By Nick Raio
Overcrowded classes, standardized testing, harried or inept teachers and administrators, service cuts, chalk shortages, lack of attention to individual needs … Welcome to another school year.
Now picture this: A couple of siblings sitting in their cozy living room, reading, painting, learning math, studying the flora and fauna of their backyard, and having their academic needs met by a teacher who knows them well.
As thousands of Long Island children trudge back to school this week, a small percentage won’t be trudging anywhere. They’re the homeschooled kids, and their numbers are on the rise.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
Homeschooling is the fastest-growing educational trend in the history of public education. According to the most recent comprehensive survey on the subject, from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 1999 there were an estimated 850,000 students nationwide being homeschooled, roughly 1.7 percent of U.S. students ages 5 to 17 (roughly levels K-12). Although the percentage is as yet small, growth has been so rapid—4,000 percent in the last 20 years—that in many circles it is referred to as the “homeschool phenomenon.”
There are as many reasons for homeschooling as there are different ways to go about it. According to the 1999 study, parents cite motivations as varied as religion, safety or control. Many talk about poor learning environments in public schools. Homeschooling has become especially popular in largely minority communities. According to recent studies, black children in the United States are now five times more likely to be homeschooled than they were five years ago.
Here on Long Island, home to some of the most respected and well-funded public schools in the country, some people just want to spend more time with their children. Others believe the focus of one or two parents teaching a few kids will always be better than one teacher for every 20 or so students.
Consider 11-year-old Nicholas Boiko. As a middle-school student in the Massapequa School District, he was struggling to meet the physical demands. According to his mother, Fran Boiko, Nicholas is asthmatic and a bit undersized for his age. Just getting around the school was difficult.
“When he would leave the house in the morning, it would break my heart watching him try to carry this huge backpack full of books,” she says. “He could barely carry it.”
Nicholas brought home books for most of his nine classes each day in order to complete roughly three hours of homework every night. Then he lugged the books back to school. Because students are only given a couple of minutes between classes, Nicholas was forced to carry all of his books around with him all day, navigating crowded hallways with his huge pack. He also had trouble breathing. Teachers began to threaten him with detention for arriving late to class.
“This is a good kid, a good boy, and he was getting in trouble for being late to class,” says his mother. “He began to hate going to school.”
Because of his asthma, and because he was becoming extremely fearful, Nicholas was frequently unable to even make it to school. Administrators would call home explaining that the chronic absences were becoming a problem.
“They would call home and want to know why he wasn’t in school,” she says. “Sometimes the kid couldn’t breathe. I had to keep him home.”
At one point, unable to keep his balance carrying the huge backpack, Nicholas fell down the stairs at school. For his mother, who had put her oldest daughter, now a student at FIT in Manhattan, through the entire public school system, that was the last straw.
“I believe students should have the opportunity to learn joyfully, not tearfully, so I decided to pull him out and teach him at home,” she says. Nicholas and his 13-year-old sister, Starr, became homeschoolers last fall.
For Boiko, this wasn’t a reactionary or rash decision. She investigated her options. She talked to people. She asked her kids what they thought.
It wasn’t just the stress of school or wanting to spend more time with her kids that helped Boiko make the decision to homeschool. She also felt that her kids weren’t getting the attention they needed and deserved in public school.
“The amount of time in each class was so rushed, they were probably only actually working for about 25 minutes in each class, nine periods a day,” she says. “The schools are overcrowded, teachers are overworked and overwhelmed, and they just can’t provide enough individual instruction; they just don’t have the time.”
TOO MUCH STRUCTURE
Boiko’s sentiments are typical of the new homeschooling parent. While there are plenty of people who have held homeschooling ideals even before they had children, many parents are deciding to pull children out of school in response to the increased politicization of education, especially here in New York.
Many parents have come to recognize that while some teachers do their best, and more often than not go into teaching for honorable reasons, federal and state government continues to impose new standards without providing local districts with the funding or resources required to keep things running efficiently. Many parents who have opted to homeschool point to the standardized testing initiatives they feel have served to narrow curriculum, handcuff teachers and stress out students.
