By Allison Landry and Amber Shiflett
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Amy Wilson says she didn’t choose home schooling; her son did.
“My son chose home schooling when he was about 3. I didn’t realize that’s what was happening at the time. We tried having him go to preschool, and it was not a good fit for him,” said Wilson, the government affairs director for the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers.
“Once I started questioning preschool, I suddenly found myself in this land of home-schoolers.”
Across the United States, a growing number of parents like Wilson have chosen home schooling as an alternative to public schools. In Virginia, the number of home-schoolers has increased by more than 50 percent over the past decade, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
There are now more than 32,000 home-schoolers in Virginia. If they were a school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the state – with almost as many students as the Norfolk Public Schools.
A variety of factors push parents to try home schooling. They include flexibility, concerns about the quality of public schools and the freedom to teach without boundaries.
Ann Zeise is a home-schooling expert and owner of A to Z Home’s Cool Homeschooling, a popular website that provides resources and guidance on the subject. Zeise said many factors influence the growth of home schooling, such as:
- The perception of whether the public schools in a state are good or bad
- The ease of complying with the state’s home-schooling laws
- The availability of a support network for home-schooling parents and students
Home schooling gives parents the opportunity to choose the schedule, curriculum and teaching style that best suits the needs of the child and the family, according to Parrish Mort, president of the Organization for Virginia Homeschoolers (usually called VaHomeschoolers).
“It’s a great gift to really be able to fine-tune your child’s education to their learning styles,” Mort said. “What home schooling gives you is the freedom that you just don’t have as much of when you choose school.”
Moreover, home schooling allowed Mort to accommodate her son’s specialized learning needs. “It became a lifestyle for us, and we loved it,” Mort said.
Susannah Foster, a home educator for 10 years in Fairfax County, says her three children – ages 5, 11 and 15 – have all benefited from home schooling.
“We’ve been able to move at each child’s individual pace, choose a curriculum best-suited to their individual learning styles and needs, and pursue their interests in a way that, I hope, allows them to enjoy education rather than dread it,” Foster said.
“We were able to enjoy more time with our child, getting to know her and to tailor her education to her needs and interests,” Caffi said. “We were able to avoid the stress of the public school schedule and take advantage of the freedom of our schedule.”
Caffi said she began considering home schooling after observing the conditions at her daughter’s high school.
“When our first child entered high school, we were dismayed at the lack of discipline in her public high school,” Caffi said. “Remembering our own experiences in high school just 20 years before, we had concerns for the negative peer pressure she was facing and for the erosion of the moral values that we had tried to instill in her.”
Nationwide, there are more than 2 million home-schoolers, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.
During the 1994-95 school year, Virginia had 9,623 home-schoolers (including children kept out of public schools for religious reasons). By 2001-02, the number hit 21,121; and by 2011-12, the most recent year available, it climbed to 32,064. They represent 2.5 percent of all school-age children in Virginia.
The school divisions with the most home-schoolers are Fairfax County (2,929), Loudoun County (2,119), Chesterfield County (1,954), Prince William County (1,345) and Virginia Beach (982). That’s not surprising, because those are highly populated areas, and the home-schoolers there represent a tiny fraction of the school-age population.
But in Floyd County, in Southwest Virginia, the 269 home-schoolers represent nearly 12 percent of all school-age children, according to data analysis by Capital News Service. In Surry County, in the Hampton Roads area, home-schoolers represent 11 percent of all school-age children.
In 25 school divisions in Virginia, more than 5 percent of all school-age children are home-schooled. They range from Fauquier County and the city of Staunton to Powhatan and Warren counties. [The complete list is at http://tinyurl.com/va-home-school-data.]
Virginia makes it easy to home-school. Parents don’t need a college degree or any special academic qualifications. All they must do is:
- Notify the local district of their intent to home-school
- Provide a general curriculum, which can be a correspondence course or distance learning program
- Provide evidence of progress of the child’s academic progress each year
During the VaHomeschoolers Conference and Resource Fair in March in Glen Allen, Stephanie Elms, a member of the organization’s board, held an introductory session on the paperwork and legalities behind home schooling. Elms explained the different options under state law for evaluating a child’s progress.
“Home-schooled children,” she said, “do not need to follow the Standards of Learning” – Virginia’s standardized testing program that critics say is too rigid.
Instead, she said, home-schoolers could take an alternative standardized test, such as the California Achievement Test, the Iowa Test or the Stanford Achievement Test.
“For those kids where standardized testing is not a good reflection of their abilities, there is an option two,” Elms said. “Under this option there are alternative methods for evaluation.” They include written documentation showing evidence of progress, a portfolio of student work, report cards or transcripts.
Foster said home schooling is not the best option for every parent, but she believes it is the best option for preserving her individual family values.
“Great teachers are a blessing, but even the greatest teacher can’t possibly care for the development of a child as much as a parent does,” Foster said. “This is not a lifestyle that is appropriate for every family.”
One concern about home schooling is that children might not learn social skills from associating and working with students in a traditional school setting.
Missy Edwards, the former vice president of the Parent Teacher Association at Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, expressed that concern. She has three children, who have all attended public schools. Edwards said she has been actively involved in her children’s academic paths throughout high school.
Like many public school parents, Edwards believes home schooling cannot provide the type of benefits that public schools do.
“I don’t believe that home-schoolers can benefit from the social and academic capabilities of dealing with real-world issues,” Edwards said. She said public school “has provided my kids with socialization skills that I wouldn’t be able to give them if I had them at home with me every day.”
While Edwards said that she could never be a home-school parent, VaHomeschoolers leaders Amy Wilson of Prince William County and Parrish Mort of Cumberland County said public schools have always been an option for their children.
“If they told me they wanted to go to public school, I would let them give it a try. So far, they both prefer home schooling,” Wilson said.
Mort agreed: “Every year, we’d re-evaluate. It’s one child, one year at a time. If they chose to make a different choice, it was fine.”
As the number of home-schoolers has grown, so have the opportunities for home-schoolers to socialize with each other.
“With so many people home-schooling, it isn’t difficult to find a group of like-minded families with which to socialize,” Caffi said. “There are many opportunities for fun or learning experiences with groups and service opportunities abound.”
Caffi pointed out another advantage of home schooling: Parents know whom their child is socializing with. “That is a responsibility that is difficult to maintain in the away-from-home school setting.”
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The website of the Organization of Virginia Home-schoolers is vahomeschoolers.org/.
A to Z Home’s Cool Homeschooling is at homeschooling.gomilpitas.com/.
The Virginia Department of Education has posted a booklet titled “Guidelines for Home Instruction in Virginia” at tinyurl.com/vdoe-home-schooling.
Data showing the number of home-schoolers statewide and in every school division of Virginia is at tinyurl.com/va-home-school-data.