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Home Sweet School

Posted: Children & Teens » Homeschool » Kids Learning | November 18th, 2006


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By Lisa Poisso

“What are you doing at the park this early on a school day?”

It’s an innocent question that more and more kids answer with two simple words: “I homeschool.” It seems like everyone knows a homeschooling family these days — and they’re not just hippies or fundamentalists. Who are all these homeschoolers, and why are more and more families turning to homeschooling?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the Education Department), almost 1.1 million children nationwide homeschooled last year. That’s 29 percent more since the last government survey in 1999.

Why school at home?
It used to be that the act of homeschooling was a radical statement, a declaration of independence from the state, from religion or even from American society. But today’s parents homeschool for a different mix of reasons.

While it was conservative Christians who blazed trails for homeschooling in the ‘80s, crusading to make homeschooling legal in every state, today’s typical homeschooler isn’t religiously motivated. The National Center for Education Statistics report indicates that about one-third of parents responding to surveys said they homeschool based on concerns about the school environment, including drugs, safety concerns and negative peer pressure. Slightly fewer cited a desire for the flexibility to teach religious or moral lessons. Another 16 percent said they were dissatisfied with the academic instruction at schools.

According to Mitchell Stevens’ “Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement,” today’s homeschooling families comprise an unlikely mix of parents that includes fundamentalist Protestants, pagans, naturalists and educational radicals.

“I know homeschoolers all across the metroplex of all stripes, from fundamentalist Christian to rabid unschoolers, Caucasians, young families, African-Americans, Ba’hai, Catholic, older-parent homeschoolers and a grandmother who is homeschooling her grandchildren,” says Janet Plotkin, the Jewish homeschooling mother of a 12-year-old in Dallas, Texas.

What all these families have in common, claims Stevens’ book, is this: a commitment to the sanctity of childhood and the primary position of the family in children’s lives. Homeschooling allows parents to raise their children in what many believe to be a more natural, nurturing environment than the pressure cooker of today’s public and private schools.

“The public schools are becoming too rough and mean — too many shootings, etc.,” says Texas mother Jolynn Singh. “My son abhorred going to school. (He became) very depressed. He is not so nervous now. He seems very confident.”

For other families, homeschooling simply seems to be a natural extension of their family life.

“Homeschooling just felt like the right thing to do,” says Sarah Green of Roanoke, Texas, whose oldest child is currently attending her first year of public school as a fourth grader but plans to homeschool with her siblings again at some future time. “We like the time we have to explore new things as a family. I enjoy being with my children. I find that I really miss my oldest, who is in school, and I feel more disconnected from her sometimes since I don’t know what goes on with her all day.”

Special needs and misgivings about schools
Special needs draw many families to homeschooling. Dallas-area resident Kori Kitts began homeschooling her two sons based on their autistic tendencies. “Regular school or preschool was too loud and had too much commotion for them,” she says. “My younger son asked to attend school this year, so we let him, but my older son asked to be homeschooled, so we continue.”

And of course, many families cite religious and moral reasons for homeschooling, as well as concerns about the state of the public school system. “The foremost reason we homeschool is that I want my boys to be free to talk about God and have the chance to grow up and create their own personalities and likes without the influence of peer pressure and having to fit into a certain mold,” explains Audrey Stucker of Greenville, Texas. “I have learned that there are so many educational reasons to teach children in the home environment. I do realize that there are caring people in the public school system, but I feel that the system itself is flawed.”

Learning by the book — or not
Today’s homeschooling families aren’t sitting around the kitchen table with books, trying to replicate the schoolroom at home. There are as many different approaches to homeschooling as there are reasons to homeschool.

At the far right of the spectrum are the homeschoolers who follow packaged curricula or enroll in online or correspondence courses. Many Christian homeschoolers fall into this category, using popular Christian-based materials such as A Beka and Sonlight. So-called “classical” homeschoolers follow their own rigorous method based on classical literature, liberal arts and traditional mathematics and science studies.

