The number of homeschool students has shot up 30 percent in the past five years. Why are mothers choosing this option?
by Lori Peckham
In October of 2003 Lois Robinson took her kids on what they call "the really big trip," or "RBT." Ryan, almost 11, Mindy, 8, and Lois left their home in Gresham, Oregon, and flew to Ohio to visit Lois's brother.
Then the three took off in their rental car, touring Amish country, the Liberty Bell, a chocolate factory, the Smithsonian museums, and New York City. Lois's husband, Greg, flew in for part of the trip.
All in all, they spent three weeks visiting eight states. How could they take off school for this long? They didn't. They did schoolwork the whole time they were on the trip. And because Lois homeschools Ryan and Mindy, she was able to capitalize on the learning opportunities along the way.
"We were studying American history, and it was wonderful to be right in the middle of Civil War sites," says Lois. "We visited Ford's theater and Gettysburg, and it really made the material come alive."
This is the second year Lois is homeschooling her children, and they all love it. On their Christmas card they listed various numbers, including "miles we put on our rental car during our RBT"2,525; friends and family members we visited with on our RBT?19; complaints from Ryan and Mindy about homeschooling?0.?
Why do it?
Why did Lois start homeschooling her kids? "My main motivation was to have them around more, to spend more time with them," she states. "I thought the school day was far too long. Around Christmastime of Mindy's first year of school I decided, This is going too fast. By the time they get home from school, practice their piano, and eat supper, the day is shot. Also, when Mindy started first grade, she would be twiddling her thumbs most of the day waiting for everyone to fall into line."
Debra Banks of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, decided to homeschool her children for three reasons. "First, my husband and I wanted to give them a very strong spiritual foundation without all the distractions that kids can get from their peers at school," she says. "Second, we wanted them to be more mature and prepared before going into an environment where they're the minority-there are very few Black families in our town. And third, we wanted to give them that one-on-one attention and hopefully set them on the path to excel in whatever they do."
Angela Stewart of Cleburne, Texas, homeschooled her son, Julian, for kindergarten and now first grade. "He learns so much more at home," she explains. "I believe that he wouldn't learn as much in one day at school than he learns in one morning at home. Also, like all kids, he's very influenced by other kids-sometimes in negative ways. So I feel it's better for him to stay home for now and mature as a little boy."
Donna Musselman of Longwood, Florida, began homeschooling Hank when the school psychologist recommended it as one way to help him catch up academically. Trained as a teacher, Donna realized that Hank's learning style clashed with his teacher's methods of presenting information.
Kathy Kiley, a nurse from Powder Springs, Georgia, says that the idea of homeschooling began when her husband, Dennis, expressed a concern about putting their two children into school at such an early age. So Kathy agreed to homeschool Jamie, now 21, and Tyler, now 19, for the first couple grades and ended up homeschooling them until their first day of college!
Where to start?
Kathy shares that once she decided to homeschool, she had no idea where to start. "I thought I would be like a pioneer woman crossing the plains on a covered wagon, out there on my own," she laughs. But then her cousin invited her to a seminar about a homeschool curriculum. Next Kathy heard about a homeschool association in her town. "I decided to go on one of their field trips, and about 200 kids showed up!" she says. "I was just blown away."
Kathy joined the homeschool association and discovered a wealth of resources for homeschoolers. Later she hooked up with other families in her church who were homeschooling.
She says that four families in particular were very active. "We would find out about daytime concerts for kids put on by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra," she says, "or we'd tour the Mayfield Dairy or the Ford plant or art exhibits or see plays such as Charlotte's Web. These programs are developed for the public education system, but homeschoolers can come, and you can enjoy wonderful, professional things for a nominal fee."
One of the first things Debra did was look for people who were homeschooling and ask them "a ton of questions." She also did research on the Internet and read books. "Even with all that, it can be very overwhelming," she warns. "Everyone has a curriculum or gadgets or educational toys that they think you just must have."
