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No place like home

Tools and techniques for the home-school crowd.

Fifteen-year-old Asha McElfish does not have to go far to get to school. In her home in Fort Worth, Texas, she turns on her computer, checks her e-mail, and surfs the Web for a while. Then she practices Japanese using CDs purchased at Office Depot. Next, she opens Corel WordPerfect Suite 8 and writes some reports related to her volunteer work with the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. She tackles other subjects as well, and has had music reviews published in her local newspaper.

Her circle of friends and mentors now includes the head of London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, plus numerous botanical researchers. She is an exchange student in a Sister Cities program and recently was scheduled to spend part of her summer studying Japanese culture and language in Nagaoka, northwest of Tokyo.

When she needs historical dates or geographical information for her studies, she uses Yahoo! and other search engines, as well as books. “I love the Web, because it opens up the world,” McElfish says.

The Internet has long been a central component in her education, but so have parental involvement and oversight, she adds. “I started home schooling at age four. My mother didn’t like how [unsafe] public schools were, and she still doesn’t.”

The safety factor

Indeed, personal safety is a top reason why parents and children opt for home schooling, according to Dr. Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. His organization, based in Salem, Ore., has estimated that home schooling is growing at a rate of 7 to 15 percent per year in the United States, and that there now may be more than 1.7 million children being taught at home.

The tragic mass shootings at several high schools and middle schools across the nation have caused many publicized pullouts from public education. But parents and children also frequently cite other worries, as they turn to home schooling: gangs, peer pressure, religious and cultural differences, the use of drugs and alcohol at school, and the fact that some students, even in elementary classes, feel threatened by bullies who bring weapons to school.

Overcrowded, underfunded public school campuses and disenchantment with the national emphasis on standardized tests in public education are two more factors often cited on home-schooling Web sites and in other media coverage. In the views of many home-schooling parents, federal pressure on public school systems to raise standardized test scores simply will lead to more administrative pressure on teachers to lecture only on topics covered in the exams.

There are many other reasons for home schooling. Some children have learning differences, learning disabilities, or physical disabilities that do not mesh with rigid public-school programs. Children of military personnel who move frequently sometimes rely on home schooling to provide continuity to their studies. And youngsters who live in isolated communities many miles from the nearest public school find learning at home a liberating alternative to spending several hours a day riding a school bus to and from another town.

But there is one key reason for much of home schooling’s rising popularity, says Patrick Farenga, president of a home-school consulting firm, Holt Associates Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. “Home schooling has grown tremendously over the past 20 years because parents and children from all sorts of economic and educational backgrounds see that it works. They see the proof of home schooling’s success by coming face to face with home schoolers in their local areas, as well as through various media and conference events.” Recently, for example, students educated at home have made headlines by winning in prestigious spelling bees, science fairs, and other academic competitions.

Dos and don’ts

For many home-schooling families, the Internet, e-mail, and instant messaging programs have become indispensable tools for learning and finding educational support. But the integration of the Web and home schooling will remain in a state of dial-up infancy until more bandwidth and higher speeds are readily available, Farenga contends. “When asynchronous communications becomes the norm for the Web, I suspect we will see better uses of the Internet for developing and sustaining courses for home schoolers,” he says.

“I found a tremendous amount of support and sharing of information online when I first started home schooling,” notes Lillian Jones, Web site content coordinator for the Home School Association of California (HSC) in Davis, Calif. “I think you often can get into meatier conversations online than in local support groups. Online, you can find people who are seeking [how-to] conversations, where locally you sometimes encounter people who have lots of experience but aren’t particularly interested in discussions about how to get started.”

In her own experience, Jones has found chat rooms to be a waste of time. “But online bulletin boards and e-mail lists help a lot of people in profound ways,” she says. “I have seen many people over the years find so much support and advice online that they got the confidence to try home schooling. It is wonderful and moving to see them come back later and report how happily and successfully it is working out for their families. I’ve made special friendships with people from all over the country who are strong home-schooling advocates.”

Computers as resources

“As for using computers as a home-schooling tool, I think it all depends on what a student is interested in,” Jones adds. “I don’t think they should be used as electronic workbooks. But they are great for reaching out about one’s interests. Besides that, lots of teens learn to write beautifully from the motivation of corresponding with friends online. I’m a strong believer in natural learning, rather than making every thing into formal studies, and a computer can be a wonderful, creative tool [for that]. I developed HSC’s Homeschooling Gateway to the Internet with that in mind, so people can easily browse and pick and choose from things that catch their interest.” According to consultant Patrick Farenga: “Home schoolers still purchase far more books than computer programs. And I suspect that it is because so many computer programs are just the same old subjects organized for the convenience of using them on computers, rather than using computers to actually do something new and different with learning.”

