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
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.”
Homeschooling is of course not all upside, however. There are obstacles, even for the best-intentioned. The first and foremost concern is financial. Not only will families be out-of-pocket for supplies, curriculum and outside classes (while still paying taxes that support the local public schools), the biggest hit is that usually one parent has to stop working in order to oversee the child’s progress. Anne Falkowski, Emily’s mom, warns, “Be prepared to spend a lot of time researching and driving.”
Professor West worries about the lack of oversight, with only half the states requiring some kind of evaluation. For those that don’t, such as Connecticut, there is no way to ensure all the children are receiving an adequate education. She writes, “I do not mean to deny for a moment that homeschooling itself is often—maybe usually—successful, when done responsibly . . . My target, is unregulated homeschooling—the total abdication of responsibility by the states for regulating the practice.” She also points out that homeschooled children in states with no regulation are at greater risk for unreported abuse.
Still, more families seem intent on taking the leap. “Homeschooling is now an option to all of mainstream America because the resources are there,” says Brian D. Ray, Ph.D., president of NHERI. “Twenty years ago, curriculum suppliers would not sell to the homeschool market; now they tailor to their needs.” In June, the Connecticut Convention Center hosted its first ever Northeast Homeschool Convention, featuring speakers, programs and 187 exhibitors ranging from Flip Flop Spanish to The Etiquette Factory; convention sponsors included The Old Schoolhouse (“The magazine for homeschool families”) and Currclick (“Curriculum in a click!”).
Another indicator that the trend is going mainstream is that museums, colleges and universities are now offering many opportunities for homeschool families. In 2009, The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme began offering programs for homeschoolers. “For us, it’s a great way to use our facilities and people at a time of day when public- and private-school groups couldn’t come: the afternoons,” says David D.J. Rau, the museum’s director of education and outreach. “Our programs include an in-gallery lesson and hands-on activity. We always base the lesson on what’s being highlighted at the museum.”
Barbara Jarnagin, supervisor of school and family programs at Mystic Seaport Museum’s education department, says, “We began working with the homeschool families because they reached out to us. We have enjoyed working with them and it’s exciting to see the children grow year after year. The families love helping the museum staff test out new programs and exhibits before they‘re offered to the general public.”
Homeschooling trips can involve real schools, too. In some school districts homeschooled students can take a class or two in their local public elementary or secondary school if they have a particular interest. Many students opt instead to take classes at local colleges. “Homeschoolers seem to do very well and excel in their studies; they are typically very motivated students,” says Sarah Hendrick, associate director of admissions at Quinebaug Community College in Danielson.
Holden Speed’s brother, Tristan, explains his perspective, after taking some classes at Sacred Heart University: “I was nervous at first but I was willing to listen, take notes and participate in discussions. I was ready to learn. At the college level, I think students have to make the choice of whether they want to take their classes seriously or not. I’ve already made that choice. I have seen kids text in class, be unprepared, and even one kid who wore his hood up to hide the fact that he was wearing earphones. To me, that showed a lack of respect for others and a lack of caring for the class or his grade.”
There are any number of reasons why homeschooling works for certain children—and for certain parents.
“There is the tutorial advantage,” says Donna Person of Stafford Springs a member of the Connecticut arm of the national Association of Christian Homeschoolers. “You are working one-on-one, so you can quickly see where they need help. Since there are no specific grade levels, you can go back and forth, according to what suits a given child. Over and over again, I see kids who were struggling in school and who just blossomed when they came home.”
Children with special needs might also find a better place at home. Terri Lynch, of Prospect, had been a schoolteacher for 15 years and was committed to public education. “I loved every part of teaching and learning, and was deeply enmeshed in it all,” she says. “I never even gave home education a thought until my second son, Matthew, was born, and then everything changed.” Matthew was born with spina bifida occulta, an abnormality of the spinal cord, and was later diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia. After much research, Terri and her husband, George, felt that homeschooling was the best place for both their sons to get the attention they needed.
“We’re able to provide strategies and programs that fit them, and those strategies can be ‘out of the box’ when appropriate, but at the same time follow best educational practices,” says Lynch.
