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Play ball! Andy Bruhns (center) started Games Day at Geyser Road Park when he was 12. Photo: Teri Currie

Saved From The Bell

Homeschooling families look for learning opportunities as diverse as they are.

By Kathryn Ceceri

Brooke Millington’s revelation about homeschooling came courtesy of Oprah. One day around 1990 she caught Winfrey interviewing David Colfax, a pioneering homeschooling parent and political activist. Of the four sons that he and his wife, Micki, brought up on a homestead in the California hills, three got into Harvard and all became professionals. Even though Millington didn’t even have children then, her reaction was immediate and profound.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I wasted my frickin’ childhood sitting at a desk!’ Really, it made sense to me that these people could go to Harvard after living in the world,” recalls Millington, now a mother of two in Niskayuna. “It was so obviously the right thing, but no one had ever said it to me as a possibility before. And I said to myself, if I ever had kids, I would do this.”

According to the state Department of Education, about 1,500 kids were homeschooled in the Albany and southern Adirondack region in 2001-2002. More than 18,000 homeschoolers, one percent of the students enrolled in grades k–12, were counted statewide, not including New York City, which doesn’t send its figures to the state. The state also doesn’t bother keeping tabs on homeschooled children younger than 6 or older than 16 or 17. Parents only have to report on, and school districts only keep records on, kids covered by compulsory education law.

In New York state, to become a homeschooling family, parents have only to send a letter of intent to the school district either at the beginning of the school year or two weeks after pulling their child out of public school. Then they have to file an “Individualized Home Instruction Plan” for each child (basically a list of the books or curricula used), which the school district must approve (and usually does). Ongoing paperwork requirements include quarterly reports on the child’s progress and an annual assessment, which is either a standardized test or, in some of the earlier grades, a narrative written by the parent.

Some advocates claim homeschooling is the fastest-growing form of education in the country. A report by Brian D. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute in Oregon cites estimates from 850,000 to more than 2 million children nationwide. And yet, homeschooling—perhaps more than any other kind of school choice—seems to place parents who choose it on the defensive.

There are the periodic hysterical denouncements, such as a recent CBS News special report that focused on “the dark side of the homeschool movement,” by which they meant children who were abused or killed “while homeschooling.”

From the other direction, especially among liberals, homeschooling parents tend to be accused of being elitist or of abandoning the public schools.

Time out to read: Lisa Zimmerman with her son Joshua at Games Day in Geyser Road Park. Photo: Teri Currie

Underlying these negative reactions are some common stereotypes about homeschooling. There’s the idea that all homeschooling parents are either Christian fundamentalists who want to avoid teaching evolution or hippie homesteaders who eschew indoor plumbing. There’s the image of the homeschooler tied to the kitchen table, practicing for the spelling bee finals or the SATs, trying to get into the Ivy League at 12—or conversely, doing nothing but watching TV and playing computer games all day. There’s the picture of precocious but socially awkward homeschoolers who’ve never interacted with their peers.

But a look at homeschooling today shows that it’s becoming more diverse—and more social—every day.

At one time it was a sure bet that most homeschooling organizations were dominated by conservative Christians. Back in the 1980s, Christian homeschoolers played a major role in drawing up the current state regulations. The Christian organization LEAH (Loving Educators at Home), with dozens of chapters across the state, is arguably still the most visible face of homeschooling in New York. Together with the Home School Legal Defense Association, a conservative Christian group based in Virginia that is itself the most visible face of homeschooling nationwide, LEAH periodically brings a thousand parents and children to rallies at the state Capitol to lobby, and sometimes pray with, their local legislators.

But the first wave of homeschooling to hit this country since compulsory education began in the 1870s really started with families like the Colfaxes. In the 1960s and 1970s, according to a history written by Patrick Basham of the libertarian Cato Institute, “most home schooling parents were members of the counter-cultural Left, principally advocates of New Age philosophies, ex-hippies, and homesteaders.”

Today, homeschoolers are becoming an even more diverse bunch, representing every religious and political stripe.

For most of the hundreds of families in the Capital Region who have chosen to homeschool, the decision to educate their children themselves is rather more gradual than Millington’s Oprah revelation. Some begin to wonder if their kids could do better than they are in school, given free time to explore on their own or one-on-one attention at home. Others realize they’d like to continue hands-on parenting the way they did in their children’s early years. Many think teachers are too quick to label kids (especially boys) as having attention problems, or object to how the schools handle their children’s special needs.

