsibility to educate their own children" is the motto of the Home Education Association of Virginia which gives its membership a discount to join Farris' group. Meanwhile, the Virginia Home Education Association is a big-tent organization, steadfast in its dedication to religious and political neutrality.

Last year, 16,542 students were home-schooled in the Commonwealth. Another 5,479 exemptions from state educational oversight were granted to students whose families claimed that school attendance runs counter to their spiritual beliefs. In Albemarle County 275 children were home-schooled, and 70 others had religious exemptions. Charlottesville had 43 and 6, respectively.

"The number one reason people home-school is to give their children a good solid foundation," says local parent Kevin Cox, who adds, "I'm not Christian."

Cox and his wife, Sarah Pool, believe they had no choice but to home-school. A lab technician in UVA's biochemistry department, Cox blames a combination of bad teachers and his own uninvolved parents for limiting his opportunities. He didn't want this his kids to suffer the same fate.

"I went in to the blue collar working world because that was the direction I was pushed," says Cox. "I just barely made it out of high school, and I'm not a stupid person. I know plenty of people who are very intelligent who can barely read."

That's why he and Pool got nervous when their oldest child was in first grade in public school. Despite glowing report cards, she could not read. Cox, an intense man with definite notions about education, was fearful that his eldest child was heading "towards mediocrity." Unable to afford private tuition, the couple decided to instruct their daughter at home.

Sarah Pool, with son Patrick Cox

 Cox is quick to acknowledge that teaching isn't for everyone– including him. So Pool– despite being blind from retinitis pigmentosa– took over the education of Christina, now 17, Mara, 14, and Patrick, 4. A combination of their mother's ingenuity, adaptive technology, and pre-set curricula has put the Cox kids ahead of the game. The girls now attend Charlottesville High School where they are in orchestra and top-level classes. Patrick reads fluently.

Some critics of the home education movement worry about the social implications of keeping kids home. In a USA Today op-ed piece entitled, "Home Is No Place for School," educator Dennis L. Evans asks, "Can there be anything more important to each child and thus to our democratic society than to develop virtues and values such as respect for others, the ability to communicate and collaborate, and an openness to diversity and new ideas?"

Caryn Hamilton believes some schools could stand a little diversity training of their own. That's why she and her husband, Lance, an attorney at the Judge Advocate General school, had always planned to teach at home. They wanted to protect their children from the culturally and racially biased education they experienced as black students.

Caryn remembers being sent to the principal's office in junior high for having the temerity to compare slavery to the Holocaust. Her education, she says, "was based on the whims and desires of whoever was teaching at the time."

Home schooling not only allows Caryn to craft the curriculum for five-year-old Ellis, but it also enables her to address the lingering effects of his premature birth. Although he doesn't have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, too much stimulation is overwhelming for Ellis and he needs to move around. Caryn believes that in a regular school setting, Ritalin would be recommended.

"He'd be the one always getting in trouble for not sitting down," she says. Because she can make accommodations for him, Caryn's son is already an advanced reader.


Try "un-schooling," Johnny

 What do regular school parents think of their home-schooling counterparts? "Freaks," declares a mother of three. "I dread long weekends," admits another. And one father ominously predicts that if he tried home schooling, he'd be jailed "by the first Friday."

For parents who become weak-kneed at the idea of plodding through textbooks with resistant or high-octane offspring, there are less structured techniques to teaching at home. Silvia and Eddie Barrett employ a combination of methods, including "un-schooling."

Because Silvia, cofounder of the Albemarle County Homeschoolers Network, is a relaxed person who "can't set a schedule for myself to save my life," she's comfortable with the self-directed learning at the heart of un-schooling.

With this approach, a child fascinated by cars would be encouraged to study engines– learning math and science under the hood of a Chevy. The hot rod might also be used to deliver information about the history of automobiles, unions, and advertising.

Un-schooling parents reflect the theories of John Dewey, the father of learning-by-doing, who believed the best way to teach is to start where the child is. "One year, math might be the main study," says Silvia, "and the next year it might be history. It just depends on where the kid's interest is."

This approach is probably not for the faint of heart. While Silvia contends that it doesn't take three years of straight teaching to get a child to a third grade level, a non-adding and subtracting seven-year-old might induce panic in some parents. She believes kids can and do "catch up." And in the meantime, they're learning how to apply mathematics and technology in every day life.

Bolstering the assertion that less time is needed to cover material in tutorial settings is research cited by Mary and Michael Leppert in the Homeschooling Almanac 2000-2001. It claims up to 80 percent of the regular school day is actually spent on non-academic pursuits.

Arletta L. Dimberg, deputy superintendent of Charlottesville schools, vehemently disputes this. She says that strict safeguards are in place to ensure that 75 percent of a school day is spent on the core curriculum. "Principals are charged through the Standards of Learning and the Standards of Quality with the responsibility to organize the school in compliance with the Standards of Accreditation."


Different drummers

 Carol-Ann Paget-Brown, a vibrant woman with an easy laugh, is home-schooling two of her six children on the family's sprawling Keswick horse farm. She and her husband, Ian, take a fluid approach to education.

Before they had children, they thought they'd find one school for all. "And then we rapidly realized that each child is such an individual that you have to make decisions on a yearly basis for what suits them best," she says.

Paget-Brown 's daughter Belinda, for instance, was a home-school short-timer. Now nine and doing well at the private Oakland School, Belinda posed learning challenges Paget-Brown considered herself ill-equipped to handle.

Carol Paget-Brown with Tessa and Heather

Home-schooling is more successful for daughters Megan, 13, and Tessa, 7. They're enrolled in a $2,000-a-year virtual curriculum with an on-line mentor. Mom serves as the "educational guide" for Tessa, helping with on- and off-line assignments. The girls spend a couple of hours a day on schoolwork and then focus on other interests.

