KIDS’ VOICE: Home work – Many families opting for a do-it-yourself education

KIDS’ VOICE • by Sandy Moore

Ten-year-old Mira Subramanian is sitting on her favorite sunny spot on the family couch, talking about what a typical day looks like for someone who stays home to go to school.

“I like getting up on my own schedule and reading a lot.  I usually curl up right here,”says Mira.

“Most days, we have algebra next,” says her mother Stephanie, her primary teacher.

Homeschooling, a phenomenon that has grown in popularity in recent years, is alive and well in Montgomery County, with many families opting for a do-it-yourself education.

The most recent study of homeschooling nationally, done in 2007 by the National Center for Education Statistics, indicates that 1.5  million school age children were homeschooled in that year.  Although this is just under three percent of the school age population, it represents a 36 percent relative increase in the number of homeschoolers since the statistics were first gathered in 1999.

Diving head first into things that excite them

Although Mira likes reading on the couch, she’s anything but a couch potato.  Her week often includes art lessons, cello lessons, a geography class, sessions with a fencing coach and a math coach, singing in a choir, and Lego league robotics.

Mira’s mom speculates that homeschooled kids share an intellectual curiosity.  For Mira, that includes topics from archaeology  (“I learned to properly excavate with my trowel !”) to sharks (“bull sharks are the most dangerous”). Recently Mira was allowed to take a class in archaeology at Montgomery College.

Mira works on her computer

Mira works on her computer, with evidence in the foreground of her current passion for sharks. Photo by Julie Wiatt.

Although the Montgomery County public schools have an enviable reputation, a percentage of parents decide homeschooling is a better bet.

Mira’s brother, now attending Blair High School’s math magnet, was homeschooled through middle school, a decision Stephanie made after exploring what the public schools had to offer her son as a kindergartener.

“It just didn’t seem like he’d already done their curriculum,” says Stephanie.   She felt the same after Mira had completed Montessouri pre-school.

Some parents think their children are more apt to thrive if they stay in a calmer home environment.  Carol Clayton, a Takoma Park photographer and a single mom, was not impressed by the school her son was slated to attend.  In addition, she was concerned about her son’s reticence.

“My son was very shy at that age,” she said.

When Takoma Park therapist Elizabeth Ebaugh moved to Argentina for two years, she experimented with homeschooling, and her son Zach thrived.  When she returned  to this area and discovered a community of like-minded folks she continued to keep Zach home.

Parents band together

Several groups support home-schooling parents, including the Takoma Park Home Learning Network and the newly founded Tall Oaks Waldorf Network.  Such groups might hire a foreign language teacher for four or five kids or purchase discount theatre tickets.

One of the major misconceptions that Clayton says people have about homeschooling is its connection to Christianity.  “In Takoma Park it’s not about religion at all,” she said. “A lot of people do it simply because they don’t think the public school system is working.”

While the numbers are increasing, parents like Ebaugh and Clayton are quick to point out that homeschooling is not for everyone.  The schedules of home-schooled students, particularly as they grow older, look more like  that of a college student, only their “campus” may  spread across the metro area, requiring parents to have flexible work schedules, or making teaching their full-time, non-paid job.  Some homeschooling parents refer to their job as “car schooling,” given the amount of driving that’s involved.

Ebaugh also says, “It takes time for children to accept us as their academic teachers, since many of us are not professional educators.”

Not surprisingly, many kids express an interest in re-entering traditional school when they become teenagers. “I might go to Blair at some point, like my brother, “says Mira, “but I really don’t know.”

Mira with lego explorobot

Mira sports a proud smile of her lego explorobot. Photo by Julie Wiatt.

Brandon Greene contributed to this story.

About the Author

Sandy Moore, the Kids' Voice columnist, writes for young readers and is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Sandy is also a past contributor to Washington Parent magazine, a Board member of Lumina Studio Theatre, and resident of Silver Spring.