Hidden in the back of a Pikesville business plaza, the Baltimore Homeschool Community Center sits bright and friendly, full of laughing kids and smiling adults. The member-based organization serves homeschooling families throughout the Baltimore area, and when I arrive, Latin class is just ending, Robotics is getting underway and the homeschoolers in fencing await their turn to face-off in a tournament.
But wait a second. Why are homeschoolers away from home, in a center taking classes?
If you’re like me (and statistics suggest you probably are), then your state-mandated K-12 education happened in a public or private school. But for about 2.4 percent of Maryland’s school-aged kids, education happens somewhere else.
Before governments got into the education business, most people were taught at home. Once public schools became the norm, families who continued to homeschool were pushed to the margins. Since then, homeschooling has become uncommon and mysterious. The 97.6 percent of us who don’t do it don’t really know much about it. We’ve heard that homeschooled kids “turn out weird.” Or that they’re total brainiacs, or they’ve been sheltered from reality by over-protective parents. We have no idea how it’s done, or how it’s legal, or even why families decide to do it. Since such a small percentage of students are homeschooled, it’s rare for the rest of us to see what the process, and the results, are really like. So what is homeschooling really like?
Homeschooling by the Book
“Ask everyone here, and you’ll get fifty different answers,” Kelly Polykov (who founded the BHCC last year) says as we sit in the Center’s Map Room. With a definition that can be as broad as “education of children outside of public and private school,” there are going to be about as many different ways and reasons to homeschool as there are homeschooling families. It’s one of the aspects of homeschooling that makes it difficult to pin down. There are, however, definite commonalities among homeschoolers.
The law, for instance (which varies from state to state), provides a loose framework to which all homeschooling must comply. To remove a child from school, or not enroll them in the first place, families first have to provide a written agreement to the state, assuring the government that they will provide “regular, thorough instruction during the school year” to their children “in the studies usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age.”
Parents have to keep a portfolio of their child’s work and agree to annual reviews of their homeschooling program. These reviews are often conducted by the local government, but parents can also opt to be reviewed by an umbrella organization, a group that has been certified by the state to conduct reviews and which is often run by homeschoolers themselves, offering parents more flexibility in the way they provide their children’s education.
The state mandates that all children receive instruction in “English, mathematics, science, social studies, art, music, health, and physical education.” Parents can teach these subjects on their own, or purchase a ready-made homeschool curriculum. The Calvert School, for instance, offers a curriculum for homeschoolers, and the Maryland Homeschool Education Association offers reviews of the various curricula on the market.
But homeschoolers share more than just legal responsibilities. Census data suggests that three main factors drive parents to homeschool: religious reasons, dissatisfaction with the school environment, and dissatisfaction with the quality of in-school academic instruction. Religion is the number one reason in the country for choosing homeschooling. Religious homeschoolers choose it because they want to incorporate prayer or religious instruction with the rest of their children’s education. Or they object to the way public schools teach certain subjects (evolution, for example, or sex education). Considering that the majority of homeschooling is faith-based, it’s notable that the BHCC defines itself as secular, but also inclusive. How does that play out among the center’s members? According to Kelly, they have had few incidents of tension between religious and non-religious members. For the most part, everyone understands that it’s a secular space, and members respect that. Despite the national trend, the most common reason members of the BHCC choose homeschooling is their dissatisfaction with some aspect of conventional schooling.
Consider Kelly’s story. When her son was in second grade, he went to a school in their Garrison community that they both loved. She was even the president of the PTA. But by second grade, he could barely read. “He didn’t have a learning disability,” Kelly explains, “the teachers just couldn’t give him the attention that he needed. They were great teachers, they were just busy.” But, at the same time, he was two grades ahead in math, and unable to get more challenging work after completing the second-grade curriculum. He was bored in one subject and way behind in another. Without too many options available, Kelly decided to try homeschooling for a year, to see how they liked it. They liked it a lot. After that year, her son was was reading at his age level and thriving so they kept homeschooling.
For Liz, another homeschooling mom at the BHCC, her son’s school let them down in a different way. He had been attending a Catholic school and was totally content, until, that is, a recent widespread closure of Catholic schools in the area left them without a school at all. “We were basically out on the street,” Liz says. Feeling let down by the parochial school system, they took to homeschooling.
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about homeschooling is how much people love it. One would think that, with the responsibility for their children’s education totally on their shoulders (not to mention the financial burdens, including reduced income, and sharp decrease in the amount of time they have for themselves), parents would run the other way. And, truth be told, parental burnout is definitely something families need to watch out for. By and large, though, both parents and children tend to give homeschooling rave reviews.
Maybe it’s not so surprising after all. The flexibility that makes homeschooling so hard to thoroughly define means that families are allowed to make the process work for them – the standard school-year stresses of homework and the morning rush are basically non-existent. And then there’s the quality of the education.
To visit the Baltimore Homeschool Community Center is to see that quality in action. When it opened last fall, the center offered three classes. A year later, there are 32 classes. Some are taught by homeschooling parents with specialized skills, like Latin, Chinese or creative writing. Others, like music theory, science and fencing, are taught by ringers from the non-homeschooling arena. The classes are diverse, ranging from mostly for fun, like cartooning and Tae Kwon Do, to academic, like ancient civilization and philosophy. (Others, like the Shakespearean drama class and Lego machines, appear to bridge the gap).