Debra says she soon learned that there are different ways to homeschool. "There are the classical learning methods, which are more literature-based and emphasize the classics. There are what I call 'middle-of-the road' homeschoolers, who cover the basics and incorporate the same kind of format you have in the classroom but utilize some nontraditional methods as well. And there are 'unschooling' homeschoolers, who pretty much format the curriculum around the interests of the child, current events, or activities. These homeschoolers do a lot of thematic units, and although it comes across as less structured and more relaxed, there is still a lot of learning going on."
For the first year of homeschooling Debra chose a classical approach and got bored. "My daughter hated it, and I hated it," she admits. After determining that she was somewhere in between the "unschooling" and the "middle-of-the road" homeschooler, she began adding some thematic units on topics that interested her children.
For instance, the kids became fascinated by optical illusions after seeing an episode of Reading Rainbow. Debra began researching the topic. "The beauty of thematic units is that you can teach many subjects at once. We'll learn about the eye, how to protect it, its connection with your brain, how your body works as a unit-that's science and health," she explains. "If you tie in reading assignments from the library, book reports, art projects, and vocabulary and spelling words, you've got almost all your subjects covered."
Thematic units also enable her to incorporate three different grade levels and learning styles. "I discovered that Autumn, in grade 3, is very visual," Debra explains. "So with her I have to incorporate a drawing project. Alvin, my first-grader, is very tactile. He loves to create things with his hands, so I give him activities such as designing and building. Alijah, my kindergartner, is extremely auditory. He loves to sing, so anything set to music works pretty well."
Debra gleans most of her teaching plans from the Internet. "I do a search under a topic," she says. "It takes a lot of research, but I do this when they're asleep."
Lois, on the other hand, has chosen a more classical curriculum developed by Sonlight. "They provide a full curriculum that's literature-based," she explains. "All the books they have the kids read at one time relate to the same historical time period. For instance, Ryan was reading about Abraham Lincoln when we took our trip. The books they pick are just phenomenal, and it's Christian-based."
Angela, a single mother who works 40 hours a week as a nurse, has also chosen a very structured program. Julian attends school two days a week and is homeschooled three. Angela says that the school uses a university-model, providing the lesson plans and teaching all the basics, such as math, history, English, and science. Then the children and parents can choose other classes, such as art, Spanish, and PE. They pay for each class they take, from $115 to $150 each.
"This is so much easier than planning it yourself," Angela shares, "and it takes the pressure off of finding out what he needs to do and going out and buying all the stuff ourselves and then wondering if he's learning what he should be."
Donna started her search for material at her public library. She asked the reference librarian for help, and the librarian pulled out a huge file just for homeschoolers-local requirements, places for field trips, etc.
Donna has also found a Seventh-day Adventist homeschooling group in her area, and now, eight years later, she says she wouldn't still be homeschooling without their support. "They do a field trip at least once a week. We go to science programs at Tibet-Butler Preserve, and the kids learn about bears, alligators, eagles, and spiders. And next week we're going on a cruise on the St. Johns River, where we'll learn about the river and plants and animals that live along there. We also have science fairs and history fairs."
The group even has a monthly R & R meeting just for parents. Sometimes they have a guest speaker discuss topics of interest to homeschooling families. "When you homeschool, you're with your kids all the time," she says. "So belonging to a group is as important for you as it is for your kids!"
Pros and cons
All of the families attest that schoolwork can be done much quicker in a home environment than in a classroom. It takes anywhere from two to five hours to complete the day's work.
Lois says that her program even offers a four-day or a five-day curriculum. They have chosen the four-day program, which gives them a day to do things with other homeschoolers or as a family on Wednesdays, Greg's day off. And they love not having the morning rush out the door, making lunches, and packing up for the day.
One of Debra's favorite aspects of homeschooling is that she can incorporate teaching activities into everyday life. "I'll have the kids help me cook, and they'll measure out the ingredients. That's math. Or I'll tell them to double the recipe. That helps them learn fractions," she explains.
