Home is where the smart is

Posted on April 22, 2008 – 5:03 PM | by OldManFoster
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by Dani Kando-Kaiser

According to the National Home Education Research Institute, an estimated 1.9 to 2.4 million American children were home educated during 2005-2006. Chances are, especially if you are a parent, you know at least one family that is homeschooling. And studies show that every year, more and more parents are choosing to be the primary educator in their child’s life.

kidsTo the “untrained parent”—as many of us parents may be—the term homeschooling needs to be demystified. There are as many forms of homeschooling as there are parenting styles. And, while the majority of families that choose homeschooling still are white, middle class, Christian families, evidence shows that homeschoolers (especially those in California) come from every political, racial and socioeconomic group.

In speaking with a few Sacramento parents who have chosen this route, it’s apparent that their reasons vary greatly, but a common thread unites them all: the school where their children were either already enrolled or were going to be enrolled did not meet their children’s needs.

In Julie Gonzales’s case, her 14-year-old son has a debilitating condition that requires that he remain in a reclining position and that he follow his lessons as his health allows. The frenetic schedule that many schools require students to keep up with is impossible for students with special needs. In the case of Gonzales’s son, his private school did not have the resources to meet his needs and the family began homeschooling in 2005.

Another common thread among some homeschooling parents is a background in education. McKinley Park parent Joan Stults, who is homeschooling her fifth and second grade children, has a background in early childhood development. Along with teaching her children, she does consulting for an early childhood education preparedness outreach program for underserved populations in the Sacramento area.

Speaking about her decision to take her children out of public school, she said, “In California, I think the system is broken. Teachers are having to teach to the middle, because there’s so much information that has to be taught to the kids. It’s all about the testing every year. If the kids don’t get it right away, they’re left in the dust.”

The testing that Stults is referring to is the STAR tests. The Student Testing and Reporting Program requires that all students in grades 2 through 11 take a rigorous series of proficiency tests at the end of each school year. While some may think this is a fine idea, many parents feel that this kind of testing puts unreasonable pressure on children and takes away their love of learning.

This idea, that conventional schooling undermines children’s natural abilities is one of the tenants of a movement called “unschooling.” The Sacramento Unschooling Network has become a very big presence in Sacramento, with hundreds of families forming a network of resources and daily activities.

Like homeschooling, unschooling is different for every family. What binds unschoolers is the idea that children will learn more when they are allowed to explore at their own pace and according to their own interests. Parents are there to engage children and expose them to new ideas and experiences, but it is the children who direct the learning process. This all might sound too unorthodox, if it didn’t make so much sense for some parents.

Craig Usher, who lives with his wife and two children in Oak Park, has been a stay at home dad for several years. Usher’s choice to unschool his children comes from his confidence in the life he and his family have created. As he described it, “Homsechooling is an extension of my choice to parent consciously and focus my life on my kids. And from that, I’ve gotten such a reward. It’s a natural choice. Putting them in school wouldn’t be logical for us.”

Usher, who was a special education teacher for years, was first turned onto the possibility of homeschooling when he and his wife, who was pregnant with their first child, visited the annual Homeschool Association of California Home–Education Conference. Usher went to the conference because he was frustrated with the lack of respect he saw for the students, especially teens.

“What has stuck with me for years after attending that conference was the depth and character of the teenagers there – their confidence. We wanted that opportunity for our kids too.”
For the past year and half, Usher has been informally unschooling his two young children, but he will have to file official paperwork next year, when his son turns six. While homeschooling and unschooling allow parents to follow their own path, there are still some regulations for even the most loosely defined systems.

And, many parents who chose to homeschool welcome some of these regulations. For some, the best choice is to join a charter school that provides a curriculum and monitors the student’s progress with monthly check-ups.

Julie Gonzales, who said that she never imagined that she’d ever be homeschooling her son, is very pleased with the charter program system. “I’m thrilled with someone coming once a month to help. We get $1,500 from the state every year for my son’s education. I used to pay $5,000 a year for the private school, so I thought ‘This is like Christmas!’”

Other charter programs, like the one that the Stults family is a part of, have a different model that features a center with weekly classes and activities her children attend. She says that this is often a welcome respite from the home environment and it also helps her to divvy up the responsibility of teaching two children at different grade levels. While one child is attending classes, she’s able to work more closely with her other child.

Stults also clarifies one of the myths about homeschooling, which is the thought that homeschooled children lead a sequestered existence outside of the experience of mainstream children. Stults’ children are involved in all of the sports and activities that other children enjoy, and with their network of family and friends, she laughs about there never really being a dull moment.

When all is said and done, nearly all parents are united in their desire to give their child the best of everything and to protect them from those things that will harm them. What all of the parents here expressed was a great concern with the speed with which children are now forced to operate and perform.

“In early childhood education,” Stults pointed out, “you learn that kids follow their own paths, but that doesn’t work in the reality of today’s schools. We didn’t make our choice because we thought public schools are full of heathens. It was just a way for us to adjust the learning to the needs of our kids.”

And perhaps Craig Usher said it the best when he stated, “I don’t want my kids to grow up too fast. I’m trying to protect my kids from adulthood.”

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