As controversies over Common Core and mandated standardized tests become more and more prevalent, many parents are choosing a new option in educating their children: homeschooling.
Once the sole province of the very religious, homeschooling is becoming more popular every day, with a growth rate of 7 to 15 percent per year. Nationwide, about 2 million children learn at home instead of in a brick-and-mortar school, up from about 1 million in 2003. According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 88 percent of U.S. homeschool parents express concern about the school environment, citing drugs, negative peer pressure and general safety.
The internet provides a vast number of resources for those interested in homeschooling, especially in Central New York. If you’re interested in homeschooling your child, check out these sites:
Home Learners Association of CNY — HLACNY.com
Loving Education at Home — leah.org
East Side Homeschool Cooperative — ehcoop.org
Homeschool in CNY on Facebook
CNY Homeschoolers United on Facebook
Syracuse Area Homeschoolers Association — syracusehomeschoolers.com
Katie Higgins-Kapilla of Syracuse said she initially chose to homeschool her three children, who are in fifth, third and first grade, as an extension of her attachment parenting philosophy, which promotes a strong emotional bond between parent and child.
“At the heart of AP, at least as I interpret it, is the commitment nurturing the whole child and meeting each child’s unique individual needs balanced with the needs of the family as a whole,” said Higgins-Kapilla, a graduate of Liverpool High School. “Learning at home and in a broader community rather than a brick-and-mortar school building gives the kids the opportunity to explore their world without being bound to a school schedule and curricula chosen by a faraway committee.”
Higgins-Kapilla also felt homeschooling was a better option than subjecting her children to the numerous standardized tests so prevalent in mainstream education these days.
“I had deep concerns about the push for developmentally-inappropriate early academics and heavy reliance on testing that seems to be all the rage in current public education practice,” she said.
Other reasons for homeschooling include the perceived lack of academic rigor provided by a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
“The grade level work was not challenging my child,” said Kirsten Beasley-Osborne of North Syracuse, whose daughter is in third grade.
According to Jenafer Medina, president of the Home Learners Association of Central New York (HLACNY), which provides support and resources to homeschooling parents, the reasons are wide and varied.
“If you read some national report it will say that a large number homeschool for religious purposes. While that may be true on that level, our secular group has families with varied reasons,” Medina said. “One of the top reasons is academic. We have a lot of former teachers in our group, and we all want a better academic experience for our kids than is currently possible in the climate of public schooling. We want our children to love learning, and not to be tested and pressured. Some families homeschool because it fits their lifestyle due to non-traditional work schedules or desire to travel. Other families homeschool as a continuation of attachment parenting.”
Many also point to the success of homeschooled children. According to pro-homeschooling group the National Home Education Research Institute, homeschoolers typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on academic-achievement tests. In 2002, the College Board, which administers the SAT, reported that homeschoolers averaged 72 points, or 7 percent, higher than the national average. Homeschooled students graduate from college within four years at a higher rate than their public-school peers — 66.7 percent compared with 57.5 percent — and earned higher grade-point averages, according to a study comparing students at a university in the Midwest from 2004 to 2009.
Homeschoolers also enjoy a more varied curriculum than their mainstreamed peers, according to advocates.
“Homeschoolers have fewer students, so much more individualized options,” said Hannah Svarc, mom of a third-grader and field trip director for HLACNY. “We can learn what we want, when we want, for how long we want, as often as we want, in ways that make sense for our parenting and our children’s learning styles.”
There is rarely a “typical” day in the life of a homeschooler, though most parents try to follow some structure. Lessons vary depending on the season and weather; kids can engage with the outdoors during warmer months for science and other lessons, while more traditional bookwork can be confined to the colder days of fall and winter. There are numerous field trips so that children can experience what they’re learning about. And there are no time limitations on learning particular material; parents can spend as much time as necessary on a given subject until the child understands it without worrying about the constraints of tests.
Rules, regulations and resources
That’s not to say there is no testing for homeschooled kids. Testing or a narrative evaluation by a New York state-licensed educator is required every other year from fourth through eighth grade and every year from ninth through 12th. According to Higgins-Kapilla, many homeschoolers interpret that to mean testing in fifth and seventh grade. Tests can be provided by the child’s local school district or by local and national homeschooling resources. Homeschoolers must submit those scores to the district at the end of the year, as well as an annual letter noting intent to homeschool, an Individualized Home Instruction Plan detailing the expected curriculum and quarterly reports concerning attendance and material covered.