“The stress on young kids today is incredible,” Fran Boiko says. “My children were so stressed out all the time, they were miserable. Everything is so much more relaxed now.”
For parents who make the decision to homeschool, the first thing to overcome is fear.
Parents who homeschool are pretty normal. According to the 1999 NCES study, household income is basically the same for homeschooling parents as for public school parents. Parents who homeschool are slightly more likely to have bachelor’s degrees or higher, than parents who send their kids through public school. But parents who wish to homeschool should know they do not need an advanced degree or education training. Boiko, a floral designer for 20 years, finished high school and spent some time at college, but never got her bachelor’s degree.
“I want other parents to know this is something they can do, that it is a realistic option, if that’s what they want for their kids,” Boiko says.
“You don’t have to be a certified teacher or have a college degree to homeschool your children. Children are natural learners and parents are natural teachers. There are so many resources available, anybody can teach their children about anything.”
HOW TO DO IT
Boiko’s first stop for information was the New York State Education Department home page, at http://www.nysed.gov, which has a wealth of information and resources. The first step in homeschooling is submitting a letter of intent to homeschool. Parents must submit this letter to the superintendent of the local school district each year, typically by July 1 of the upcoming school year. (It is possible to begin homeschooling children midyear, providing a letter is sent to the school district no later than 14 days following commencement of homeschool instruction.)
The school district is then required to send the parents a copy of section 100.10 of the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education and a form on which to submit an individualized home instruction plan, or IHIP, for each child who is to be taught at home. The IHIP must include either a list of materials and textbooks to be used or a plan of instruction to be followed. Different alternatives may be used for different subjects. The purpose of the review is to ensure that the parent is providing the mandated subjects for the grade level in question, and to provide the district with complete information to assist in its review of quarterly reports and annual assessments.
While the guidelines are fairly specific, compliance rests largely on the integrity of the homeschooling parents. New York State regulations stipulate that homeschooled children must take at least one “commercially published norm-referenced achievement test” per year, which is to be administered either at a public school, under the supervision of a certified teacher or at a registered nonpublic school. If a homeschooled child does poorly, officials will try to get that child out of the home and back into school.
According to statistics, low achievement doesn’t occur very often. In research conducted by University of Maryland Professor Lawrence M. Rudner when he was director of the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation in 1998, homeschooled children score well above the national median on standardized tests.
Talia Yakobi, an 8-year-old homeschooled student in Huntington, has noticed that she is ahead of many of her peers who attend public school.
“I help my friends sometimes with their homework,” Talia says. “Sometimes they are doing things I know how to do already.”
Additionally, students who have been homeschooled their entire academic lives have higher SAT scores than those who have attended other educational programs or who have been homeschooled for only a few years. By eighth grade, the average homeschooled student performs four grade levels above the national average.
So perhaps it’s a good thing that other than the yearly test administered by a third party, school districts and government officials have little real power in the home. If a parent simply fills out the paperwork and meets the requirements, there is a great deal of freedom in the homeschool environment. And that’s exactly what most homeschool parents are looking for.
Boiko’s approach is fairly structured. She and her children generally eat breakfast together each morning and then engage in lessons, with Boiko acting as teacher, until noon. After lunch, the children either resume lessons with Boiko or perform their own reading or independent study until midafternoon, usually around 2 or 3 p.m. After that the children participate in a variety of other activities, such as volunteering at the local library or socializing with friends and neighbors.
“We have more family time, we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together and we are able to do more as a family. It’s wonderful,” Boiko says.
That’s only one way to do it. At the Yakobi household in Huntington, Lisa Yakobi’s three children school themselves.
“I create a learning environment for them and they follow their instincts,” Yakobi says. “I don’t do a lot of teaching, but I am always encouraging them to learn.”
