Teach Your Children Well

Meet Amanda Meyers, 8 years old, and really into horses. Dressed in riding pants and shirt, she gallops around her living room clutching her new riding helmet. When she settles at the kitchen table next to her mother, she plays with a new horseback-rider doll wearing a matching horse necklace. Everything in Amanda's world that could possibly involve horses does. During a break from practicing spelling, Amanda wants to know why the ribbon on the back of her riding helmet is upside down, so she jumps up from the table and checks a horse reference book. Not satisfied with the answer, she resolves to ask her riding instructor this afternoon. The trip to the horse stables will count as part of her education.

This kind of flexibility and self-determination became possible for Amanda this year when Kathryn Meyers decided to homeschool her daughter. The Meyers, who live in Pacific Grove, are one of 300 families who homeschool through the four-month-old Monterey County Home Charter School, a program whose popularity is steadily gaining. According to on-site administrator Mary Kay Sgheiza, every week four to five more children sign up with the program, which requires 20 hours of educational activity plus one meeting with a teacher per week. Teaching supplies and materials are free. Kids are required to take state-mandated standardized tests.

Despite the rigors and accountability built into some programs like that at the Monterey County Home Charter School, homeschooling still raises eyebrows. Critics argue that kids need to be in a school setting with their peers to gain social skills for what will ultimately be a work setting of peers. Kathryn Meyers readily admits, "Amanda is an only child and her bunny and dog keep her company. She doesn't have a lot of time right now to play with friends."

The other feature of homeschooling that makes it a target for criticism is the very thing that makes parents choose it: the fact that parents, not the state, are in charge of their children's curriculum. And there is a wide range of responses to that freedom—at least as many as there are homeschooling parents.

Subject Matters

As Amanda sneaks a sip of her mom's Diet Coke, she begs to practice cursive writing and work on her diorama. Kathryn reminds her that math comes first, and Amanda declares, "I hate math!" But Amanda wasn't pulled out of school in order to skip her least favorite subjects. "I want to get her excited about math," explains her mother.

Kathryn runs a full-time interior design business out of her spotless home and prepares detailed daily lesson plans for Amanda, but there is a totally informal side to her daughter's schooling. Kathryn makes sure that everyday activities—like going to the grocery store, counting change, and reading nutritional labels—have educational value. "Last night my husband played a game with Amanda and her dolls involving time," says Kathryn. "'What time is this doll going to the prom? How much time has passed?' You can turn everything you do into learning."

Those who eat, sleep, and breathe homeschooling do so for a myriad of reasons. Kathryn was repelled by a public school system that didn't welcome her daughter reading a Bible at free time and didn't call her for two hours after Amanda broke her arm. As a room mother, Kathryn found an open pocket knife in the girls' bathroom, and noted a completely unsupervised recess when Amanda was in second grade.

Most importantly, Amanda just didn't seem to fit with the system. "Amanda wasn't excited or energized about school—she was bored," says Kathryn. Nor did the morning rush suit her. "We were shoving breakfast down her throat and trying to make it to school," Kathryn recalls. "By 8:45 in the morning she was already in a bad mood. In no way is she lazy—but she has to have time to relax. Now she's much more alert and rested. A lot of times we don't do our schoolwork until after lunch."

"I get up whenever," Amanda interjects. "If you wake me up, I don't have a really great day."

The Meyers also now have the freedom to integrate Christian scripture into their lesson plans, although they cannot specifically count Bible study as a category of learning for the Monterey County School District. But the categories are flexible—a cookie-baking session teaches fractions and temperature and may count as life skills, math, and science.

That philosophical vein, followed far enough, can lead to a form of education that hardly even resembles what we think of as school. Terri Kirby, mother of three, publishes the Peninsula Family Connection, a quarterly paper for parenting and family events and she is a proponent of "unschooling," a philosophy that advocates letting children's interests guide their learning. "I'm not a structured homeschooler," she says. "I don't say, 'Now we're going to learn about verbs.' We clean horses and feed horses—a lot of their education comes from what I do with them. I don't really do anything you could observe."

School Rules

Parents who want to homeschool have an alternative to charter schools. By filling out an affadavit called an R-4, they become their own private school, answering to no one.

Bonnie Gue, a Prunedale mother of six, turned her home into a private school for her kids seven years ago when her family lived in Georgia. "We were poor and couldn't afford a private Christian school," she says. "My husband said, 'Why don't you look for homeschooling?' I didn't want to do it. I was really scared, but I am so thankful I homeschooled."

