Homeschooling Comes of Age

  

Homeschooling Comes of Age
Jennifer Sutton

Teaching children at home is no longer just the choice of religious and political iconoclasts. Now, drawn by Brown's tradition of independence and self-direction, a new generation of homeschoolers is arriving and thriving on campus.


Today Joyce Reed 61, might be hailed as a pioneer of the modern homeschooling movement, but thirty years ago she was an aberration. In 1970 she moved to the island of Hawaii with her anthropologist husband and young daughter. They lived in the town of Hilo for a year, then fell in love with a falling-down house forty miles outside town. Reed and her husband rebuilt the house, decided they liked living closer to the land, and eventually had four more children there. For ten years they lived off the grid: no electricity, no telephone, no indoor plumbing, no television, no radio. And no school.


To educate the children, Reed, who had started a doctorate in English before moving to Hawaii, read to the kids for two or three hours each day. She taught them how to write letters to their grandparents and introduced them to math by having them measure cooking ingredients in the kitchen and engine oil for the car. Her husband, Charles Taylor, who taught part-time at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, worked with the children in his woodshop and demonstrated how to repair the lawnmower. There were also chickens to feed, eggs to collect, firewood to gather, and a garden to weed. A number of like-minded families lived a few miles away, and together the adults taught the kids what they knew: algebra, for example, or French, or knitting. Now thirty, Reed and Taylor's son Ben Taylor remembers learning biology and botany from a crazy hippie who drove the kids around in his bus, talking about plants and animals.


A slender woman with deep-set blue eyes, Reed is now an associate dean at Brown. Despite having founded a small private school during the year she lived in Hilo, she says that with homeschooling she didn't really know what she was doing only what she wasn't doing. I wasn't saying to my kids, This is what you have to know and this is when you have to know it, she says. In school, kids are working to achieve someone else's goals. I wanted to see what would happen if you took kids who are intrinsically bright and let their minds be free.


IN THE LATE 1970s, when Reed was reading Johnny Tremain to her kids, only about 15,000 children were being schooled at home around the entire country. In fact, the practice was still outlawed in some states and didn't become legal in all fifty until the early 1990s. By the 1999/2000 academic year, thirty years after Reed started out, 850,000 school-age children were taught at home, according to a report published last August by the U.S. Department of Education. But officials at the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) believe that homeschooling had grown even faster. They say the number of homeschooled children is closer to 1.7 million and has been growing between 7 and 15 percent a year for the past decade.


Whichever figures are correct, one thing is certain: homeschooling has become an increasingly popular alternative to public schools judged by many parents to be inadequate and unsafe. As its popularity has grown, what was once the oddball practice of isolated families has become a widely accepted educational approach, with its own lobbyists, organized support networks, and how-to-get-into-college guidebooks. These days, two thirds of homeschoolers go on to college, according to a NHERI study published five years ago. All of Joyce Reed's five kids went to college. Two of them, Ben and Maria Taylor, graduated from Brown, in 1993 and 1995, respectively. According to Brown's director of admission, Michael Goldberger, thirty-eight of the 16,600 applicants for the class of 2005 were homeschooled a tiny percentage, but of these, five were accepted, an acceptance rate roughly equal to that for students educated in conventional public and private schools.


Education scholar Patricia M. Lines, a former senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, has studied the homeschooling movement extensively, from its beginnings in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a liberal alternative to what some people viewed as rigidly conservative public schools. In the 1980s, Lines observes, school culture drifted to the left, and conservative families turned to homeschooling to keep religion in their children's education. Today, both groups are running strong, she says, and they have been joined by an increasing number of parents who simply seek the highest quality education for their child, which they believe public and even private schools can no longer provide. These parents, like Joyce Reed, want their children to learn at their own pace, without the boredom that comes when the other children in class are learning more slowly or the anxiety that can arise when other kids are learning too fast.


Although the number of homeschoolers applying to college is still small, it represents only the first wave. The next homeschooled generation the real boom is just hitting puberty. A school like Brown, with its reputation for valuing independence and self-direction, may be particularly attractive to homeschoolers accustomed to charting their own course. Brown's curriculum, too, may be a good academic match for homeschoolers, many of whom have shaped their own curriculum with their parents or have simply followed their own interests with their parents as guides.