Among homeschoolers, this method is referred to as “unschooling.” Similar to other accepted styles of teaching such as Montessori, the belief is that children are naturally curious and human beings in general are capable of learning everything they need to know on their own.
Perhaps Yakobi’s background enables her to teach without structure. She holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and is halfway toward a master’s degree in painting. She also taught English as a second language for six years. Some teaching techniques are like second nature.
At home, she has created an open and encouraging learning environment for her children. While she may not stand at a blackboard, she does teach by example. Yakobi works from home as a “life coach,” professional career counselor and therapist. She is also accomplished artist. Her artwork, and that of her children, can be found in every room of the house. Her living room contains easels, craft materials, colorful fabrics and papers, and is filled with neatly stacked jars of beads, stones, crystals and every other imaginable art supply.
“Anybody who says they don’t have room for an art room isn’t fully utilizing their space,” she jokes. “I converted my living room into an art room and we spend a lot of time in there together.”
Yakobi spends a lot of time with her children, period. It is easy to see she loves being around them and the idea of sending them out of the house to sit in classrooms all day is something she just doesn’t even consider. “I decided long before I had kids that I wanted to homeschool. I knew it was something I would do.”
Yet despite her early feelings, Yakobi agreed to send her first child, son, now 14, and eldest daughter, now 11, to Yeshiva. The children’s father wasn’t convinced homeschooling was the way to go and they agreed to compromise. It wasn’t long before Yakobi pulled them out of the Queens Yeshiva and began schooling at home. Her youngest daughter, now 8, has never been to school. Yakobi, however, considers the world to be her kids’ classroom.
“I want my kids to be integrated into the world,” she says. “I believe in my kids, I believe in their ability to learn and I believe they are always learning.
THE WORLD IS THEIR SCHOOLHOUSE
While the Yakobi children largely create their own world of experience, Yakobi herself is always there to facilitate. Yakobi helped her children start their own business, producing various types of crafts, such as flower pens, which the children sold on consignment at local stores. She helped them to set prices, factoring the cost of materials and the time it took to create items. They learned about business, bookkeeping, sales and marketing and, in the process, self-worth. As a result, the children value their own time and seek to fill their days with productivity—not just for financial gain, but for personal and even spiritual growth.
The 8yo has expressed an interest in learning Hebrew and currently takes lessons from a rabbi. Why?
“I just wanted to,” she says matter-of-factly. “I wanted to learn it.”
While the answer is simple enough, those basic words are ones many parents—of any type of student—often long to hear. The youngest is also extremely interested in song and dance. Her musical tastes range from popular to world music. The 11yo is quick to explain that she wants to be a judge—and a singer and an actress. All three children are involved in local theater productions, with the girls performing onstage while the 14yo helps with lights and other production aspects. They are typical children in one sense and highly unique in others.
The girls see the world as their playground more than their classroom, but nonstop learning seems to be the result. Both perform regularly at open-mic nights at the local Starbucks. The son plays guitar. Yakobi provides them with the freedom to try and then succeed or fail, but all they see is another opportunity to try something.
“They have a lot of confidence,” Yakobi says. “And they are very self-directed.”
All of Yakobi’s children routinely test in the 99th percentile on the required standardized tests they take each year. The 14yo is among the 25 percent of homeschoolers working well above grade level, and has expressed interest in following world events.
While there is a television in the house, Yakobi does not have cable. She uses the television primarily as a monitor to watch videos or DVDs. At one point, the 14yo was picking up issues of Time or Newsweek at friends’ houses or doctors’ offices and reading about current events. He eventually asked his mother if he could start following what was happening in the world as it happened. Yakobi now allows him to read periodicals. He recently graduated to reading progressive texts, and just finished Michael Moore’s New York Times best seller Stupid White Men.
According to Yakobi, her son not only understands such at-times cynical satire, but also formulates his own thoughts and opinions, based on his own interpretation of information from a multitude of sources. He has taught himself to think critically. For Yakobi, it’s like watching magic happen.
“I think a lot of children have their desire and ability to learn squeezed out of them at an early age,” she says. “That’s not the case with my children.”
