In the golden glow of a rural September morning, a gaggle of fresh faced children bustles onto a big yellow bus. The door closes and the bus rumbles off down the road, past redwoods and apple orchards, toward school in Occidental.
But down the lane, eleven year old Ethan is still home. He peers intently into the bowels of a computer, readying a screwdriver as his dad strains to push stiff metal parts together. His dad has been away at work for three days, and they have both been looking forward to this day of catching up on projects together.
On a hillside twenty miles away, in Kenwood, twelve year old Ramon lets his goats out of their pens and joins his mom inside at the kitchen table, to play with logarithms in their favorite math book.
And over in Santa Rosa, nine year old Allegra and Ashley break away from their reading to help their mom pack up lunch for today's field trip. They will be joining seven other families for a tour of the Petrified Forest in Calistoga before they rush off to ballet class.
These are some of what could be as many as two million children in this country who do not go to school.
Parents choose to educate their children outside of the traditional setting for a variety of reasons: academic goals, religious beliefs, social philosophy, personal needs and any number of issues. Patrick Farenga, publisher of the popular national homeschooling journal, Growing Without Schooling (GWS), has seen dramatic change and expansion over the past twenty years, "We have seen the homeschooling movement grow from its alternative schooling and back-to-the-land roots in the late seventies, to its popularity with religious fundamentalists in the eighties, to its current gradual acceptance by 'mainstream' families. Homeschooling is clearly not only growing, but flourishing."
How do parents know what to teach and how to go about teaching it? There are almost as many answers to this question as there are homeschoolers. The HomeSchool Association of California (HSC) points out that the home setting allows for direct personalized attention. "The teacher," they remind us, "possesses deep knowledge of each child and can individually tailor teaching methods to the child�s learning style. Studies have found no significant difference in the achievement of homeschooled children when grouped according to whether the parent was, or had ever been, a state-certified teacher. Children of homeschool parents with only a 12th grade education have scored above the national norm on the Stanford Achievement Test."
In fact, many homeschool parents think of their role as more facilitator than teacher. Some of the most popular books in homeschooling libraries, such as those by the late educator and homeschool advocate John Holt, encourage a relationship and atmosphere where parents support children in finding and pursuing their own interests. Traditional skills and knowledge are best garnered in a natural way that embraces a love of learning. The love of learning is held as an ultimate goal which can open any door.
Albert Einstein, who homeschooled for a time and was known to have had his difficulties in school, is often quoted: "It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry ...which stands mainly in need of freedom... It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty."
Resources are plentiful, and there is plenty of enthusiastic sharing and comparing among homeschoolers. Besides books and periodicals, newsletters, local social support groups and big state conferences put on by state organizations like HSC, there are even electronic networks found in services such as America Online, where homeschool parents (and kids) chat and post notes about everything from algebra programs to Greek curricula and college admissions.
"The world is our classroom" is a favorite theme of homeschoolers, who are often on the go. There are outings with Scouts, classes with 4H, visits to historical sights and museums , farms and factories, choirs, plays and the world at large. Kids' classes are offered at Lawrence Hall of Science, at Sonoma State's Excel program and at an increasing number of "after school" programs around the county. Days can be easily filled with social gatherings, drama groups, and with science or Spanish clubs at one another's homes. If homeschoolers have a common complaint, it is the driving involved in taking advantage of the many tempting opportunities for enrichment.
While providing a wholesome educational setting is important, being the primary influence in their children's lives is often of paramount importance to homeschooling parents. As tempting as all the outside enrichment opportunities are, most homeschooling families find that the times they value the most are the quiet times together around home. There is time to meander in the outdoors, to take in the sights and smells of autumn, or to snuggle together under a quilt on a frosty winter morning to watch a favorite film, or to stay up deliciously late on a spring night to finish a few more chapters from a beloved book. Homeschool children also have lots of time to be alone, and to daydream.
Gretchen McPherson, a Sonoma County homeschool mom, appreciates the gift of time that allows her children to pursue many varied interests in the community, " we have time to focus, to learn to truly concentrate on something. Time to read classics by the hour or Winston Churchill's memoirs, time to bake bread together and keep nature journals; time to do chores! But the most precious times to me are the unplanned 'gab sessions' with my three teenagers, when we sit up late enjoying each other's conversation and sifting through all the world's and our own problems. All this time with my children has knit our hearts together. That is a crucial benefit of home education."
Mark and Helen Hegener, publishers of Home Education Magazine, a favorite resource for many homeschoolers, are moved by this account. They also have homeschooled their children through the teen years. "When I was a teen," Mark remembers, "there was a big deal made about a 'generation gap.' We were all going through the same type of emotional flux. There were new kinds of relationships, responsibilities, questions and quandaries...but the peer group one had to draw from had no experience in dealing with these new situations. A teenager could feel very lost and lonely. All too often, when an adult tried to share his or her wisdom and experience, friction was the result, because the teenager was more used to relating with other teens. Thus the 'generation gap' was almost inevitable."
Hegener contrasts this with his present experience, "As homeschool parents, we don't see this big space between parents and their kids, at any age. When the time has been taken to communicate openly, it can be just as natural and comfortable for your teen to come to you with questions when they start dating as it was when they needed help with a model airplane. Families become close through living together, and build a foundation that will last down through generations."
An unfortunate popular misconception is that homeschoolers are rather homogeneous, sharing common religious affiliations. To the contrary, there is a broad range of beliefs, lifestyles, and ethnic backgrounds within the homeschooling community. Somewhere within that range there is a niche for everyone. There are as many ways of homeschooling as there are homeschoolers--with no "right" way. At one end of the spectrum families use packaged curricula or follow a fairly structured plan, while those at the other end support their children's interests in a spontaneous way. Most fall within the many variations in-between.
Every family is homeschooling--including those who send their children to school--but some do it for more hours of the day. Reading about other families' homeschooling experiences in good books and magazines is very helpful in understanding the struggles, joys, and potentials in taking on the responsibility of your own children's education.
Allowing children to pursue their interests as a basis for education is a philosophy widely encountered in homeschooling circles. After awhile many parents recognize the wide, interrelated expanse of research and problem solving skills, as well as valuable knowledge, that can naturally grow from this approach. While the state of California does have general "course of study" requirements listed in the Education Code, there is enormous freedom of choice for pursuing your own priorities and interests, even when following a more traditional structure.
Parents thinking about starting to homeschool for the first time with older kids often worry about being inadequate as teachers, but there are some very helpful resources for empowering the teens to educate themselves. To name just a few, Grace Llewelyn, a former teacher, publishes a catalog of intriguing learning resources called The Genius Tribe, for older children, teens, and adults, as well as two books on teens: The Teenage Liberation Handbook, and Real Lives: Eleven teenagers who don't go to school.
Jeremiah Gingold, one of the teens featured in Real Lives, remarks "Homeschooling has opened up a virtually unlimited array of possibilities in my life. I've never felt as if there was anything I couldn't learn, couldn't do. I've often run up against practical limitations from living in a rural location, but I've never felt limited by my self, by my age or my abilities. Perhaps this is because I've always been free to explore and interact with the world on my own terms." This seems like a the kind of outcome that would please any parent, and homeschooling is one good way of pursuing that goal.