But my original question remains unanswered. How to justify classes when homeschooling. Kelly is unfazed, “It’s not like school,” she says. “Homeschooling is really a misnomer. No one stays at home. We’ve always been out, going to lessons.” In fact, it was the constant traveling to and from different lessons that led her to start the center in the first place as a way to consolidate homeschooling activities, minimize transportation time and create more time for learning.
“Homeschoolers don’t necessarily have a problem with classes,” she says. “In fact, the only ones who generally do are the unschoolers.”
Heather Brown, an instructor at Charm City Yoga and unschooling mom to two young daughters, prefers the term “life learning,” which sums up the unschooling philosophy. Lesson plans are eschewed in favor of lessons learned from everyday life, capitalizing on children’s innate curiosity. “Schools function under the assumption that children are lazy and incapable of learning unless…told what to do…by adults who ‘know better.’ I…believe that [children] are voracious learners by nature and are quite capable of seeking out things that inspire them – things they need to know to exercise mastery over their lives if given freedom and proper models.”
Since there is no program or curriculum to follow, that freedom is abundant. Their days start leisurely, allowing everyone to wake up as their bodies determine. After reading for a while in their pajamas, the family enjoys breakfast together and discusses their plans for the day. Lessons arise from day-to-day activities and the family seeks out educational experiences as well, “Our days include a mix of time at home spent reading, lots of arts and crafts, creative and imaginative play…taking care of our home, going for bike rides and walks, exploring the flora [and] fauna of our neighborhood, engaged in physical activity and exercise…growing our own food, cooking (a great way to learn math). We also [make] use of the wonderful community based resources Baltimore has to offer. The girls take ballet, we attend a weekly music group, a regular playgroup, and we regularly take…field trips to the Zoo, the Aquarium, the Baltimore Symphony, local art museums, a pottery studio, horse riding lessons, local farms.”
Education happens organically, with input from the children themselves. “We do ‘unit studies’ on different topics,” Heather says, “[A] recent one was the phases of the moon (totally initiated by my daughter) and [we] often find one interest leads to another leads to another, and we explore them each in a multi-disciplinary way, through reading about it, experiencing it, doing art projects around it, talking to others in the community who are knowledgeable about it, etc.”
As Heather mentioned, her daughters do take some classes. And they are no strangers to the BHCC. The seeming contradiction only serves to highlight the freedom of unschooling – the family can do whatever they want to serve the girls’ education, even partake in some academic structure.
The kind of freedom Heather talks about may be essential to the unschooling philosophy, but it is not foreign to homeschooling in general. “Waking up whenever” is commonly listed among homeschooling’s virtues, as is a homeschoolers ability to get “real world” experience by actively engaging their community resources.
I’m slightly surprised to learn about how important community is to homeschooling, having heard for years about how homeschoolers are socially awkward, anti-social or reclusive. The fact is that, without the resources of an institution at their disposal, homeschoolers have to rely on the world at large to provide materials, examples, support, enriching experiences and social interactions. And at the BHCC, anyway, there is no lack of peers for the homeschoolers. Some kids come to the center just to hang out.
The Socialization Issue is the biggest argument from critics of homeschooling. It goes something like this: without being part of the huge social institution of public schools homeschooled kids will lack critical peer interaction, ending up overly protected and anti-social. Not surprisingly, homeschoolers take issue with this criticism. Counter-arguments are thought-provoking, like the argument that homeschoolers actually have more social interactions with a wider variety of people, because they are not limited to spending time predominantly with their own age and gender. But the most common counter-argument in favor of homeschool socialization is that school socialization is undesirable and even detrimental. Homeschoolers point to bullying, foul language, chatspeak, and rude behavior (not to mention sex, smoking, drugs and alcohol) as the products of being socialized by the public and private school systems.
Kelly points out that there’s a different dynamic among public school kids versus homeschooled kids, and from the looks of the BHCC, that’s obvious. There are no parents or teachers yelling at anyone. No one in “time out.” The kids here have chosen to take these classes. Kelly tells me that, while they have had to set some ground rules over the years and have occasionally had discipline issues with certain students, on the whole they need just one rule: Be kind. “This is everyone’s place,” she says, “and the kids know that. They want to be here. It wouldn’t work if they didn’t.”
The Limits of Homeschooling
If you take homeschoolers at their word about socialization, and trust that the state will make sure their kids get the education they need, is there any downside?
The downside seems to be less about who does it and more about who can’t do it. The fact is, it is an incredible commitment, of both time and money. Homeschoolers need to buy all their own materials – books, curricula, computers and computer programs. Field trips, museums, private lessons, membership and classes at the BHCC, all cost money, and it all adds up. Even the rising costs of transportation take their toll on homeschoolers. In fact, in Maryland, the number of homeschooling families has been recently declining, due possibly to the unfavorable economic system. And while it is possible to homeschool while both parents work (and people do it), it is a much greater challenge.
The homeschooling community in general also tends to be racially and economically homogenous. According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, white students constitute 77 percent of homeschoolers. Eighty-nine percent of homeschoolers are from two-parent households, and homeschooling rates drop significantly among families who earn less than $25,000 a year.
But perhaps the most unsettling thing about homeschooling is how well it underscores the deterioration of public education. If the claims that homeschoolers make about public schools are true, then what’s to become of the rest of us – the 97.6 percent who don’t, or can’t, get an education outside the school system?