Homeschooling: It's not what you think
Yearbook, drama lessons, field trips, even classes at public school. Homeschooling gets a new look from a generation craving more time with their kids.
By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published June 26, 2005
Twenty years ago, homeschooling was a crime in Florida. Parents who wanted to teach their kids at home did so in secrecy. With blinds drawn.
They wanted to protect their kids from society's evils; society, in turn, thought of them as zealots.
In 1984, a group of parents huddled in an Orlando convention center to form an association of homeschoolers. The group, in the words of a founding member, was "pretty weird." The stereotype of homeschoolers - religious conservatives and spelling bee winners - remains to this day.
Everything else has changed.
Homeschooling has gone mainstream. It has graduations and conventions, yearbooks and extracurriculars. Kids learn at co-ops, on the Internet, at museums and even at public schools.
Increasingly, it's for people who don't want to schedule family time around dual careers, piano lessons and soccer practices. They just want more time with their kids.
Kelly Erickson was at a park eating lunch with her 3-year-old when a herd of school-aged kids stormed the play area. It was a school day, and she wondered where the children came from.
Homeschoolers, a friend said.
"Freaks," Erickson thought. "I just had it in my head that homeschoolers were women who make their own clothes and were out of the cultural norm."
Erickson, on the other hand, was a corporate sales representative, her husband was a Delta Air Lines pilot. They skied at Steamboat Springs, paid cash for a new SUV and thought nothing of dropping $400 on a leather Coach briefcase.
After their infant daughter Abby almost died from a strep infection , the Ericksons rethought their priorities. Kelly Erickson resolved to spend more time being a mom to Abby and older sister Kimberly. She quit work.
Now, she had time to volunteer at Trinity Elementary in southwest Pasco County. Now, she could stop to notice how bored Kimberly looked in class. Now, she could pore over Kimberly's writing assignments - and wonder how so many misspellings could earn a good grade.
What to do?
Four years after her brush with homeschooling "freaks," Kelly Erickson, now 38, decided homeschooling offered exactly what she and Doug, 39, were looking for: the possibility of a better education for their kids, and more time with them to boot.
With a few clicks of a computer mouse, Kelly Erickson plunged into homeschooling. As her children napped, she crept into the family's home office, took out her American Express card and began buying.
Math curriculum from eBay. Spelling from Amazon.com. Grammar lessons from RainbowResource.com.
Homeschooling used to be a solitary endeavor. With no outside support, parents faced daunting practical questions: Where do I get a science textbook? Can I really teach eighth-grade math?
But homeschooling has evolved into a remarkably communal activity, conducted via the Internet, the public schools and an elaborate system of community and commercial programs. Example: each month more than 600 homeschool kids take classes at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry.
The number of homeschooled students in Florida has jumped from 22,200 a decade ago to about 51,100.
Vouchers get a lot of attention, but homeschooled students outnumber Florida's voucher-educated almost 2-to-1.
What is now mouse-clickable for Kelly Erickson was a monster challenge for Brenda Dickinson.
In 1981, Dickinson worried about how her daughter would fare in kindergarten because of her profound fear of strangers. To ease the transition, Dickinson wanted to sit in on some of Wendy's kindergarten classes. The principal's response shocked her:
"No, you'll drop her off, and she'll cry for a month and she'll get over it."
Dickinson decided to teach Wendy at home. She just wanted to buy a year before placing her daughter into public school. But as a strong Christian, she soon came to regard homeschooling as one avenue to pass her faith on to her children.
The only curriculum Dickinson could find in those days was a phonics program advertised in a newsletter from Phyllis Schlafly's conservative Eagle Forum. Dickinson mostly relied on library books, basic math concepts and her own research.
A year passed before she met another homeschool family. No surprise. Homeschooling was illegal.
"They would keep their kids home, keep their blinds drawn," Dickinson remembered. "We didn't even turn to anyone for help because we didn't want to be exposed to anyone knowing our children weren't in school."
In that atmosphere, a smattering of parents gathered in Orlando in 1984 and organized what would become the Florida Parent Educators Association.
