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LEARNING ABOUT THE WORLD FROM THE COMFORTS OF HOME

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Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2003 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

If someone had told Nancy Harter 10 years ago that she'd be living in a modest manufactured home on the side of a mountain in Catalina, homeschooling her three daughters, she would have laughed at them. Her life today is a far cry from what it was a decade ago in Portland, Ore., where she and her husband, Kelly, lived in a 4,200 square-foot home with a Lexus parked in the garage, name-brand clothing hung in the closets and nothing-but-the-best furniture gracing their home. Kelly was working in the medical claims industry and Nancy owned her own day-care center. They were well off, but not happy.

"We were very stressed-out in our busy lifestyle and we got to a point where we realized that is not where true happiness comes from," said Harter, 37, who has homeschooled her daughters for four years. "We were Sunday-morning Christians, but materialistic Christians. We decided that wasn't what we wanted for ourselves. We moved here (and) I've always been an entrepreneur, but I decided not to pursue a business. I wanted to be a mom and homeschool my children and be there to coach and teach them the way we believe God calls us to do."

When Tim and Kathy Lambros' first child reached school age, they enrolled her in the Flowing Wells Unified School District. She stayed three years before the Lambros' decided to homeschool.

"It's not like we were highly dissatisfied," said Tim Lambros. "It was just an inefficient system, trying with one teacher to educate that many students. And they had to be morally neutral and so much is mandated by the state that they just can't teach sometimes. We knew we could do better."

Still, it wasn't an easy decision.

"I have always told folks that homeschooling is not something nationwide that could be done," said Lambros. "And it isn't just the sacrifice. That is there - you have to be willing to give up your time, you have a value change that says, 'Because I want to educate my kids, I'm not going on a fancy vacation and I'm not driving a car that was made in the same decade I'm in.' But it is more than that. It takes a certain kind of person and you really have to examine if you could do it, because you do give up a lot."

Lambros and Harter are two of an estimated 300 parents in the Northwest who homeschool their children. According to Kim Fields, program coordinator for the Pima County school superintendent's office, there are 2,957 students between the ages of 6 and 17 who are homeschooled in Pima County. Fields said she thinks the actual number of students being schooled at home is larger than the nearly 3,000 registered with the county school superintendent.

"My sense is that there are a lot more homeschoolers out there who aren't registered with us. Either they don't know they need to (register) or they choose not to," said Fields.

According to the 1999 U.S. Department of Education's National Household Education Survey - the most recent year for which statistics are available - there are approximately 850,000 homeschooled children in the nation, or about 1.7 percent of all U.S. students ages 5 to 17.

The stereotype of homeschooling is that it is the purview of well-off, white folks or nave religious conservatives. But according to the Department of Education survey, as well as research by the Peabody Journal of Education in 2000, while most homeschooling families are "white, non-Hispanic," there is an emerging number of black families homeschooling and both Jewish and Muslim homeschooling families maintain Web sites (see box). Homeschoolers are no more affluent than the average non-homeschooling family, making an average of less than $50,000 annually, and they choose homeschooling for educational reasons more often than religious ones. The other distinguishing characteristics of homeschoolers were two-parent families, with only one parent in the work-force full-time, large family size and parents with higher levels of educational attainment than non-homeschooling parents.

That education has resulted in homeschooling evolving into a force to be reckoned with, according to Susan A. McDowell, an educational re-searcher and managing editor of the Peabody Journal.

"… The homeschoolers of our country, and especially those associated with the Home School Legal Defense Asso-ciation, have developed more expertise than any other group in getting the attention of our nation's lawmakers," she wrote in the journal.

Two local examples of this political power are the ways in which the state rules governing homeschooling have changed in the past decade.

Until 1993, Arizona required parents to pass an eighth-grade level test before they could home-school their children, but - under pressure by homeschool parents bolstered by the Home School Legal Defense Association - that law was replaced with one that said children could be tested every three years instead. By 1995, that requirement was eliminated as well, replaced with a statute that exempts home-schooled students from ever having to take any tests, including the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS).

These changes have prompted the HSLDA to list Arizona as one of the least restrictive states in which to educate a child at home since all that is required of parents is to file an "affidavit of intent" with the county school superintendent registering their children as a homeschooler. A parent who fails to file the affidavit is guilty of a petty offense, said Fields, and parents who say they are homeschooling, but in fact do not provide instruction are guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.

However, Fields explained, there is "no real way to monitor" if parents are providing instruction or if they are registering their children as homeschooled.

"In the big scheme of things, the County Attorney's Office and the police officers have other, more important things to enforce than registration of homeschooled kids," Fields said.

Unfortunately, it also can lead to tragedy. About four or five years ago, Fields said, a grandfather who had custody of his grandchildren went to the children's schools and filed papers to withdraw them. He told the school he would be homeschooling them, but never registered them with the county superintendent. A few months later, the children escaped from their grandfather's trailer and police discovered he had locked them in a closet in his trailer.

So is the lack of accountability of homeschoolers making homeschooling a haven for child abusers?

"I don't think so at all," said Fields. "You can't paint them all with the same brush. There are plenty of kids enrolled in school who are being abused as well. When that case happened, homeschoolers got really upset that this man was being referred to in the press as a homeschooler because that isn't at all what he was doing … yes, being in school, (teachers) might catch abuse, but they don't always."

The lack of oversight is one of the major complaints of homeschool critics, but homeschooling parents say the criticism is unwarranted.

"I am not afraid of oversight," said Harter, who co-chairs the 200-member homeschool support organization, Christian Home Educators of Tucson with her husband. "Parents who are not highly motivated are not going to make the sacrifices required to homeschool. My standards are much higher than what is required in the public schools and I do test my kids, more in an effort to test myself to see how I am doing, than to test them. They've taken the Stanford 9 and they score above average."