Although some argue that the built-in stress of regular school prepares children for "the real world," Paget-Brown disagrees. She claims the infraction code at one of her kid's schools so micro-managed student behavior that her child would wake up and dress in the middle of the night. Other home-schoolers express relief, too, at giving up the early morning rush and allowing their kids calmly to prepare for the day.

Sue Sheffield, guidance and career technical education coordinator for Albemarle County, also views home-schooling as a viable response to family needs– a path she herself would consider, if necessary. "It's a parental decision [based] on what's best for your child in that particular time in their life," she says.

"You're only young once," Paget-Brown says. "You might as well have a nice time. There's nothing wrong with that as far as I can tell."


Welcome to the Network

 Countering the argument about home-schoolers being isolated is the Albemarle County Homeschoolers Network. Formed just last summer, the group already claims a membership of over 60. In fact, so linked are these home-schooling families that news of this article triggered a flurry of emails among its members.

Without an association, finding fellow travelers could be rough. Before approaching an unfamiliar family between the hours of 9am and 3pm, at a park, for example, one would have to question whether the children were home-schooled-or home sick– and contagious. The Network organizes playgroups, cooperatively taught classes, and teen games.

As kids mature, their social and intellectual interests broaden. Ernie Reed founded Charlottesville's Living Education Center for Ecology and the Arts 12 years ago with his late wife, Sue, when their own home-schooled offspring became teenagers. He says that's the time kids look for "more than what a family can provide" such as "art, music, theater, a lot of creative outlets." Reed reports it's not unusual for kids themselves to make the first inquiry about attending the Center.


The limits of home

 Socialization is another essential part of growing up. No one knows this better than Lindsey Osborne, who graduated from UVA at 20 after having been home-schooled by her mother and attending Piedmont Virginia Community College. On the cusp of a career decision– choices include vet school at the University of Pennsylvania– Osborne says that her home-schooling experience was mostly positive. Mostly.

The blue-eyed blonde admits that she missed out on some of the social aspects of growing up, like homecoming and "being in school plays and just having to deal with the junk that kids have to deal with." A self-described introvert, she says, "You have to make the effort to be around kids your age. That didn't seem important to me at the time– but it is."

Recent UVA grad Lindsey Osborne, was schooled at home until college

 Another issue confronting these families is what to do when parents reach the end of their academic expertise. Lindsey reports that Algebra 2 was as far as her mom could go in the home-school math department.

Piedmont Virginia Community College filled the gap for her, but she knows of other home-schooled kids who needed more than they got– one, a barely literate 15-year-old. Lindsey blames a chronic lack of instructional guidance. She says a parent has to "put it together and make it happen! You can't expect a five-year-old to sit down and ask to do flashcards"– particularly if they've never been introduced to the concept.

Laws governing home-schooling are designed to avoid such situations. Virginia requires parents to submit annual curricula and end-of-year proof of progress to school superintendents. Standardized test results or evaluative assessments are used to determine advancement. If progress is inadequate, the home-schoolee is given a year to improve. Failing that, other educational arrangements must be made.

Clearly, this educational path can get harrowing. Googling "Homeschool Burn-out" yields hundreds of articles that suggest coping strategies. These include letting go of perfection, raising independent learners, and setting reasonable goals.


A foot in each camp

 Some local home-schooled kids are taking advantage of Virginia's voluntary selective enrollment policy. On a space-available basis at local schools they're taking part-time classes ranging from lab science to cosmetology. The schools, which receive some state funds based on census numbers, get partial funding for the part-timing home-schoolees.

But there are limits to the a la carte menu. Interscholastic athletics are not included. "It's a choice to educate your child at home," says Tom Zimorski of the Virginia High School League. "It's the same as a student going to a private school– they're still paying taxes." And they aren't eligible to play for their neighborhood schools, either.

Will Shaw, co-founder of the Virginia Home Education Association, describes this exclusion as "a publicly supported private sports league."


The South Park factor

How do home-schooled students stack up? While their reputation was advanced on the cheeky "South Park" cartoon-­ home-schoolees creamed the public school students in a spelling bee– hard statistics are difficult to find.

One study showing home-school success was commissioned by Farris' group and used a testing service affiliated with Bob Jones University (yes, the institution of higher learning that only recently lifted its ban on interracial dating.) A column in Home Education Magazine called this research "embarrassing and dangerous." (The dangerous part was about inviting more testing into home-schooling.)

According to Steve Robbins, a vice president with national testing firm ACT, the home-schooling question will soon be dropped from its student testing profile altogether. While these kids did score higher than regular school students in 2003 (though not dramatically so), their numbers were under-represented, and there was no way of factoring in the length of time students had been home-schooled.

The College Board reports similar dilemmas. For instance, some SAT-takers describe themselves as home-schooled but then go on to give their class rank. (Presumably they're all number 1.) The National Center for Education Statistics doesn't yet track comparative achievement of home-schoolers. (And don't ask for anecdotal information– it doesn't go over well.)


Taking a pass

From families who don't own televisions to those who dutifully gather round and watch "The Simpsons" together, home-schoolers are a diverse group with a wide range of politics, teaching styles, and backgrounds.

On a recent blustery morning, some Albemarle Networkers met at Greenleaf Park. While their kids played, a cluster of parents explained their educational choice. Reasons given for teaching their kids themselves included flexibility for travel, limiting negative influences, and the satisfaction of watching them learn.

Jim Gagnon and his son Isaiah

In the end, pragmatism trumped dogmatism. These parents said they were just trying to do the right thing, right now, for their kids.

Before excusing himself to play with the little guys, dad Jim Gagnon explained his motivation: He wants to teach his child to be conscious of others– and to enjoy life. This included a wicked game of catch– in the middle of the school day.