Millington, 42, says she herself did well in school but didn’t have any particular career goal as an adult; she taught for a year, drove a van, worked in a bakery. She explains the appeal of this style of schooling by saying that life is rich “if you can be in it . . . in the world, functioning as a person. You’re doing the course of life.”

For her, the reality has pretty much played out as she envisioned it, back when she saw her first homeschooler on Oprah, although she’s not necessarily aiming for Harvard. That is, depending on how the day is going.

“Then there are the days when it’s a living hell, and I’m saying, ‘Who got me into this?’” she admits. “Are we achieving anything at all? That’s a toughie. We’re very self-directed. We’re in no way organized or structured. We’re scattered and grabbing from here and there.”

Like many homeschoolers, Millington’s kids do their work, about an hour and a half, in the early part of the day. She’ll have them do some kind of reading, some kind of writing, “throw in some math, an experiment,” and piano practice. Then she’ll supplement it with odds and ends directed towards their interests: classes, travel, museums and libraries. Millington’s 10-year-old, Hopper, does a woodworking program. Millington recently organized a bridge club for kids and parents.

Millington uses a “cover school,” a correspondence course offered by Clonara School in Michigan, to handle the paperwork she must file with the school district and make sure there aren’t any gaps. Although not every parent worries about keeping their child up to “grade level,” Millington makes an effort.

“The way I try to glean what that means is I go to E.D. Hirsch [author of the Core Knowledge Series for parents] and World Book [the encyclopedia’s website features a list of topics students should know, by grade level]. And I feel completely inadequate. And then I hand a book to Hopper and say, ‘Read something out of it.’”

And she knows they’re doing just fine, for now.

In a speech on homeschooling she wrote five years ago, Mary O’Keefe admitted she once believed the myths about homeschooling: Homeschoolers are strange. They have no social life and their parents chain them to their kitchen tables to fill out workbooks. Parents need a lot of formal education to homeschool effectively. Homeschooled kids grow up narrow-minded and are not exposed to other points of view.

Now O’Keefe is one of the most well-known names in homeschooling in the Capital Region, and her children, both finalists in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, have become part of homeschooling lore. And she feels differently about all those stereotypes.

Sitting outside the church where she’s waiting for her younger daughter to finish practicing with the Saratoga Children’s Choir, O’Keefe explains that her kids—Alison Miller, 17, who placed third in the 2000 Spelling Bee nationals, and Catherine Miller, 13, who tied for 10th place in 2002—have interests that go way beyond the competitions they’ve won. Though both got top scores on the SAT in their early teens, earning them the opportunity to take classes at local colleges, O’Keefe considers herself an “unschooler.” She’s never used a curriculum or drilled her kids with workbooks. She provides the materials and the opportunities, and the girls decide whether to pursue them or not.

A former Harvard economics professor, O’Keefe still says she’s learned a lot alongside her kids, and from resources like the library and public television. Her daughters’ tastes run to theater (they directed the Home Educators Enrichment Group’s summer Shakespeare productions), yoga, running, and math (Alison coaches a middle school math team, Catherine and her mother coach a homeschool team). They’ve volunteered in schools in their suburban district and in Hamilton Hill. They write poetry, play piano, attend science programs and study French, Latin, and Greek—all of their own accord.

O’Keefe’s never worried that unschooling would leave gaps in her children’s education. Watching Alison make such good use of the free time she had when she was in school was what inspired her to free up all Alison’s time to use as she pleased.

“She was reading calculus at home, and coming home with 40 long division problems (for homework),” O’Keefe says. Homeschooling “allowed her the flexibility to work in an unorthodox way—calculus before trig before geometry.”

O’Keefe now believes that homeschooling works because “it makes my children happy.”

John Munson and Cathy Munson-Klein answer many questions from parents looking for information about homeschooling, as moderators of the e-mail lists for the New York Home Educators’ Network, a statewide group that aims to increase public awareness, acceptance and support of home education.

“I spend a lot of time—we have—helping people who are just trying to do the best thing for their kids,” explains Munson, who works with computers. “You can think public schools are a paragon of equality, but the fact is kids get crushed by the inflexible public-school machine. Kids get hurt. We see it. No matter what you think of the social value of public school, it’s happening. And for the families where it’s happening, we’re trying to help them.”

“I feel like we’re the Underground Railroad,” Munson-Klein picks up. “Like Harriet Tubman, going in and getting out as many individuals as we can.”

Before she had kids, Munson-Klein was a special-education teacher in a public junior high.

“I did my time in the public school as a student and a teacher,” she says. “I tried to turn that machine around.”

For this family, homeschooling has been another step in crafting a lifestyle that started with a vegetarian diet and moved on to natural childbirth, breastfeeding, and holistic health care.

