No Place Like Homeschool

Emily Smiley taught for years in public and private schools all over the Bay Area. She stopped teaching last year after her second child was born. And, Smiley won’t be returning to the classroom any time soon.
“Working in the school system took the fun out of teaching, and for some children, it can take the fun out of learning,” Smiley says. When her 4-year-old daughter, Savannah, was ready for preschool, Smiley got ready to homeschool.
Since Smiley, who now lives in Novato, was herself homeschooled for 13 years in North Carolina, homeschooling her own children was an easy decision. 
But her dissatisfaction with both public and private schools is a feeling that many Bay Area families can relate to. 
Concerns over public schools have heightened, with budget cuts threatening to shorten the school year by 20 days next year. Private schools aren’t an option for some Bay Area families who are already overwhelmed by the high cost of living.  
Homeschooling, once thought of as only for religious or political reasons, is a growing trend among parents searching for the best way to educate their children. People who might never seriously have considered it are giving it a second look.
Diane Flynn Keith, editor of Homefires.com, has been helping homeschooling families in the Bay Area for more than 20 years and estimates that up to 30,000 children are being homeschooled within the nine local counties.
Most of the growth, she says, is among mainstream parents who are dissatisfied with the education provided in both public and private schools. 
While Smiley hopes to homeschool Savannah and her little brother, Brett, all the way through high school, she says that only time will tell. She will reevaluate her decision each year to make sure her children are thriving.
“Homeschooling is not for everyone,” says Smiley. “It’s not for every parent, and it’s not for every child.”
Local Support for Families
When his son, Arthur, was in third grade, Patrick Peterson of San Jose was alarmed to find that he never wanted to go to school.
“Arthur was connecting less and less with the school and his friends,” Peterson says.
That’s when he started to seriously think about homeschooling. He had always supported the idea, but wasn’t sure he could do it. After researching it online, he was surprised to find so many local organizations.
Peterson reached out to a homeschooling group called South Bay F.R.E.E scholars (SBFS). After talking with several families and discussing it with his wife and son, “we finally decided to take the plunge,” Peterson says.
There are many resources for families who, like the Petersons, are about to take “the plunge.” Every year, the HomeSchool Association of California (HSC) hosts a conference in Sacramento. There are workshops on topics ranging from “What to Do Your First Year Homeschooling” to “Parking Lot Astronomy.”
Nevertheless, it’s an adjustment.
For Peterson, the hardest part was “worrying about whether or not I am doing a good enough job.”
So every year, Arthur takes a standardized test at the private school he attended through third grade. The school charges a $100 fee, and only the parents see the results.
 “This gives us some benchmarking for the basic subjects that are tested,” says Peterson. “All is on par, so that relieves some doubts.”
By law, homeschoolers aren’t required to take standardized tests, so there aren’t any national statistics available. However, some researchers have taken a sampling of test results from homeschoolers and compared them to national averages.
The results are highly favorable, according to Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), which has conducted numerous studies on the academic achievement of homeschoolers.
“The homeschooled have scored, on average, at the 65th to 80th percentile on standardized academic achievement tests, compared to the national school average of the 50th percentile,” says Ray.
Not Just Academics
One San Jose woman’s decision to homeschool was about more than academics. She wanted to develop her children’s character and encourage their faith.
But once the mother started homeschooling her four children, she quickly discovered that “mom or dad has to like it, but they don’t always have to do it alone.”
As her children approach tough subjects in math or science, she hires tutors or enrolls them in classes. Last year, for example, she sent her oldest daughter, now 16, to several classes at Live Oak Academy in San Jose.
Live Oak is one of many academies in the Bay Area that offers classes for homeschooled kids. There is a cost, but it’s much less than sending her children to a full-time private school.
Her younger children participate in weekly co-ops for subjects like art and science, giving the kids plenty of opportunity for socializing with others their age.
Worries About Isolation
Rob Reich, a professor of political science and education at Stanford University, worries that homeschooled children sometimes suffer from intellectual isolation.  “Schools expose children to different ideas and teach children to respect different opinions,” says Reich, who considers himself a “cautious supporter” of homeschooling. He believes that academies and co-ops help remove some of that isolation by encouraging children to engage with their peers and learn in a group setting.
Joelle Bourett, of Albany, has been homeschooling her daughter for the past six years and recently enrolled her in some writing classes – largely because she wanted to expose Anais to the life of a classroom.
The experience only confirmed for Bourett that her decision to homeschool had been the right one. Anais, 11, was frustrated by her fellow students’ inattentiveness.
The problem with traditional classrooms is that sometimes they “don’t suit Anais’ learning style,” she says.
Nevertheless, she acknowledges that it’s important for her daughter to experience different types of learning, including group learning.
Homeschooling allows for a lot of flexibility, since mother and daughter speak in French for much of the day and travel overseas to visit family during the year.
But one thing Bourett doesn’t appreciate about homeschooling is the large amount of paperwork. When she first started, she enrolled Anais in Connecting Waters, a public charter school that offers a home study program.
Connecting Waters handles all of the documentation the state requires and provides Bourett with a stipend for educational materials and supplemental classes or tutors.
Every month, an educational specialist visits the family to check on student progress.
Public charter schools provide a great service to families like the Bouretts, who need help with the logistics but still want the flexibility of homeschooling.
Teach the Whole Child
When Therese Labuguen was getting ready to send her son, Dominic, to kindergarten, she did her homework, visiting more than 10 schools near their home in Brisbane.
None of them seemed like a good fit.
Labuguen, who had worked as an elementary school music teacher, felt strongly that none of them put sufficient emphasis on educating the whole child. That’s when she started to seriously consider homeschooling.
Labuguen recently finished her first year of homeschooling, and has already dealt with criticism from people who think her boys aren’t getting enough socialization.
However, some homeschool-based research finds that homeschooled kids score above average on social, emotional and psychological development. 
Ray of NHERI says that homeschooled children are “regularly engaged in social and educational activities outside their homes.”  The flexibility of  the schedule gives parents more time to take their kids to various social activities throughout the day. “And children tend to behave better when there are more adults around,” says Ray.
Many homeschooling parents like Labugen are diligent in monitoring their children’s social interactions, taking them on field trips and play dates, all the while encouraging them to relate in positive ways.
She likes to remind her critics that “not all socialization is a good thing.”
Jennifer Fogliani is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Mountain View.

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