When the average person thinks of homeschooling, one of the following images probably comes to mind: devoutly religious parents, unwilling to expose their children to the evils lurking in schools; children sequestered in a log cabin, unfamiliar with the ways of the world; a harried stay-at-home mom, trying to quickly become expert in subjects as varied as chemistry and Dickens, holding forth from a textbook to her bored and alienated-looking preteen.
But, in fact, running a tutoring service, I’ve found that a new brand of parent is using homeschooling as an option, especially in New York City. Most of the parents I work with who are homeschooling their kids are doing it for short periods of time, to bridge a gap — either for a temporary situation, such as an illness or relocation, or while figuring out their child’s next step.
Here are just a few of the reasons our clients have had in recent years for homeschooling their children:
—Psychological and emotional issues (children with debilitating phobias, bi-polar disorder, victims of bullies, etc.)
—Illness (one heart surgery patient, one with chronic fatigue syndrome, another with recurring mononucleosis)
—Temporary relocation to New York (from other states or other countries) for parents’ business — including sports figures and people in the entertainment industry
—Behavioral/discipline issues (kids who have been suspended or expelled from school)
—Learning issues (kids with learning disabilities, or those who learn more effectively in unconventional ways)
—Parents’ disappointment in public school options and inability to afford private school tuition
—Parents not wanting their child to be subjected to “tracking” and the competitive culture of some top schools
—Parents’ desire for their child to “see the world” and interact meaningfully in their communities as a part of their education
A Growing Trend
A recent article in Child magazine reported that the most current data on homeschooling were collected by the National Center for Education Statistics in 1999. At that time, 850,000 children, or 2 percent of school-age kids, were being homeschooled. But an expert quoted in the same article says she believes the number is now closer to 1.5 million.
Frankly, it doesn’t surprise me that the trend is growing. As someone who works with families every day, I know that this generation of parents — myself included — is not willing to settle for education that doesn’t meet the needs of our children. We tend to be deeply involved in our children’s lives, and very conscious about how the entire schooling process affects their future. If we see our kids suffering at school — due to a learning difficulty, social issue, or psychological or emotional problem — we are not likely to shrug our shoulders and have them stick it out, regardless of the consequences.
If there is a concept that resonates with this generation of parents, it is that of options. We expect to raise our kids in the manner we see fit, and that includes education in accordance with values and standards that make sense for us and our children. And if something isn’t working for them in their current school, we want the option to take them away from that setting, and find a solution that works better. It means homeschooling them in the meantime, so be it. Luckily for us, such options now exist — and are becoming more available every day.
An Alternative Vision
Try these images of homeschooling on for size, instead: a preteen filming a documentary about the history of his neighborhood; a Spanish tutor conversing one-on-one with a homebound teenager recovering from an illness about her personal experiences in Latin America; a mathematician mom organizing a science fair for a collective of homeschooled kids.
Educating your child at home — even for a short-term stint, while you’re figuring out the next step for your child — can have a number of benefits. First and foremost is tailoring the education your child gets to his or her particular learning style, strengths, and weaknesses. Another benefit is the valuable “eyeball-to-eyeball” time studying with you or a tutor — time spent engaged in the subject matter in a way that isn’t possible in a classroom with 18-30 students. Schooling becomes more meaningful when your child is at the center of the curriculum. That’s why parents so often hire tutors to supplement the classroom experience.
“For my son, homeschooling for his fourth grade year was the greatest blessing,” says Linda, a mom in Manhattan. “We just didn’t have him at a school that worked for him socially, emotionally, or academically. In the year it took to find and enroll him in a school that was more appropriate, homeschooling filled the gap. He loved learning one-on-one. His passion came back, and his confidence soared. Now he’s happy in school again.”
Homeschooling also gives you the chance to make the world your child’s classroom, and have learning come directly from the community — as opposed to abstract principles without “real life” meaning. You can follow your and your child’s inspiration, and put more hours into a subject that intrigues him or her. And while family vacations normally need to be confined to the school’s schedule, homeschooling allows you to turn travel into part of your child’s education.
Another advantage: Your child can socialize with children of diverse ages, as opposed to being in a classroom only with kids born in the same year.
“Wait a minute,” I hear you thinking. “‘Socializing’? That’s just the problem with homeschooling — those kids don’t get exposed to other kids. They won’t be able to function in society.”