And then there are the large swaths of families who feel public education is abandoning them. African-American families, for example, make up one of the fastest growing segments in the homeschooling arena—right now, there are an estimated 175,00 to 200,000 children of color being taught at home in America. Joyce Burges, who with her husband Eric, founded National Black Home Educators, explains that black families are opting for homeschooling for the usual reasons—to enhance strong family relationships, lessen pressure for premarital sex and alcohol abuse, promote individualization—but also because parents see their children falling through the cracks academically in public schools. Some are being bullied and teased, others have special needs that aren’t being addressed. Parents figure they can do a better job. “Also, our traditional values, the things that made us as a people, have been eliminated from study in schools,” says Burges. “The courses that make our children feel like ‘I can be somebody’ have been taken out of the public school arena.”
Case in point, Missy and Christopher Cipriani, of Southington, embraced homeschooling from the start because they felt their children, Naomi, 10, and Jacob, 9, would not learn about themselves in school. “It’s an injustice that our public schools do not teach history and literature in their complete form,” says Missy. “I’m not talking about just African-Americans, but also Native Americans, Latinos and everyone. It’s a travesty. Our children don’t see role models that let them aspire.” She adds that racism and low expectations also play a part. “We’ve come so far, but in other ways, we haven’t come far enough. In a classroom, it’s not overt, but there are subtleties of racial profiling.”
Finally, in recent years, the increase in state-mandated testing to stay in compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act has turned off many families to public schools. They point to the lack of creativity, the stifling of academic inquiry and all the time wasted just learning how to take the tests. It was the deadening quality of her school that led Emily Falkowski, the Connecticut Young Writers prose champion, to ask her parents to allow her to homeschool after eighth grade. She says, “I didn’t feel challenged in school, and I thought I could do a better job. After I started homeschooling, I realized what I was passionate about and was able to go after that in more in depth.” After her first year as a homeschooler, Emily became a state debate champion.
“But what about socialization?”
That’s the question most homeschooling families get when they announce their intentions. And in fact, when Diane and Roy Speed decided to homeschool their kids 11 years ago, other homeschooling families were not easy to find. “There was only one homeschooling newsletter that connected families all over the state,” says Diane.
Today, most homeschooled kids will tell you that they’re always on the go. If they encounter awkward situations, it’s not due to lack of exposure to other children. There are homeschooling co-ops around the state that offer a variety of classes, field trips, curricula and opportunities for families to get together. Families can sign up for any number of daily or weekly e-blasts that provide scores of choices. The growth of the Internet also has opened up worlds for homeschoolers, who use it to take courses, research and stay in touch.
For example, the Speeds’ Classical Kids group offers a monthly Kids Forum, where students of all ages can present work they’re doing at home. (That’s where Tristan will give a discourse on Socrates.) WCHC has organized classes around everything from poetry, mock trials, sign language and astronomy to aviation, foreign languages, yoga and cooking. Other homeschoolers mention going to Girl or Boy Scouts, Little League, book discussion groups, Dungeons and Dragons groups and other outside organized activities. Holden Speed says that “being homeschooled teaches me about people. At our Kids Forum, I really learn how to work and cooperate with other kids who might be older or younger than me.”
Then there is the question of how homeschooled students fare once they graduate. Can they fit in? Can they handle the structure of college? According to NHERI president Ray, research so far shows that they are going to college at a rate a little bit higher than the national average. “Their GPAs on average are higher at college,” he says. “Those who take the SAT/ACT tests have on average higher scores than public school students and they’re more likely to take leadership positions in college than those from public and private schools.”
Anecdotally, Lisa Lavoie at Tunxis Community College, concurs: “We’ve had students start with us after their homeschooling, and then transfer to Cornell, Brown, UConn and Trinity College.”
Luz Shosie, of Guilford, “unschooled” her son Cassidy, now 33. “When he went to Hunter College, his schoolmates asked him for help because they were used to being told what to do all their lives. His life had always been about figuring out what he wanted to do and how to do it,” says Shosie. “He graduated magna cum laude.”
Some of the best aspects of homeschooling, however, may not be found in test scores or college admittance rates. While Donna Person and her husband, Peter, originally pursued homeschooling with their five children in order to be able “to integrate Christian values into everyday life,” she discovered something else over the years: “What I came to understand is that homeschooling really keeps your family together. I think the children appreciate most the opportunity to spend time together, and the closeness that comes from exploring the world as a family. We don’t have to wait to talk about what’s on our minds. We talk all day long.”
No Place Like Home