In the center of the homeschooling spectrum fall families who use unit studies, building programs around a central theme (usually based on the current interests of the children) that lassos reading and writing, mathematics, science, history and other activities into a single topic area. Eclectic homeschoolers pick and choose between all these methods, morphing from year to year and even subject to subject, as their children’s interests and abilities dictate.

And finally, “unschoolers” rely on life experience and the natural curiosity of their children to spur the learning process into action. These families concentrate on providing a rich environment laced with social, practical and educational opportunities and tools, with the expectation that their children will choose to pursue what best suits their own interests.

No matter what their learning styles, most families participate in one if not more of a vigorous network of local homeschooling support groups. Running the gamut from conservative, faith-based support groups to large learning cooperatives, these groups provide field trips, learning co-ops, regular play dates and park days, parents’ groups and the chance to compare and trade materials and ideas.

What about socialization?
Bookwork, however, isn’t the crux of the question most often raised about homeschooling. What about these kids’s social lives – or the lack thereof? “Kids need school to be properly socialized!” has long been the battle cry of many a homeschooling skeptic. But according to a recent article by Time magazine, “The old canard that homeschoolers are hermits has largely been disproven. In fact, nearly one in five takes at least one class in a public or private school, according to the federal government. Homeschoolers participate in extracurricular activities, too. Many of the home-schooling parents interviewed by Time were just as busy as any parents scheduling baseball practices and ballet classes.”

Homeschoolers tend to be more comfortable interacting with people of all ages, not just age-mates. In fact, there is no conclusive research suggesting that additional time with same-aged peers is preferable to more time with individuals of varying ages. And keep in mind that the need to corral large groups of children means that opportunities to actually socialize at school are strictly limited. (How many times do you remember hearing your teacher say, “Miss Jones, you are not here to socialize!”?)

“I tell my kids to look up the word ‘socialization’ and see what it really means,” says Cathy Whitfield, a homeschooling mother of three in Denton County, Texas. “It does not mean sitting in a classroom for eight hours not being able to talk to their friends except for specific times like lunch. And yes, they spend less time with children only their own age than public-schooled children — but I see that as a positive thing.”

Kitts agrees. “Socialization (as an issue) is overrated,” she says. “How many were bullied in school? How many had a teacher who really didn’t get you? Why do children need this? Are people really ever best friends with people from work? Rarely. They find people with like interests through church and outside structured activities.”

Does homeschooling work?
Does homeschooling really turn out well-rounded students? A 1998 study from the Education Policy Analysis Archives found that achievement levels of homeschoolers are “exceptional.” The study found that “by the time homeschool students are in eighth grade, they are four years ahead of their public/private school counterparts.” In 2000, the average SAT score for a homeschooler was 1100, compared with 1019 for the traditional student. And 35 of the 265 finalists in the 2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee were homeschoolers.

University admissions officers agree. “I do look at transcripts or whatever they can explain as their study track and what curriculum they’ve used, but we place more emphasis on their national test scores,” says John Householder, who handles homeschooling student applicants at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. “Homeschoolers are doing very well. We give a lot of scholarships to homeschoolers.”

Chadd Bridwell of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University concurs. “Let me assure you that the criteria for homeschoolers and high schoolers are the same. SMU simply requires SAT II exams if there is no indication of mastery of English, math or sciences on a homeschooled certificate. I have found homeschoolers very well prepared both academically and socially in the transition to college.”

And it looks like the growth of homeschooling will continue to be strong. “There’s potential for massive growth,” said Ian Slatter, spokesman for the National Center for Home Education, quoted on CNN.com. “Home schooling is just getting started. We’ve gotten through the barriers of questioning the academic ability of home schools, now that we have a sizable number of graduates who are not socially isolated or awkward — they are good, high-quality citizens. We’re getting that mainstream recognition and challenging the way education has been done.”

© Lisa Poisso; first appeared at Dallas Child magazine

Lisa Poisso is an award-winning writer and editor specializing in parenting, women’s, lifestyle, eco/green and health topics.

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