He adds, “I have yet to hear a parent say that the main reason they want to home school is because of courses on the Internet. But I continue to hear that they try home schooling because they want their child to have more time for family and community, more time for in-depth study, more play time, more free time, or more time to do specific course work that public school schedules and assumptions don’t permit.”

Steve Feinstein’s twin daughters do not rely totally on their computers, either. Separately, they decided three years ago to leave a San Antonio, Texas, public middle school and do home schooling. Feinstein says that one of his daughters “is a kinesthetic learner, and public schools are just not up to teach that kind of learner.” Meanwhile, his other daughter “finally got tired of school politics–adults and students. She also figured out that what she was learning had nothing to do with what she wanted to do in life.”

Explains Feinstein: “We call what we do ‘self-directed learning.'” One daughter recently became interested in interior design. So she has watched TV shows on the subject and worked at redecorating some rooms in her house. “She had to provide a project summary sheet, discussing why she wants to do it and how much she estimates it would cost,” Feinstein says. Along the way, she also has taken an integrated physics and chemistry class offered via the Web by the University of Texas at Austin’s distance education program. And Feinstein recently was planning to teach both of his daughters stock market basics and related math and business issues, using materials from his own experience and the Web.

To provide some structure and consistency, his children are enrolled in what is known as an umbrella school. Clonlara, a private day school in Ann Arbor, Mich., maintains transcripts for home schoolers across the nation and provides “contact teachers” whom parents or students can call for ideas and advice on how to handle particular subjects. Clonlara publishes a newsletter, stages home schooling conferences, issues diplomas, holds graduation ceremonies, and talks with public-school officials when the validity of a family’s home-schooling efforts are questioned.

Other umbrella schools and online schools are available. One example is Pennsylvania-based Keystone National High School, which offers traditional printed correspondence courses, as well as online learning, plus record-keeping, transcripts, and other services. Internet Home School, headquartered in Prescott, Ariz., uses instant messaging, online chats, daily check-ins, online log sheets, and class schedules to provide educational structure. Dennison Academy, a private secondary school in Los Angeles, offers Dennison Online Internet School for English-speaking students in middle school or high school anywhere in the world.

While usually cheaper than private-school tuition, umbrella schools and online schools can be expensive. Many home school families choose a cheaper approach and to hook up with home school coalitions or organizations within their communities. Large religious facilities sometimes sponsor or host home school groups, as well.

For the budget-minded, a wide array of free sites can be used to encourage and bolster learning at home. One example is National Geographic’s award-winning Summer Fun for Kids site. Another is Homeschool.com, which offers links to a variety of home-school message boards. The e-Tutor site, provides home-schooling links. Also, software packages are available that can help parents keep home school records, prepare lesson plans, and perform other teaching tasks.

Look and learn

Veterans of home schooling recommend careful research before pulling children out of public school and committing cash to books, curriculum, software, and registration fees. Ask other home schoolers for opinions and recommendations. Be aware that education laws governing home schooling can vary widely from state to state. Some states exercise very little oversight; others have strict compliance and reporting regulations.

The National Home Education Network in Long Beach, Calif., is one of several information sites with details on state laws.

Home schooling typically can start at any time and usually is not locked into semester and schoolweek schedules. Many home schoolers, in fact, work year-round, particularly on subjects and projects they find interesting and challenging. And almost any life experience, including family travel or helping care for an elderly relative, can count toward graduation.

The Internet and home schooling have worked well for her family, Derrick says. “We travel for months at a time because of my husband’s work. Through networking resources online, we are able to connect with home schoolers where we will be going. We can arrange in advance to meet other home-schooling children for my kids to play with and find activities for them to participate in.”

She adds, “We have made many wonderful friends across the country this way, and have never wanted for opportunities to socialize, even in a place we’ve never visited before,” she says.

Home-schooling parent Steve Feinstein concludes, “In the final analysis, I really believe in youth empowerment, and I have total faith that both of my children will be able to make their own decisions, with my wife and me providing guidance.”

Contributing editors Si Dunn and Connie Dunn operate a writing and editing service in Denton, Texas. They have home schooled two of their three children.

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