“We’re people who think for ourselves. We don’t follow the mainstream, and we do it in every area,” says Munson-Klein. “I don’t think we set out to do that. We did it one decision at a time. I see it as an extension of attachment parenting. Raising your own kids and trying to do the best for them.

“And,” she adds with a laugh, “just being weird!”

Contrary to popular opin- ion, most homeschooling parents say they spend more time outside the home than in it. And thanks to the concentration of homeschooling families in the Capital Region, support groups that give families the chance to both learn and play together and help each other with the process of educating their kids are thriving. Over the past few years, with the help of the Internet, these different groups have started to connect with each other, bringing together families from one corner of the region to another.

Millington compares getting together with other homeschoolers to an exercise she once did where everyone in a room started walking around, occasionally bumping into one another. Each homeschooling mom is doing her own thing, but sometimes they bump into each other and talk. She bounces ideas off them, and they bounce them off her.

“I feel a sense of community. We’re all doing it for the same reason,” she explains.

Some homeschooling organizations have been around for years: The Alternative Learning Center in Chatham, which has offered cooperatively led classes since 1991, has 38 families and nearly 60 children from preschoolers to teens; the Home Educators Enrichment Group, based in Niskayuna, put on its eighth consecutive Shakespeare play last summer. Then there’s the Capital District Home Educators, Guilderland At-Home Learner’s Association and Family Educators Resource Network.

The growth of these local groups has as much to do with reaching new areas as with gaining new recruits. Six years ago, Saratoga Area Homeschoolers started with a handful of moms (I was one of them). Since then, only about 30 more children have registered with Saratoga Springs City School District as homeschoolers, but the number of names on the SAH e-mail list has soared to 180. There are list members from Fulton County, messages have been forwarded list-to-list as far as Catskill, and group activities attract families from as far south as Cohoes and Troy, as far west as Cambridge, and as far north as Lake Luzerne and Lake George.

Free online e-mail servers like Yahoo! Groups make it possible for groups like SAH to exist without dues, newsletters, mailing lists or phone trees—in fact, without any more organization than someone to set up the e-mail list and screen out the off-topic messages and the spam. It’s the ultimate arrangement for the kind of individualistic personality homeschooling tends to attract: Members can message each other or the entire group directly, with instant results.

This fall it wasn’t unusual for a last-minute announcement that Outdoor Games Day was on that week to draw 30 or 40 kids to Saratoga’s Geyser Road Recreation Field for an afternoon of kickball and capture the flag. Car after car pulled into the lot, disgorging a passel of kids who sprinted out to the field. Soon a mom (or occasionally, dad) would saunter over to the picnic tables or the lawn and join the general lamentation about housework, ask for tips on explaining fractions or debate the value of cursive versus keyboarding.

Andy Bruhns started Games Day when he was just 12, because he missed the recreation time he’d enjoyed when he was at a local Waldorf school. He and his mother Pat researched games that would work with a range of ages, and Andy practiced explaining them to his younger brother Cameron. Three years later, the kids still run the show. Everyone who wants to plays, down to the littlest toddler, though players often wander off the fields to check out the slides, climb the sticky pine tree or try to figure out a way to get a sports drink out of the vending machine (whining for money has proven more effective than randomly pushing buttons). Cliques and gangs are minimal, and disagreements get settled quickly—there are just too many moms to get away with any funny stuff.

Communication 301: (l-r) Brittany Godin signs to Carolena Mariconti at the Five Rivers Environmental Center Amy Briggs and Zachary Godin look on. Photo: Teri Currie

For the parents, kid-driven activities like Games Day, swim and gym at the Cohoes Community Center, or roller skating at the Fun Spot in Queensbury are like the play group that never ends, or an al fresco version of the teacher’s lounge (albeit one where you have to take the students home with you at the end of the day, and there’s no pension when you retire).

At other gatherings, parents play a more involved role. In bridge classes, physics workshops and French clubs, moms sit right in with the children and take part. (“Quel age a tu?” “J’ai trente-six ans.”) They go on hikes, help with the museum programs, and pick up a few new facts on the tour of the local nature center.

It’s a Thursday afternoon in September, and I’ve come to observe one of the weekly meetings of the Home Learning Center, a group of about 15 families who each take turns setting up field trips or putting together workshops and activities for their kids. Although their meetings are usually limited to members, they’ve agreed to let my two boys participate in the workshop, which this week is on the history of money, while I take notes. In a classroom at Five Rivers Environmental Center in Delmar, about a dozen kids, from 7 to about 13 years old, sit on the floor facing one of the mothers. Calling for volunteers, she tells each child who comes up she’s going to give them some money. Then she hands them an item—salt, leather, shells.