Some of the folks, in founder Larry Walker's words, were "pretty weird." These were people willing to risk jail to educate their children at home.
The next year, prodded by Dickinson and her husband Craig, the Legislature legalized homeschooling. After Craig died in 1993, Brenda became the movement's standard-bearer.
When her son wanted to play sports, Dickinson pushed for a law allowing homeschoolers to participate in public school extracurricular activities. When her daughter wanted to prove her viability as a college applicant, Dickinson pushed legislation to allow homeschoolers to dual-enroll, tuition-free, in community colleges.
"My kids were the guinea pigs," said Dickinson, 57. "When we'd get in snags, that's when we'd go change the law."
Thanks to pioneers like Dickinson, mainstream Florida families have in homeschooling another palatable alternative to conventional public schools. In part, that's because a new generation has redefined "mainstream."
Over the past decade, the number of children parented by stay-at-home moms increased 13 percent - more than three times the overall increase in the child population. Consumer research, of all things, helps explain the trend.
Generation X mothers (ages 26 to 40, by some definitions) are more likely to stay at home with their children than their Baby Boomer predecessors, according to a 2004 study by Reach Advisors, which sells marketing advice.
While Baby Boomers sought to "have it all" through work, family and possessions, Generation Xers are increasingly likely to forgo a second income, it said. "Instead of trying to fit family into their work life," the study concluded, "Generation X parents are more likely to try to fit work into their family life." Homeschooling is a way to do just that.
"Homeschooling," said New York University sociologist Mitchell Stevens, "is a really creative way through a problem" in an American society "that hasn't figured out how to have women work and create a reasonable system of parenting." Homeschool parents, he said, "give up income and suspend a career aspiration for a while. But you get this kind of unstructured, unscheduled time with your kid, which is something that otherwise only really affluent people can do."
It's a Tuesday, in the spring of 2004, three months into the Erickson's plunge into homeschooling.
"Spelling is the worst subject that exists," 7-year-old Kimberly proclaims as she sits at her little desk.
"Really?" dad responds, unshakingly optimistic. "You seem to like it, so let's get started."
Kimberly's siblings, Abby, 3, and Austin, 2, zip around the living room, excited from their midmorning dance break.
Kelly and Doug spent the past three hours tag-teaming breakfast preparation for five, pajama shedding and teeth-brushing for three, math for one, coloring for two and counting in Spanish for four.
Before the Ericksons started homeschooling, Doug rarely saw Kimberly. Now, they spend hours and hours together.
Dad and daughter settle in on the couch with a biology textbook. He hears her giggle when they turn to the off-color parts of the digestive system. He's there when she aces a math exam, struggles with her Spanish vocabulary, becomes anxious over a word problem.
"Anyone who's a good parent is homeschooling to some extent anyway," Kelly said. "It's just a matter of whether you choose to do it part time or full time."
A generation ago, when Brenda Dickinson homeschooled her daughter, she had to create lesson plans. If Dickinson was weak in a subject, there was no one to help.
Curriculum of all types is a mouse-click away.
In some counties homeschoolers can attend classes at public schools and community colleges. The law requires access to extracurricular activities.
Homeschool co-ops offer support, group field trips and classes. The Pinellas Parent Educators Association co-op has 300 member families.
Professional teachers offer classes just for homeschool groups.
Municipal recreation departments offer athletics, arts and other programs geared to homeschoolers. Bloomingdale West Recreation Center in Brandon holds P.E. classes for 30 to 90 homeschoolers.
Cultural institutions offer activities for homeschoolers, including Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry, Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Aquarium; the Florida Orchestra holds a special concert.
Homeschooler Leja Apple spends little time at home.
When she was 14, she took a physical science class at home via video before heading to Pinellas Park Middle at 9 a.m. to co-anchor the school's morning news show. At school, she took three classes - geometry, math/science/technology and a gifte d class.
It was home for lunch then off to yearbook club.