In Central New York, homeschoolers have a variety of resources to help them through the process, from Facebook pages to parent support groups. HLACNY in particular provides programs to help those who homeschool their kids.
“We offer a variety of programs to our members, including a co-op, field trips, an academy and a swimming program,” Medina said. “We also host many special events, such as festivals for showcasing the things our kids are learning, science and geography fairs, a NOT Back to School Party, laser tag parties and much more.”
For the co-op program, parents themselves teach classes in subjects like chorus, art, robotics, math and languages. HLACNY’s Academy, meanwhile, has professional teachers cover academic material.
“We had many parents who wanted a drop off program — because homeschooling parents and kids need a break too — and we knew that many also felt they needed some help with some of the harder subjects, or wanted their kids to have the chance to work on solid academics in a group environment,” Medina said. “We hired professional teachers, and offer only the few classes that we can do well. The parents follow up with subjects covered at Academy over the week at home, with suggestions planned by our teachers. So it takes a bit of pressure off and helps them not have to plan everything themselves. Our teachers are dynamic and work hard to plan behind the scenes to teach subjects in engaging ways, without the testing that is stressing children and teachers in the public school setting. We can focus on love of learning rather than test scores.”
So if kids are going to attend a co-op or academy like HLACNY’s, why not just attend a regular public school?
“In attending co-op and academy, some of the pressure is taken off of parents to do everything themselves, and great social time for everyone is added in,” Medina said. “We still maintain the autonomy to enroll only in the classes we choose and to take a ‘mental health’ day whenever we want. If a student finds one of our classes is not a good fit, they simply change to something else. Homeschooling children and parents love this freedom.”
Should you homeschool?
Homeschooling is not for everyone. It’s costly and time-consuming, and many families find that at least one parent must forego full-time employment in order to provide an adequate education to the children. Kids also have limited access to team sports and other services that are readily available at public schools. But homeschoolers believe those sacrifices are worth the payoff.
“It isn’t always easy, but what in life is?” Svarc said. “It works best for my family. I think about it, read about it, talk to other homeschoolers about it and live it. It is not something I do thoughtlessly.”
Homeschool advocates don’t think their kids are missing out on anything in bypassing traditional schooling — at least, not anything desirable.
“The things I think the kids miss out on by not being part of the public school system are not things I would wish for them to experience in the first place — negative social influences and bullying,” Higgins-Kapilla said. “Through homeschooling, the children constantly interact with people of all ages in the real world in which we live, rather interacting primarily with age-peers in the rarified environment of a school building. They also have a fundamental sense of ownership over their learning that would be much more difficult to develop if they were learning just for the test, or to get a good grade.”
Beasley-Osborne echoed those sentiments.
“My child still sees her friends from public school, and she has meet more friends that homeschool,” she said. “The friends she makes outside of public school hold varying ages, so the social interactions are less isolated to a specific age group. I believe children gain a better view of themselves and are able to focus more on learning experiences without having to fight off unwanted behavior from other students.”
Svarc doesn’t think her kids are missing out on anything.
“These kids have caring teachers, lessons that move at their own pace, tons of field trips, play dates, holiday parties, sports, arts and the freedom to study things that interest them,” Svarc said. “This is not all sit-at-the-kitchen-table-doing-math-drills. The kids have real lives, not artificial 30-same-aged-kids-to-one-adult lives. They don’t sadly watch the school bus go down the street and wistfully wish they were on it. They’re much too busy learning.”
And homeschoolers say anyone can homeschool. Though some are former teachers and educational professionals, the majority have no formal training. They rely on resources like HLACNY as well as curriculum programs like Khan Academy, K12.org, the Well-Trained Mind and more. Some, like Beasley-Osborne, use the same textbooks and programs used in public schools. Some create their own curricula. But all agree: in order to be successful, the lessons should be driven by the child.
“I have found that if you take the time to engage with children, you find out their interests and almost always, given the right tools they can learn on their own,” homeschooling mom Sarah Dadey of LaFayette said.
If you’re interested in homeschooling, the best advice these moms give is to rely on other homeschoolers.
“My advice is to lean on fellow homeschoolers,” Beasley-Osborne said. “This is a helpful community of people. Do not get discouraged! You can homeschool! Other people may not understand it at first but they will once the results start showing. More importantly, do this for your child and yourself. It may be hard at first because it may seem overwhelming, but once you get into the swing of it, homeschooling will be very fun and rewarding for your family.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.
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