No Place Like Home
The winners of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust prose and poetry competition (front l-r) homeschoolers Emily Falkowski and Madeleine Chill, along with their mothers (back l-r) Anne Falkowski and Brigid Donohue. Photographed at the The Buttonwood Tree, Middletown
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Something remarkable happened this spring during the statewide writing competition hosted by the Connecticut Young Writers Trust, which since 1998 has considered the works of some 7,300 young writers and poets representing high schools all across Connecticut. This year, the first-place winners for prose and poetry, Emily Falkowski, 15, of Manchester, and Madeleine Chill, 17, of Andover, shared something important in common. Both are homeschoolers. If ever there was a signal that homeschooling in Connecticut had at last broken free of old misconceptions, this might well have been it.
Homeschooling has traditionally been seen as the province of the very religious or the anarchic, with little room for the rest of us. But as the years go by, it’s become increasingly evident that the movement needs a new public relations campaign. Homeschooling is rapidly on the rise across the country as a legitimate educational alternative for millions of otherwise mainstream families.
The National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimates that, nationally, the homeschooling movement is growing by 5 to 10 percent per year. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NHES), there were 1.5 million homeschooled students in the United States in 2007. Today, that number is closer to 2 million. In fact, there are now more children being homeschooled than are enrolled in charter and voucher schools combined, according to Robin L. West, professor of law and philosophy at the Georgetown University Law Center.
In Connecticut, concrete numbers are hard to come by because, unlike in many other states, the law here does not require that homeschooled children be registered or show proof of proficiency. According to Attorney Deborah G. Stevenson, executive director of National Home Education Legal Defense in Southbury, the law states that if you are homeschooling in Connecticut, you must teach reading, writing, spelling, English grammar, geography, arithmetic, United States history and citizenship, including a study of the town, state and Federal governments—but parents are almost never asked for proof that they are doing so. “You can be reported for educational neglect,” says Stevenson, “but you are presumed to be doing the correct thing unless someone has probable cause to believe that you are not.”
If, however, children are enrolled in public school and the parents plan to withdraw them to be schooled at home, they must file a letter of intent with their local Board of Education. Because of this, the state can at least count those children, but it has no way to track families who have never been involved with public schools. Lisa Lavoie, Ed.D., M.L.S., director of library services at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, who has studied the topic, estimates that right now there are probably between 3,000 and 5,000 homeschooled students in the state.
While there are certainly parents out on the fringes of society who opt for homeschooling because they don’t want their children involved in any way with the government or subject to mandatory vaccinations, or, more commonly, because they want to follow a specific spiritual path, homeschoolers now spread over a much wider base. If your idea of homeschooling (parent-led, home-based education) is still the stereotype of an isolated, socially awkward child, trapped at home under the thumb of an over-controlling parent, you’d be hard-pressed to find a homeschooled kid today who’d agree with you. Bethel homeschooler Holden Speed, 12, for one, wonders, with some frustration, “Why does everybody think that? I have plenty of friends! I get along perfectly fine with other people, I think that I am very independent, and I go plenty of places!”
Parents agree that far from being a means of tighter control, homeschooling allows their children infinitely more freedom. “The idea is that kids become more enamored of the learning process because there isn’t undue pressure for grades or that clock-watching boredom,” says Laura Cleary, a member of the Western Connecticut Homeschooling Cooperative (WCHC). “You are still parenting and guiding them, but they take more interest in it when it’s more self-directed. They feel like it’s their own thing instead of something that is pushed on them. As they get older, they work independently, taking on more responsibility for themselves.”