Make that homeschool yearbook, where 10 Pinellas homeschoolers and three moms gathered to clip and lay out photographs of dozens of homeschoolers, their families, their lessons, their field trips, their social events, even their proms.
Leja is the youngest of three Apple children, all homeschooled. Neoka and Dennis Apple, both 58, began homeschooling in 1988, three years after the Florida Legislature legalized it. They are practicing Christians, but it wasn't their faith that led them to homeschool. Neoka had just given up a fast-paced career as a traveling nursing consultant to spend time at home with her little ones. Dennis was a psychologist with Pinellas County public schools.
When their son's private kindergarten closed, someone mentioned homeschooling. The family started on a "let's see" basis and never stopped . They were among the first local homeschoolers to enroll part-time in public school.
Now 15 and in high school, Leja takes all her classes through the dual-enrollment program at St. Petersburg College. Florida allows public, private and homeschooled students to take tuition-free classes at community colleges for high school and college credit.
By the time Leja graduates from high school, she also will have completed her associates degree in college.
The annual homeschool convention in Kissimmee brings together more than 3,500 families and 150 vendors, packing two days and seven conference rooms with scores of seminars.
Some offerings: "Piecing together the high school puzzle," "Making math meaningful," "Nurturing competent writers," and "Orientation to homeschooling and Florida law."
In 1997, the statewide homeschool graduation ceremony served just eight kids. The number this year: 211. The Florida Parent Educators Association is wrestling with how to represent homeschool families increasingly diverse in background and philosophy.
"The bigger we get, the more organized we have to get," former association chairwoman Marcy Krumbine told homeschool leaders last year. "We're not a mom-and-pop group any more."
Christian fundamentalists fueled the growth of homeschooling in the 1980s. They could teach creationism and protect their children from "worldly" influences. These parents still make up the bulk of the homeschooling ranks.
Though newcomers tend to be less overtly religious, they share similar concerns: They don't want to surrender control of their children's well-being to what they perceive as the low standards and lax discipline of public school.
Three years ago, Elaine Nichols' family in Oldsmar was "falling apart at the seams." Nichols bickered constantly with her 12-year-old son over his grades. Boys sent sexually suggestive notes to her 8-year-old daughter. Her 15-year-old was depressed with the feedback, or lack thereof, from her teachers.
It wasn't the family life Nichols had envisioned.
She turned to homeschooling, seeking out others who were not doing it for religious reasons. She no longer feels like she's in constant combat with her kids. Her children have discovered the joys of self-directed learning.
"I'll never put them back in school," said Nichols, 42. "When I sit back and watch them, and I look at the kids they've become, they're really interesting people."
Homeschooling is not for everyone.
Some parents do better getting a break from their children. Some cannot afford the sacrifices of time, career, paycheck.
Even for those who stick with it, there are "those days" . . .
. . . when Leslie Rookey, at home in Dade City, can't shake her migraine and her girls need help with math.
. . . when Elaine Nichols' kids stomp on each other's nerves. "I've had days I wanted to run away," she said with a laugh. "I'd love to have a clean house - that would be nice! But what am I going to do?"
. . . when Kelly Erickson lusts after the six hours her friends have after they send their kids off to school - sweet freedom to shop alone, work out alone, do nothing alone.
Most homeschool families are white and middle class. But African-American families have emerged as a significant voice in the movement - so much so that they have founded two national support organizations.
"Families are running out of options," said Jennifer James, founder of the National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance, a non-religious organization based in North Carolina. "There's this persistent achievement gap, and a lot of black children are doing so poorly in traditional schools that parents are looking for alternatives."
Liz Curry and her husband have four adopted children, all black. Curry's breaking point came the day she overheard a principal of her son's soon-to-be middle school in St. Petersburg giving career advice. College is not a necessity, she remembers him telling the predominantly black student body - and "there's lucrative money in technology repair."
Curry, 45, wanted more for her kids, and for herself.
"I wanted my childrens' hearts," she said. "I find that people can sometimes, out of fear of being hurt, lack depth in their relationships . . . even their relationships with their children are that way. They drop them off here, they drop them off there. And they don't have their children's hearts."