Kathy also enjoyed the flexibility of homeschooling, though she admits that her biggest challenge was having structure. "We flew by the seat of our pants," she shares. "If we wanted to take a month off for Christmas, we did. And we did homeschooling all year. When we finished one math book, we would begin the next. We just did what was interesting at the time. We didn't have television and didn't do videos, so a lot of the children's education came through reading and traveling. When my husband was traveling, we traveled."
Donna, on the other hand, feels that structure is important to Zech, 12, Nicholas, 11, and Benjamin, 8. "Since I also do medical transcription work from home," says Donna, "it's important for me to have a set room and a set time so the kids know, This is school time. This is when Mommy wears the hat of teacher."
Debra also has created a classroom complete with a library (though it also serves as a guest room and computer room), but both she and Lois say that their kids do most of their schoolwork on the dining room table.
Most of the families spend from $500 to $1,000 for supplies per child per school year. They can, of course, spend significantly more, and there are cost-saving tips, also. (See womenofspirit.com/bonus.)
Can someone who isn't trained as a teacher homeschool even through high school? Kathy says that she certainly didn't feel qualified to teach high school calculus and physics, but it was never a problem.
"By the time my children got to this level, they left me behind," she laughs. "I'm not good at math and chemistry, but they were very capable and able to do it on their own. I just bought the books and administered the tests. By the time you finish teaching elementary school, you have a child who basically knows how to learn, how to think, and they're not used to being fed information. They're used to going after information."
This ability to pick up information led her children to start what many homeschoolers call a cottage industry, a way to combine learning with practical work. Jamie, at 16, and Tyler, at 15, launched a Web development business, something neither of their parents knew anything about. Tyler learned programming by reading books, and Jamie had an aptitude for design and marketing. At 17, she was doing cold calls to businesses and successfully selling their Web services at $25 to $50 an hour.
What about socialization for homeschooled children? "Sometimes I think my kids are over-socialized!" reports Donna. "Besides belonging to a homeschool group, we have a co-op with about 30 kids in it. We make the kids get up in front of each other and do reports. My kids also go to church and Pathfinders. And they have the option of joining a homeschool band and gymnastics team."
Angela agrees that it's easy to find ways to keep kids socialized. "Julian is a very outgoing kid and needs a lot of social interaction, and we make sure he gets that," she says. "Two days a week he attends another Christian school for choir and Spanish, and he goes early to get recess with the other kids."
Kathy remembers a special social tradition that the families in her homeschool group began. They felt that it was important for the children to get tested each year so they would have the concept of testing. They found out that the Sylvan Learning Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, would administer the California Achievement Tests for them over two days.
So at the end of each school year the mothers and children would go to Chattanooga on a Monday morning, and the children would take half of the test. In the meantime the mothers would check into a hotel with a swimming pool and enjoy some shopping. After the day's testing, the kids would play in the pool, and the next day they would finish up their test.
That evening the fathers would drive up, and everyone would head to a restaurant for supper. There the parents would present their children with a certificate of some kind for completion of a grade level, for growth in reading or math skills, or for some other accomplishment.
"It was a way to acknowledge some growth and development in your child," says Kathy. "And when our kids heard the word 'test,' their eyes would light up!"
"Sometimes I get overwhelmed with working and homeschooling, and I feel like giving it up," admits Donna. "But then I see my kids' excitement over learning something, and I'm so glad that I can be a part of this and get to see them grow up. I get to go on field trips with my kids, and I'm so excited that I can share this with them."
"I never, ever thought I would do this," adds Lois, an occupational therapist. "But it's nice to know what your kids are doing, what they're learning, and what they need help on. If you think you can't do it, you probably can. And you won't have any regrets."
Kathy attests that she and her family have no regrets about homeschooling. But she shares, "When we started homeschooling, I thought I had something really special to offer my children. I had this formula and did all this research. It took a long time for God to show me that I have nothing to offer them except for His grace. The only thing we can do is point our children to Jesus."