Tibet Sprague is typical of this new homeschooled vanguard. Fascinated by computers at a young age, he enlisted a programmer friend of his father to take him on as an apprentice. By age sixteen, Sprague was attending conferences to present computer applications he'd helped design, and coteaching a seminar for computer programmers thirty and forty years his senior. These kids are the epitome of Brown students, says Joyce Reed, who became an associate dean of the College twelve years ago. They've learned to be self-directed, they take risks, they face challenges with total fervor, and they don't back off.

LAURA BRION sits nursing a cup of coffee in a Starbucks on Thayer Street a few days before the start of the fall semester. With long, dark hair and almond eyes, she's calm and matter-of-fact in conversation, but when, on the walk back to her dorm, she encounters friends she hasn't seen all summer, she turns into a force of nature, hugging and squealing and bouncing up and down on the sidewalk.


Brion learned to read at two and a half. She attended a regular kindergarten in Sherman, Connecticut, before her parents decided to teach her themselves. One of their reasons was practical: Brion's father, a pilot, was frequently away; when he was home, he wanted to spend as much time as he could with his daughter. In addition, after kindergarten Laura was asking her mother why the teacher was telling her things she already knew. It's my job to raise my children, Alison Brion remembers thinking. It didn't seem unusual that I should continue what I started. While many people in town seemed to think the family was crazy, I didn't have any real worry that we could go wrong, Alison Brion says. Laura's first five years went well. Why wouldn't ages six through whenever go the same way?


For the first few years the family enrolled in a homeschooling program that provided a long-distance curriculum and guidance. But as they grew more comfortable with homeschooling, they struck out on their own. When Laura Brion was young, this meant spending a lot of time at the library. We lived at the library, she says. The librarian was one of my best friends. Brion was the first homeschooler in her small town, but over time her parents found others nearby, so the families joined forces. There were play dates, field trips to nature centers, and group classes in French and geology. One thing led to another. The piano lessons Brion began when she was nine led to a job as a church organist at sixteen. An interest in the Revolutionary War evolved into playing in a fife-and-drum corps. As a teenager Brion worked at two small farms, one owned and run by a former physicist, the other by an ethnobotanist, both of whom welcomed her nonstop questions. I realized learning was something I just couldn't get away from, she says. Everything became a learning experience. It is, in fact, this aspect of homeschooling learning as something that occurs at any time, in any place, throughout one's life that explains much of its appeal.


Another advantage of homeschooling, its advocates say, is that it allows children to socialize with and learn from a wide variety of people, instead of remaining confined in a classroom for most of the day with children their own age. Amois Gonzalez was homeschooled in Ashland, Oregon, because her parents wanted her to remain family-based for as long as possible; they also wanted her to grow up being able to interact with people of all ages, she says, not just her peers. Alison Brion had the same wish for Laura. The Brions joined homeschooling groups and after-school activities so Laura could be with other children, but they also went to library discussion groups and town meetings. Laura saw adults socializing, making decisions, stating their opinions, challenging each other, Alison Brion says. She learned that there's no one right answer to a question, which is not what usually happens in a classroom.


This issue of socialization, however, is also one over which homeschoolers are often criticized. How can kids learn to deal with other people, the question usually goes, if they're not in school? Such criticisms rest on certain professional assumptions about the nature of healthy socialization, Patricia Lines wrote in the July 1, 2000, issue of the journal The Public Interest. Homeschooling parents want their kids to learn values religious or otherwise from them, not from other kids. They worry about the negative peer pressure found in schools and as a countermeasure want children to spend more time with adults. But this does not mean that homeschooled children are isolated from their peers, Lines wrote in The Public Interest. They participate in homeschool support groups, scouting groups, churches, and other associations.


Sometimes, though, homeschoolers create more of a hybrid education. When Amois Gonzalez's best friend started going to a conventional school in the fourth grade (and got to ride the school bus), Gonzalez grew curious about what all the other kids were doing. Two years later, not wanting to be left out, she started school herself. Academically, she soared, but the social scene was tough to handle at first. I was very outgoing until I went to school, Gonzalez recalls. I became really shy and insecure. I wanted everyone to like me. I wanted to fit in. I had never had to worry about fitting in before. It took me a while to regain my self-confidence. Gonzalez stuck it out and went on to become a track star and homecoming queen.