Gue emphazises that the organization and structure she expects from her kids is atypical of most homeschooling parents. "We wake our kids up at 6am and start school by 8am. If they don't get the schoolwork done, they have to do it during their free time. We aren't homeschooling because we are lazy, but so our kids will have a better education with a Christian Biblical curriculum. We use scripture and morals to help learn English, science and history.

"There are frustrating times when you feel like your kids aren't learning anything," she adds. "My friend was complaining about this to her husband, and he asked, 'Did our kids learn about condoms today?' and she answered, 'No, of course not.' 'Well, did they learn about drugs or have the opportunity to do drugs?' 'No.' 'Then our kids learned as much as they needed to today.'"

In a study sponsored by the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, testing indicates that many homeschoolers are well above the national average of public and private school students. (Gue notes that her kids take the same tests given at public schools and that two of her students scored above their grade level.) Of course, some argue that the type of parents who homeschool are the type of parents who would have high performing kids regardless of the setting. But Gue is so convinced of the benefits that she plans to keep on homeschooling indefinitely, although she emphasizes, "You have to give up your life to do it."

Proponents of homeschooling argue that nurturing a child's special interests and desires at a young age makes for healthy, independent adults. Dr. Joan Smith, an educator with 25 years of experience running a Bay Area prep school, is trying to open Porta Nova, another Monterey Peninsula charter school that would support homeschooling parents who are teaching children with a variety of needs.

"My observation of homeschooled kids is that they have incredible ego strength and they handle high school and college education programs extremely well," she says.

Terri Kirby and her husband pulled their oldest daughter out at the end of fourth grade and noticed her self-esteem improve dramatically. "At home she was able to eat at her own pace, go to the bathroom when she wanted, and if she wanted to do a puzzle with her sister for four hours, that was fine with me." When she re-entered the public school system just before high school, Kirby says, "She slid right in there and did really well. The main reason she wanted to go back was social. I fought it. Now she does beautifully. Kids decide what's right for them and when."

Story Problems

So how well does this homeschooling flexibility mesh with our societal norms? Will a homeschooled child, given freedom and autonomy at home, be able to fit into society once they leave the home? Can an employee stroll out of a company meeting when hunger strikes? Is it OK to get the work done on his or her own time frame?

Ida Oberman earned her doctorate from Stanford in the history of education, taught for 10 years, and currently works as an educational program evaluator for the Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park. She sees three main areas of concern with homeschooling: academic, social, and emotional coping skills.

"We need to ask, could the most expert parent, or group of parents, provide the adequate grade level knowledge for their children, and up to what grade, particularly now as the body of knowledge in education is expanding drastically?" she asks. "What is the even more serious issue, I would suggest, is the social aspect—what does a child not get when they are only exposed to the home environment? The third disadvantage is more subtle—if all the world were homeschooled it would be one matter, but because the majority of a child's peers go to school, the child is isolated in an unusual way—there is a marginalization of the child."

Mothers like Tracey Levine, a Salinas mother of four who made her home into a private school, believe that the alternatives they offer their children more than compensate for what they might be missing. Levine has a network of 40 other homeschooling families who offer the children apprenticeships in their field of work. Bonnie Gue has park dates with other Christian homeschoolers. Terri Kirby's daughter takes classes through the Lyceum. Levine emphasizes that her children always have the choice to go to school, but adds, "I'm very selfish. I don't want to share my children with a school system eight hours a day. Younger kids are built to be with parents and are very nervous and stressed being away from them."

Oberman argues that this bubble will burst eventually. "The paradigm of the person who says the child is so nurtured at home that they are not going to miss anything is the paradigm of a person who will remain in the homeschooling environment forever. But they are going to have to leave that little laboratory, and go into a world that is rough and wild with sex and drugs and rock and roll and peer pressure--exactly what the parent is trying to protect them against. The parent doesn't engage in the question of how the child is going to confront the world."

"There is an interesting parallel to the '20s and '30s," she continues, "when a movement of parents worried that public schools were disease-infested and kept the children at home. The fact is that you can protect against those viruses and bacteria, but the child will get it later in life and more seriously. These homeschooling parents are trying to protect against the modern cultural bacteria and viruses, but how long can you do it, and at what risk? Don't we all wish we could do that for our children?"

Finally, she says, homeschooling stunts a child's civic development. "Another issue is that the fundamental purpose of public education in America is to teach democracy. We are a heterogeneous society with many ethnicities and languages, and in public school we learn to be a democratic society together. Where is a homeschooled child going to learn democracy?"

Probably most homeschooling parents would argue that what they are doing is in fact a great lesson in democracy: the freedom to dismiss a system that doesn't work for them and replace it with their own ideals.

Articles reprinted courtesy of Monterey County Weekly
© 2004 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

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