Inside the Growing Homeschooling Movement

Until recently, if you homeschooled your children, you were either part of a pioneering movement in alternative education or doing so for religious reasons. Now, more than 2.2 million children ages 5-17 are homeschooled in the United States, a figure on par with the number of children enrolled in Catholic schools and public charter schools, according to Brian Ray, founder of the National Homeschool Education Research Institute and the journal, Homeschool Researcher. Ray points out that the number of secular homeschoolers is increasing exponentially, though just how fast is hard to measure.

As the number and types of families educating their kids outside of traditional school settings has grown, the term “homeschooling” has become something of a misnomer. Fading fast is the image of a stoic mother sitting across the kitchen table from her children in a one-room homeschool environment. Today, many homeschooling parents belong to active co-ops and homeschool support networks, where they typically participate in educational outings and learning opportunities, relying upon a collective approach to educating their children.

“One of my mantras is: Nobody homeschools alone,” says Lesley Debrier, president of the Sonoma County Homeschool Nonprofit (SCHN), a support network for homeschoolers of all stripes. While this might seem to fly in the face of the notion of homeschooling as an independent enterprise, Debrier says that’s just one of many inaccurate stereotypes. “Socialization is very important to us,” she says.

Ray notes that the idea of cooperatives and families working to homeschool together with other families and tutors, is nothing new. "It’s been going on for 30 years, it’s just that there are so many more homeschool families now.”

There are obvious advantages to homeschooling parents teaming up to co-teach each another’s children: filling in gaps in knowledge, reducing pressure on an individual parent, and socialization with other kids, to name a few. Debrier’s nonprofit charges an annual $20 membership fee, which adds up to allow for yearly events that parents likely could not manage on their own, such as renting a movie theater or roller rink, and a recent educational day where the local Academy of Sciences contracted to provide science teachers to work with member kids.

The Freedom to Customize Education

So what leads families down the homeschool path? Talk to a few homeschooling families and you will hear a range of rationales, from wanting their children to retain the joy of learning, which many feel public schools suppress, to a desire for control over the school schedule so that children don’t become overstressed and overworked. Curriculum changes and budget cuts in public schools drive parents to homeschool, as do the existence of newer online support networks and a vast array of curriculum, which make the process of homeschooling appealing to parents who had not considered it before. Most of all, there is an overarching feeling among homeschool parents that they can do a better job of giving a well-rounded, healthy education to their children than the schools can. Or as Ray puts it, “The philosophy in the modern homeschool movement is freedom to do things in a way that’s flexible and customized as best for the children.”

“We wanted our daughters to be self-thinkers, propelled to learn by intrinsic motivations and able to adapt in a variety of social circles,” says Lorelei Bowers of Washington state, who has been homeschooling her three children since the start of their educational careers. Because those skills were not ones they believed traditional public schooling could provide, the Bowers family chose the homeschooling route, but with a distinct cooperative element.

Bowers and her children entered into a parent-led homeschool co-op begun by Bowers’ close friend. “At the beginning it was academically oriented, with the parents rotating teaching responsibility. As time moved on, we focused on field trips and social outings. I individually taught the girls more than they learned at the co-op, but I liked supplementing their week.”

Stephanie Cowan, a California mother of three, has also homeschooled her children from the beginning. When her youngest was two, she joined forces with seven families to form a homeschool co-op, in which each parent involved would teach a different subject. While participation eventually whittled down to only four families, she says, “It worked well because it was very organized and each person played a role that was valuable.”

Debrier has found there is a typical homeschool personality, which can both help and hinder cooperative neworks. “What I see with homeschool moms—and I can’t characterize dads because I don’t see many of them—is that they are all sort of mavericks, independent types, very smart, slightly nerdy and very attached to their kids,” she says. Sometimes that can lead to great friendships and educational partnerships; other times, it can spell trouble.

In the Cowan family’s case, the kind of intensity Debrier described ended up being the downfall of their co-op. “What didn’t work well was having some very strong personalities that had a difficult time working together and allowing flexibility,” Cowan says. “I think that a true co-op has to have a group of individuals who have the same goals in mind and the same philosophies in education.”