Tibet Sprague followed almost the opposite path: he made it through eighth grade in Amherst, Massachusetts, before choosing to be schooled at home. Lanky and easygoing, he'd been doing fine academically and socially, but he was losing steam fast. The learning part became not fun, he says. You get all these assignments and 90 percent of them aren't interesting. Then if you get bad grades it's easy to lose your confidence. When two of his favorite teachers announced that they were leaving the Amherst school system to launch the Pathfinder Center, a homeschooling resource center for teenagers, Tibet chose to follow them.


Through Pathfinder, which helps homeschoolers and their parents design individual study plans and even offers some classes and activities, Sprague took literature, history, and physics seminars. He also studied electronics and chemistry with his grandfather and Buddhism with his father. He worked his way through algebra and Spanish textbooks at home, and aced computer science and calculus classes at the nearby University of Massachusetts. He even grew accustomed to questions like the one posed by a woman who approached him one weekday as he sat on a bench in downtown Amherst: why, she demanded to know, wasn't he in school?


There was no opposition to homeschooling out in the woods of Hawaii, where Ben and Maria Taylor grew up. Every week they went with their mother to the nearest public library, but otherwise they stayed close to home, reading voraciously, doing their chores, and roaming with homeschooled kids who lived nearby. Maria and her friends liked to dress up as medieval characters and act out stories they had written. Ben helped his father and the neighbors build fences and houses, and he figured out enough electronics to repair radios and televisions.


All this seemed normal to Ben and Maria until their family moved to the town of Waimea in the mid-1980s and they saw other kids going off to school. Ben and Maria eventually supplemented their work at home with history and Japanese classes, among others, at a local private high school. They wanted to play on sports teams and see what going to school was all about. Similarly, Tad Heuer, who was homeschooled in Holliston, Massachusetts, took chemistry and biology classes at his local public school primarily, he says, because single frogs in formaldehyde are hard to come by. (Heuer may be Brown's most decorated homeschooler so far: he was a Royce Fellow, a Truman Scholar, and a Marshall Scholar; was elected to Phi Beta Kappa; and received a combined four-year bachelor and master of arts degree, magna cum laude. He is now studying at Oxford.)


At seventeen, Maria Taylor actually enrolled full-time in high school for a semester, after her mother who was now divorced from Maria's father moved the family to Providence to take the dean's job. The teachers seemed to take it for granted that I wouldn't be interested in what I was learning, Maria recalls. We'd study something and take a quiz, but we never really talked about why it was important. And after years of making her own choices about how to spend her time, Maria found the school's structure difficult to take. The first time I had to go to the bathroom, and the teacher said no, I couldn't believe it, she recalls. Maria dropped out and spent the rest of the school year reading, working in a video store, and watching old movies.


SO HOW DOES a homeschooler fill out a college application, which usually requires school transcripts, standardized test scores, and teacher recommendations? When Joyce Reed bought her son Ben a review book for the GED exam, he looked through it and said to himself, Oh, man, I'm an idiot. (He passed the exam on his first try and scored in the top 1 percent of students who took the test in Hawaii.) Laura Brion debated whether she should even apply to college. Is it an adventure or a copout? she wondered. But she says that once she decided that a degree would be a practical thing to have, I had this initial feeling of, Oh no, what have I been doing all these years? Nevertheless, Brion took the SATs, wrote her essays, put together a transcript, and sent off the applications. A few colleges responded with postcards stating that she'd neglected to include a transcript.


Brown was not one of them. Among colleges and universities across the country, Brown is considered receptive to homeschoolers because it does not require them to supply any more information than traditional applicants. Some schools go further, offering scholarships specifically for homeschoolers or, as in Stanford's case, posting special information for potential homeschooled applicants on their admission-office Web sites. On the other end of the spectrum are universities such as Columbia, where homeschooled applicants must supply results from five SAT II tests (formerly called achievement tests); regular applicants, by comparison, must only submit three. Notre Dame also asks homeschoolers to send scores from five SAT II tests, even though its regular applicants aren't required to take any.