The Currys could not afford private school. Homeschooling was their best option.
"The more I really looked into it, the more I realized it wasn't what I thought it was," said Curry, who was concerned about how she might pull it off working as a physical therapist. "You can tailor it to your schedule and your children can tailor it to their learning styles."
Homeschooling enjoys remarkable political and public support today. Surprisingly, some of that support comes from the public school establishment.
The Florida Department of Education dedicates a full Web page to homeschooling.
Former Education Commissioner Jim Horne homeschooled his children for a year and, he said, "I would put that year up against any, academically."
Some politicians tout home-based education as one means of combating overcrowded classrooms.
Homeschooling offers students what public school educators can only dream about: (very) small class-size; one-on-one attention and educational experiences tailored to individual abilities and interests.
"They'll go to an aquarium. They'll go to the museum. In that way, I guess I am a little jealous," said Billie Jo Norris, a Pinellas Park Middle School teacher who taught the Apple girls. "I've thought about doing it more and more with my kids."
Carrie Page, a teacher at Gulf Middle School in Pasco County, supplements her income by evaluating homeschoolers to help them comply with state law. She said her encounters with homeschooling families have given her ideas for her own classroom.
"My impression is that, for the most part, homeschoolers are more focused," said Marie Azwell, a Pinellas Park Middle School teacher who has taught homeschoolers in her classes over the years. Azwell said she would homeschool her own kids if she didn't have to work.
How is anyone to know how homeschoolers are doing? It's hard to say. Homeschoolers are notoriou s for lobbying to avoid state oversight.
Unlike Florida public school students, homeschoolers are not required to take a standardized test every year.
They must send their local school district an annual evaluation by a state-certified teacher or licensed psychologist showing that the child made a year's progress. But rarely does an evaluation say a child is below standard. In Pasco County, with about 1,500 registered homeschoolers, the school choice supervisor cannot recall a single below-standard evaluation.
Homeschoolers can opt to take the FCAT, but no one at the state Department of Education keeps track of how they perform (nor does the state monitor private school achievement).
The state won't say how many homeschoolers take the test, let alone release their scores. A department spokeswoman said the confidentiality is not particular to homeschoolers; all raw student scores are confidential. She said the department does not release summary data because the numbers of students taking the test are too small.
The College Board won't release its SAT homeschool data because it said the numbers would be misleading: It's impossible to determine from the small number of homeschool students taking the SAT if it is a representative sample of all homeschoolers.
Homeschooler ACT scores are above average, but the ACT cautions against relying on the data for the same reasons cited by the College Board.
Studies that show homeschoolers outperform their peers generally come from homeschool advocates.
In two years of homeschooling, Kelly and Doug Erickson have enjoyed plenty of surprises.
The other day, Austin, now 3, blurted out a Latin dinner prayer after hearing his 8-year-old sister Kimberly recite it before meals as an extension of her Latin studies.
Both he and Abby, now 4, have followed their big sister's example, reciting the days of the week in English and colors in Spanish.
Kelly still wonders if she's not cheating her daughter socially. But Kimberly is in Girl Scouts, takes gymnastics and karate and sings in her church choir.
As much as homeschooling has worked for them, the Ericksons remain open to other school possibilities. Delta has made several rounds of employee layoffs, leaving in question Doug's long-term job security. The couple promised each other they would take inventory at every "milestone" to make sure they were making appropriate decisions for each of their children.
"I didn't even give it a second thought when I sent Kimberly off to kindergarten," Kelly said. "Now, I can't even think of doing that with Abby."
Kelly said she worries about how Kimberly will fare socially in college if she's homeschooled straight through high school. Kelly, who graduated from a big high school, remembers her own transition to the University of Florida.
"For me, it was overwhelming. What's it going to be like for her?"
For now, the benefits of homeschooling outweigh the worries and sacrifices. It comes back to what Doug and Kelly determined would be their top priority. As Doug put it:
"It turns out, we really like our kids."