“That’s not money!” says one boy.

The mother explains that people once used items like these for money and explains the concept of bartering. Then she asks, “Could you take this to Price Chopper?” As she goes on to talk about fair trade, coins and the U.S. Mint, the kids sit and listen attentively, or get up to check in with their own parents in the back of the room for a moment before sitting back down. Next to the mom giving the presentation, another woman translates using sign language. My younger son leans over to ask me what she’s doing, and I quietly explain.

From time to time the mother giving the presentation asks a question or takes a comment from the children. One boy mentions that his grandfather collects old coins. She ends by passing around some foreign currency. By the end of the half-hour, all of the children have answered a question or helped out with the presentation, including the little girl sitting in front who I’ve realized is the one with a hearing impairment. My kids never noticed her until I pointed her out.

After the presentation, the group moves over to the tables, where the other parents have set out soda bottles, felt and glue, and are showing the children how to make piggy banks. My kids have a little trouble with this—they’re too impatient to let the glue dry—but eventually they finish and head outside with the rest of their crowd to join the under-7s next door, who have just finished their program on bird watching, and do a scavenger hunt. The mother leading this activity is busy pairing kids who can read with those who can’t. I go back inside to find the woman who taught the history-of-money workshop.

Her name is Kim Godin, she lives in Rotterdam, and no, she tells me, she’s never had any training as a teacher. She put together the presentation after coming across a book on the subject in the library and finding it interesting. And she consciously designed her program to include a variety of teaching styles—hands-on demonstrations, questions for the children, and samples for them to look at and hold—because that’s how she works with her own son Zachary, 6, who has a form of autism. Two of her other children, Brittany, 15, and Perette, 10, are also homeschooled; 16-year-old Kayla is in public school. Godin began homeschooling two years ago when it looked like Zachary, then going into kindergarten, wasn’t going to get the services she felt he needed. At home, he’s doing the same schoolwork as other children his age.

“My son’s a different kid now,” she says. “They told us he’d never read and write. He’s right where he should be.”

Godin is friends with Lisa Mariconti of Slingerlands, whose daughter Elizabeth, 10, was the girl I noticed with a hearing impairment. Elizabeth’s sisters Carolena, 6, and Michelle, 16 months, are also deaf, and all three have respiratory problems. Elizabeth went to public school until second grade, but Mariconti was not happy with her daughter’s experience there.

“The other children were treating her as a mascot,” she discovered. Elizabeth also spent part of the day in a special class for hearing-impaired children at BOCES, but the teachers there had trouble dealing with Elizabeth’s attention problems. They’d make her put her head down, or put her at a desk out in the hall, cutting her off from the rest of the class.

Mariconti says homeschooling allows for more positive social interaction. Her daughters are accepted by the other children in the homeschool groups she belongs to (the girls also take classes with the local LEAH). Sign-language interpreters provided by the school district and a special microphone that transmits directly to Elizabeth’s hearing aid help her to keep up with the rest of the group. (Mariconti laughs as she realizes Godin is still miked and probably transmitting their conversation directly to Elizabeth outside.) And the kids help too: While the mom leading the scavenger hunt explained how it worked, Godin’s daughter Brittany signed for Mariconti’s kids.

Other Home Learning Center activities this year include field trips to the world’s biggest kaleidoscope in the Catskills and a scenic train in the Adirondacks, workshops on germs and electrical circuits, and a tie-dye class. The group also volunteers at a local soup kitchen, and has put on a play. Some people may call the HLC just another kind of school, but founder Gina NeJame insists it’s not. NeJame, a divorce lawyer and the mother of Rick, 8, and Michael, 5, explains that the basics are still learned at home.

“This is just an outlet for whatever a parent wants to learn with her children, and thinks a group would enhance it,” she says. “It’s a fun way to get together and learn something.”

Homeschooling has involved every member of NeJame’s family. Her husband joins in after work, letting the kids read to him when he gets home, and working on a lesson NeJame has prepared for him on the weekend. Her father sends weekly history lessons, and her mother is teaching the kids Spanish. And, as a fringe benefit she didn’t anticipate, her boys have gotten closer to each other as well.

For NeJame, it boils down to being able to take the time to focus on subjects her children love. She’s seen it make a difference with Rick’s attitude toward learning.

“I think he feels important,” she says. “He takes ownership of his education.”

Kathryn Ceceri is a freelance writer living in Saratoga Springs. She homeschools her children.

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