ball! Andy Bruhns (center) started Games Day at Geyser
Road Park when he was 12. Photo: Teri Currie
From The Bell
families look for learning opportunities as diverse as they
Millingtons 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 didnt 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
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.
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.
out to read: Lisa Zimmerman with her son Joshua at
Games Day in Geyser Road Park. Photo: Teri Currie
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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.
think he feels important,” she says. “He takes ownership
of his education.”
Ceceri is a freelance writer living in Saratoga Springs.
She homeschools her children.