Each year, as summer wraps up and store shelves fill with backpacks, lunchboxes and colorful new notebooks, American families take on a rite of passage: sending their children off to school.
But for more families than ever before, the falling leaves will not come with school buses, lunch money or parentteacher conferences. These parents have decided to educate their children at hom
Homeschooling has become a way of life for more than a million children in the United States. The numbers have jumped from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.5 million in 2007 – that’s a whopping 76 percent leap in just eight years.
So who is homeschooling, and why?
Freedom, Flexibility and Personalized Learning
“We liked the idea of being able to individualize instruction more,” says Marybeth Essex, a Richmond mom of two. She began homeschooling Megan, 12, and Sam, 9, last year. “We can tailor what we’re doing to their interests and spend as much time on any topic asWe want.” Essex also likes the flexibility that homeschooling gives their whole family.
“If a family member gets sick and we have to leave town, or even if we just want to go to the beach,” she says, “we can just pack up and bring school with us.”
Sometimes, a trip out of town is part of the lesson. Essex and her children have embarked on trips to Mexico, Jamaica and Haiti that memorably illustrated lessons on Aztec culture, marine biology and natural disasters.
Renee Smith of Goochland has also used long-distance field trips to supplement the homeschooling of her daughters: Lydia, 13; Logan, 12; and Kirby, 10. While Richmond hit tripledigit temps this past summer, they enjoyed a whaling trip in the cool air of Alaska (to the particular delight of Kirby, an aspiring marine biologist).
“For us, it’s important to recognize what God has given each child,” she says.
“They each have different needs, wants, talents… all of that helps us decide which areas to explore, and homeschooling gives us the freedom to go wherever that leads.”
Forget What You’ve Heard
These extraordinary field trips help dispel one of the greatest myths about homeschooling: that it begins and ends at the kitchen table. Lessons can be supplemented with regular class time in co-ops and community colleges, especially as the coursework becomes more specialized. And of course, field trips can always be local.
“We took so many field trips that it took us two years to get through American history,” says Smith, laughing. “There’s just so much to see in this area – Monticello, Jamestown, D.C. – there was always something new to learn, and I’m so glad they didn’t have to rush through it.”
Another persistent myth is that homeschooled kids suffer socially, never Interacting with peers outside of their own families.
“That’s just not true at all,” says Essex. “They still see their buddies through church, scout groups, theater activities… people have this idea that homeschool students never leave the house, but that would never work.”
Essex says that some people assume homeschooling is an attempt to shelter children from the world, but that too is false.
“My husband and I both went to public schools,” she says, “and so did our kids until last year. The teachers were great, the other students were fine… we just want our children to be able to get out and see what they’re learning. So it’s the opposite of sheltering, really.”
Jill Carrillo, a mother of three in Lakeside, plans to begin homeschooling her oldest child, 5-year-old Raenen, this fall. Actually, says Carrillo, it will be more like “unschooling” – home-based learning that doesn’t always follow a structured curriculum or school day.
“We consider ourselves attachment parents,” says Carrillo, “which essentially means being in tune with who your child is and responding to his specific needs. This kind of schooling falls right in line with that.”
Carrillo says that a quiet, structured classroom would be the wrong environment for her active, curious and enthusiastic son.
“I want him to enjoy learning and know that it’s fun,” she says. “We can see that his personality is not going to fit with traditional schooling, at least not in the early years. We want to give him the freedom to learn his way at first, and then let us know if he wants to transition into school later.”
Mechanicsville mom Júlia Tiburi- Grashoff will begin homeschooling her daughter, 5-year-old Kirsten, this fall. For them, things will have to be more organized, but homeschooling is still the way to go.
“Kirsten thrives in an organized environment,” says Tiburi-Grashoff. “She will wake up early, get dressed, have breakfast, and then to the classroom area we have set up in a room in our basement.”
This mom says she’d never thought about homeschooling – until Kirsten was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies at age 2.
“My first thought was, ‘How is she going to survive school?’ The thought of sending her to a place packed with kids and their PB&J sandwiches scared me to death.”
For the three years since then, Kirsten’s mom, a native of Brazil, has been studying U. S. education standards and how to apply them to her daughter’s schooling.
“I won’t lie,” she says, “I’m nervous! I never thought that I would be teaching my own child math, history, geography… I thought I was going to be waving goodbye as my child took off in the yellow bus. But we can’t control life, and things change and here we are. Nervous or not, we will embrace it. I may be learning as much as she does.”
Goochland mom Renee Smith says that’s been one of the perks of homeschooling her three girls.
“I have learned more by homeschooling than I ever did in school,” she laughs. “Instead of memorizing things, we get to learn them and experience them. We all do, together.”