When Brown admission officers come across a homeschooler's application, they look for evidence of good writing skills and some sort of outside assessment, such as courses taken at a community college or standardized test scores. We take recommendations from family members with a grain of salt, Michael Goldberger says. Otherwise the evaluation process for homeschoolers is not much different from that of other applicants. We always look at each kid in the context of where they came from, whether it's a small, rural public high school or a sophisticated private school, Goldberger says. In a homeschool situation, our approach is, let's see what they give us and go from there.


Tibet Sprague gave Brown a transcript that included no grades (except for those he earned at UMass). Instead it detailed the books he had read (among them, Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451), the musical instruments he played (saxophone and recorder), the science projects he completed (building rockets to demonstrate trajectory physics), and even the cultural events he attended (the Bill T. Jones Dance Company). In some ways, he says, he had an advantage over college applicants with typical high school backgrounds. Their acceptance was based almost entirely on grades and scores, he wrote in a Pathfinder Center newsletter. But I could present everything I had done during the last four years, show every aspect of my intelligence and creativity, without lingering on my shortcomings.


FROM THEIR PROFESSORS and fellow students, homeschoolers at Brown elicit a wide range of reactions. Some people said, Wow, that's so cool! recounts Sprague. On the other hand, Maria Taylor says that one of her professors couldn't understand how I learned things, how I could be smart. He was like a lot of people who think homeschooling means no schooling. In fact, these homeschoolers say, their transition to college wasn't that different from that of other new students. It didn't matter what your previous background was, recalls Tad Heuer. Every single student was a bit nervous, and most were away from home for the first time. Laura Brion adds, I just figured I'd adapt. But what Brion had to adapt to were such everyday experiences as sitting in a classroom and having a constant schedule. It wasn't that big a deal. After years of showing up for music lessons and holding down jobs, she points out, It's not as if I'd never encountered rules or guidelines.


Homeschoolers are also buoyed by their self-confidence. My college friends got so daunted by everything, Maria Taylor explains. I didn't have that problem. I'd always been told that I was capable of doing anything. My friends [at Brown] also had strange ideas about adults. They had a hard time talking to professors as people. They were intimidated. I'd always been encouraged to talk about my opinions, and I had confidence in what I had to say.


Homeschooling had not prepared Taylor for one thing, though: meanness. I had little experience with being hurt by kids my own age, she says. People who are malicious, who say things about you that aren't true I was so shocked by all of that. I had never lost friendships before. Taylor ended up taking a leave of absence from Brown during her junior year.


If Laura Brion has experienced similar setbacks, she's not telling. She had worried at first that Brown might be too big a detour from the autonomy of her homeschooling, that sitting in classrooms and taking exams might cause her to start viewing learning as a chore. Luckily, that hasn't happened. I've found people here who have so much talent and idealism and enthusiasm, she says. It's totally infectious. I stay up way too late.


BEN TAYLOR DOES, too, getting by on just three or four hours of sleep a night. It's a habit he formed at Cambridge Technology Partners, the computer consulting firm where he worked after graduating from Brown, and at NerveWire, the management consulting company he cofounded two years ago. Now Taylor is a free agent again, living in New York City and looking for his next project. Interactive television? Venture capital? I remember my parents sitting me down and saying, There's always going to be a challenge out there for you, he says.


Like her brother, Maria Taylor is thinking about future challenges. After graduating with honors from Brown, she earned a master's in photojournalism at Boston University and now works as a graphic designer for NerveWire. She is also getting married this summer. She and her fiance have been talking about moving back to the island of Hawaii in a few years, back to the neighborhood where Maria grew up. Together with two childhood friends, she dreams of re-creating the homeschooling community that her mother helped start thirty years ago.


When I have kids, I can't imagine sending them to school, Maria says. I want them to have what I had. We were empowered. My mom would say to us, Whatever you want to do, you can do it, and if you need tools, come to me. I know it's a huge responsibility, and it's going to be hard. But I'm definitely going to do it.

 




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