UNITED WE STAND
But not every parent is capable of creating that kind of environment. For them, there are ample resources available. Devorah Weinmann is the general coordinator of LIGHT—Long Islanders Growing at Home Together—one of the associations that provide resources and community to homeschoolers. Weinmann has four children, all of whom were homeschooled up to high school level. Her oldest daughter attended a BOCES program and is currently working as a cosmetologist. Weinmann initially got interested in home-schooling because her daughter was not ready to go to school at grade level, and the school district wanted the child to repeat a grade.
“I didn’t know anything about homeschooling at the time,” she says. “So I started asking friends and doing research.”
Weinmann’s children not only adapted well to the homeschooling environment, but they had thriving social lives, just like the Boiko and Yakobi children. Each set of children has made friends through community activities, athletics and other out-of-school activities. Weinmann’s children are active in dance and sports and take music lessons with other kids.
“I find they make friends outside of their own age group more readily,” she says. “Homeschool kids have friendships which tend to cross age groups, more like what you would see at a family gathering, where all the kids play together regardless of their age. That’s exactly the kind of situation you are likely to see at a homeschool activity—relationships aren’t just child-to-child but rather family-to-family.”
That’s where an organization like LIGHT comes in. Homeschool parents often find that connecting with others educating their children the same way provides additional richness to the experience for everyone involved.
“It’s a nice bonus to have a group of families to socialize with who share similar values about education,” says Weinmann. “It makes it easier to plan events with other homeschool kids. The activities provided by LIGHT are all generated by the members.”
Such events might involve a trip to Cold Spring Harbor Lab for a science lesson, or a trip to a museum or theater company. Again, the real world becomes the classroom for these kids and real-world professionals provide some of the teaching. And the children seem to respond to the excitement of learning in different environments, instead of in the sometimes-generic or sterile classroom environment.
LIGHT has 115 members and holds one general meeting each year. Parents unable to attend the meeting can send requests or commentary in writing to be read at the meeting.
“It’s a true parent-run cooperative,” Weinmann says. “All the activities are conceived, executed and run by the members.” Families offer volunteer services by providing two or more events, meetings or newsletter articles each year.
GOVERNMENT TO THE RESCUE
There’s almost no one who will publicly disagree with homeschooling, but teachers often speak privately against it. The idea that unschooled parents could give children an education equivalent to that given by a trained, experienced teacher is unnerving, to say the least.
More dangerous than opposition is the threat of co-option. As homeschooling continues to grow in popularity and is increasingly viewed as a viable alternative to public school education, the New York State government is considering revamping its homeschool regulations. Senator John R. “Randy” Kuhl, Jr. (R-C, Hammondsport) has re-introduced a bill to change the way the state’s home educators are regulated. While some homeschool parents support the bill because it would ultimately require less paperwork in some circumstances than current legislation, others are opposed to the government having the power to decide whether children are being educated adequately. In addition, still others are convinced that the structure of the bill is such that later amendments could increase, rather than decrease, the requirements placed on homeschoolers, such as requiring homeschool parents to become certified teachers.
Others are concerned about enacting homeschool standards into law. The current requirements are spelled out in regulations written by the state Department of Education rather than in laws written by the state Legislature. The proposed bill would codify the requirements into law—a change that many homeschool parents see as potentially dagerous. There are currently a number of homeschool parents seeking to challenge the constitutionality of state requirements on homeschooling, organizing and defending their right to educate their children as they see fit. Parents in favor of homeschooling point out that they leave their tax money in the government’s pocket. Also, their kids are well-educated, perform well on state and other standardized tests (whether they support the idea of standardized testing or not), have no social problems attributed directly to homeschooling and largely seem to enjoy the experience. What else, parents seem to be asking, could the state, or any parent for that matter, possibly want?
For more information on New York State Education Department requirements, visit www.nysed.gov
Reprinted courtesy of Long Island Press, Copyright 2003 http://longislandpress.com