In fact, parents who homeschool take great exception to this criticism. After all, as adults, when do we have to interact with a group of 30 people exactly our age? This argument also fails to take into account the great networking ability of homeschooling parents. In New York, there are numerous opportunities for playgroups, athletic teams, special classes, joining up with other kids for field trips, and support groups for parents. Not to mention most kids’ innate skill in making and maintaining friendships. “Our son was very good at keeping up with his friends from school, so there was never an issue with social contact,” says Mary, a Brooklyn mom whose son spent his middle school years learning from home. From what I’ve observed, it would be possible to spend every day of the week with peers. Going to the theater, martial arts classes, soccer groups, foreign language classes, music instruction — these are just some of the opportunities I see pop up on the listserv of New York City Home Educators Alliance (NYCHEA) website (www.nychea.org).
While short-term homeschooling doesn’t create anxiety about college acceptance, the idea of using it for longer stints may make parents nervous. Rest assured: While reliable statistics are hard to come by, it is now commonly accepted that top universities not only admit homeschooled kids, they even recruit them. Homeschoolers perform above average on the ACT, and are thought to be independent thinkers, creative, and strong on all academic subjects. (The College Board won’t release the SAT figures, saying that the pool of test-takers is too small to be a representative sample.) An article in Time magazine reported that 26 percent of 35 homeschooled applicants had been accepted into Stanford University’s 2001 freshman class — nearly double the rate of overall acceptance.
If your child needs short-term homeschooling, most bureaucracy will be through your child’s school — making sure he or she stays on top of assignments and the school’s particular curriculum. But if you are going for a more long-term option, New York State requires you to create an Individualized Home Instruction Plan. You can modify the curriculum for your child’s grade based on the one provided by the Department of Education or ones found online, to fit the bill. Once your IHIP is approved, you can proceed with living up to the plan — with traditional homework assignments and lesson plans, and nontraditional ones as well (field trips included!). At the year’s end, either your child undergoes a standardized test, or compiles a portfolio of work for independent evaluation. Mary, whose 15-year-old son is now attending an alternative high school, says that the process was “daunting at first, but turned out to be much easier than I expected.” Joining NYCHEA (for $35 year) will also get you more advice and support than you know what to do with.
What Works for You
So what does that mean, in terms of a day-to-day routine? Mary’s son, who had been diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Separation Anxiety, was self-directed enough to handle some time on his own. (And as a small business owner, she didn’t have the ability to be his constant companion). The family decided on a mix of private tutoring three afternoons a week, independent reading and homework, and family field trips. We were able to match Mary’s son with tutors who fit the bill, both in terms of their ability to teach the academic subjects, and those whose personalities and teaching styles would jibe with the teen’s needs. After three years of successful homeschooling and psychological treatment, Mary’s son was ready to return to school. “The flexibility afforded by homeschooling during this stressful time was helpful for all of us,” says Mary. “His tutors have been wonderful throughout — he’s still being tutored after school by one of them a couple of days a week, doing extra work in the areas he needs it, and will do SAT prep when the time comes.”
Linda, the mom who homeschooled her fourth-grader until she had figured out a better school situation for him, used a different schedule. Her son worked with his tutor from 9am-noon every weekday morning, covering all subjects required by New York State — math, science, social studies, English, and reading. (They had purchased textbooks, workbooks, and outlines online). The tutor supplemented and modified as she saw fit. The afternoons, says Linda, were less structured, with rotating time spent with her, his father, his caregiver, and grandmother. “After his tutor left, we’d have lunch, and then do some activity — swimming lesson, gymnastics, ice skating, visiting a museum, taking in a performance or the zoo. Sometimes he would have a playdate with another homeschooler,” she says. “It was work, but we all enjoyed that year with our son, especially because we could all see how much happier he was.”
Of course, these are only two examples. Other parents have gone strictly by the school’s curriculum, and hire tutors from 9am–2pm, five days a week. It depends on what the parent envisions, the sort of curriculum they’re using (curricula vary from state to state and country to country). It also depends on the child’s age, since younger students can’t manage as well with long stretches of independent study time. The individually-tailored nature of homeschooling is perhaps its biggest asset — as well as its most fundamental challenge. For one parent to fill the six “regular school” hours between 9am and 3pm on her own is daunting, and probably unrealistic. Mixing it up with groups, tutors, and trips makes the day go by faster, and accounts for the fun and free time found at even the most rigid schools.
LAURIE GERBER is the founder and president of Partners With Parents, Inc., an in-home tutoring service that helps New York City parents looking for a customized educational experience for their children (including tutoring, academic coaching, homework help, music lessons and homeschooling). She can be reached at (212) 928-5014, or [email protected] Their website is www.partnerswithparents.com.