Who Homeschools?

National Center for Education Statistics suggests that homeschooling may be a largely Caucasian enterprise: 68% of homeschooling children are white, which raises the question of whether homeschooling is only an option for the privileged. Brian Ray suggests that’s not entirely accurate. “The macro picture is that homeschool families are median income. They’re not wealthy, they’re not poor. But it actually doesn’t take much money.”

Ray’s organization has also found that more and more families of color are now choosing homeschooling as an option; in the past 15 years, African American families have been especially drawn to the practice. “Basically these families are telling me, Yeah, Brown vs. the Board of Education happened, but nothing more has changed. We’re not going to wait 12 more years to see how our children do, we’re out of there."

But what about time? Can a working parent or a single parent homeschool? Ray suggests that homeschool co-ops and support networks may be the answer for single parents or parents who work long hours but still choose to homeschool: co-ops can offer extra curriculum and even provide help with transportation and childcare.

Debrier agrees that it need not be time-intensive, because she has done it. A physician who now works part time, she has worked full time while homeschooling after dinner in lieu of TV or other entertainment. “Homeschooling is just more efficient than public school. You can do at home in three hours a day what school does in seven.”

How It Works

Truancy laws, which vary from state to state, require children to be enrolled in some form of education, and homeschoolers have several options for how to proceed without running afoul of the law. The most common choice is the Private School Affadavit (PSA) in which a parent, in essence, applies to become a private school for their own children. With PSAs, the parent has the most freedom in choosing which topics to teach and is not prevented from joining forces with other parents to form co-ops or networks, though there are state-mandated subjects that must be covered. In this situation parents do not necessarily receive funds from any outside sources to supplement their teaching (though they can apply to do so from curriculum providers, charter schools, and even school districts).

Another option is the creation of an Independent Study Program (ISP) through a local public school. Some school districts will allow parents to homeschool if their children are enrolled via independent study or independent satellite programs (run by the district). In this model, children might take a class or two per week at the school, but the bulk of the teaching is done at home, and many parents in these programs volunteer teach, or join forces for playdates.

“It’s a great money-maker for the district,” Ray points out. “Usually a mom teaches her children at home, but she has to use the public school curriculum and she’s teaching for free. She’s essentially an unpaid school teacher for the public school system and the school district takes in money for her child,” he says.

Amy Seidewand and her husband Sean took advantage of just such a program “quite by accident,” when they moved to a new apartment out of their regular school district and the new district’s kindergarten refused their daughter’s transfer. They signed up with Ocean Alternative, a homeschool network available through their school district in Santa Cruz, Calif.

“It’s run by the school district but parents help out. Students go one day for four hours and then a second day for two hours,” Seidewand says. She spends 2-3 hours a day teaching her children, only one of whom is school age. “It’s a very diverse set of students and families at our homeschool group,” she says, though she laments the lack of time to really get to know anyone. Though she feels her older daughter has learned a lot, in the long run they will be looking into other options; with several years of homeschool experience under her belt, they now feel their daughter may do better in a structured school environment.

For those families not bound in by using district curricula, there is a growing range of options for where to buy teaching materials. Many homeschool parents purchase curriculum of their own from sources such as Dreambox, Brainpop or Teacher File Box. Hilary Sang, a California mom who homeschooled her oldest daughter 20 years ago, and is doing so again with her 8-year-old daughter, says there’s now a much richer array of curriculum available to homeschoolers “competing for the homeschool dollar.” “We homeschool parents love to get together and talk about what we’re doing, compare notes and curriculum,” Sang says.

With so many more options, and increasing dissatisfaction with public school, the explosion in homeschooling numbers suggests it’s not a trend that’s going away. But homeschoolers have begun to feel apprehensive, according to Ray, about school districts’ increasingly focused eye on these public school/homeschool partnerships. “The more legislators and the public come to think of public school home programs as homeschooling, the more they want to control it,” he says. “It sounds conspiratorial, but if you can get homeschoolers in these public-private partnerships, the districts can regulate them, which is what the homeschoolers don’t want. They say, just leave us alone."

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