The Stanford 9 test is available to the CHET group through Bob Jones University, as long as a certified teacher administers it. Harter said the person who arranges testing and administers the test for CHET is Camilla Johnson, wife of Daniel Johnson, principal of Coyote Trail Elementary School. The Johnson's have home-schooled children, but did not return calls for comment.

The Peabody Journal reported that, on the average, the "homeschool student achievement test scores are exceptionally high." They based this statement on the tests from Bob Jones University, and found that students who had been homeschooled their entire lives had higher SAT scores going into college than students who attended other educational systems. In 2001, homeschooled SAT-takers averaged 568 on the verbal test, compared to the national average of 506 by non-homeschoolers, and 525 on the math, compared to the national average of 514.

However, the Journal acknowledged that these statistics, which it referred to as "the best available evidence," were drawn from the self-selected group of homeschoolers who chose to test, so there may be no real gauge of how well homeschoolers do compared to students in a traditional classroom.

Lambros agreed that the stats might be skewed.

"Testing, for us, is a yearly check to make sure our kids are still a year or two ahead (of their age mates in public school) instead of falling behind. They have always tested above average in the Stanford 9, and most families I know that test have kids that are above average," said Lambros. "But my feeling is that families whose kids aren't keeping up are probably not testing. Yet, when compared to public school - I think before we look at systems, let's get a fair comparison. What is the percentage of kids failing in public schools?"

Harter said she hasn't seen homeschooled students who are not above grade level, but thinks there might be some homes where kids might not be learning all they need to know.

"But do I see kids graduating from our public school system without the ability to write a letter with correct grammar and punctuation, without the ability to know geography? Yes. The fact is, I can do better with a one-to-three ratio than a teacher can do in a class of 25 or 30," Harter said.

Susan Elsberry, who homeschools her 8-year-old son because his allergies are so severe they make him highly susceptible to viral infections, agreed. The former manufacturing engineer said she attends teacher-certification workshops "like any teacher would to keep up her skills," and hears from public school teachers that a homeschool environment can provide things a traditional school setting cannot.

"The teachers I meet at these conferences say there's no way they can compete with what I can give my child one-on-one, when they are in an overburdened, under-funded classroom," Elsberry said. "They are not worried home-schooled children are unprepared." As for lack of oversight, Elsberry said she would worry if she "didn't see children receiving failing education in the public school system."

"Nationally, our school standards are too low. We've got a serious problem and we all need to be involved to make things better, but do I, as an American, have the right to do the best thing for my child? Absolutely," she said.

There are probably as many different approaches to homeschooling as there are parents and children and those variances often depend on philosophical bent and finances.

Elsberry creates her own curriculum using online resources from the Green Fields Country Day School, the "Core Knowledge Series" by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and the Marana Unified School District standards, which are based on the Arizona State Standards. Lambros uses primarily the MUSD standards, he said, "bringing public school home, basically."

On the other hand, Harter uses more traditional curriculum from various homeschooling clearinghouses, on-line resources and her own goals. For instance, she said she thinks life skills are important, so she has added those to her curriculum, in addition to reading, writing, math, social studies and science.

Frances Almstrom, who has homeschooled her 12-year-old daughter "since birth, said she practices "un-schooling," a child-led learning method where the child decides what she wants to know and "the parents remove obstacles to that learning."

"We don't divide our life into subjects and time lines, we just keep it all whole and let her lead us," said Almstrom, a former dentist. "She got interested in dinosaurs when she was 3 or 4. We fed that interest with books and museums and that led to an interest in pre-historic times, which led to an interest in history in general and then to Russian history in particular. That led to knowing there were different calendars, which then took us into mathematics."

Families can spend from $250 per year to educate a child up to $1,200, depending on the curriculum they buy, the extra-curricular activities in which they enroll their children and supplemental materials.

Lambros, who's annual income is about $42,000 between his full-time job and is wife's part-time one, said they spend between $250-$500 annually for each of their children to school at home.

Kim Yonts, who is in her 10th year of homeschooling, said that when she began "back in a duplex in California with dirt for a back yard," she spent very little on schooling expenses, "using the library a lot."

Now, however, she said she spends $600 annually for her two sons, ages 9 and 11, and $1,200 for her high-school daughter.

"We're in a better place financially now, but they still can't be in every extra activitiy because we can't afford, it," Yonts said.

Some families manage to homeschool for next to nothing. Kathy Lukow has taught five children at home for more than 10 years, never spending more than $500 annually.

"If you have varying ages of kids, you start (re-using) some of the textbooks, and you borrow from friends and trade materials, so it really isn't that expensive," Lukow said, adding she is "very frugal with materials."

While there is a stereotype that parents home-school their children for religious reasons, Elsberry said she thinks that is a false assumption.

"I don't believe it is so much about religion as concern about the freedom and license children have in the classroom, as well as some of the curriculum," she said. "The sex-ed, even in the fourth grade, in some school districts around here gives far more detail than I want my child exposed to. Homeschooling is not something you take up on a whim - these people (who choose home-schooling) felt they had no other choice."

Steve Falbe is one of a handful of home-schooling fathers in the Northwest area and said he homeschools his two sons, age 3 and 7, for educational reasons alone.

"I went to public schools," said Falbe, 33. "I know what they are like. They have crowded classrooms and instruction is (rigid) and creativity is discouraged. That didn't fit my 7-year-old."

Falbe began a men's support group a few months ago through the Sonoran Desert Home-schoolers, a secular homeschooling organization that serves all of Tucson.

"I started the group just so the men could get together and talk, really about anything, but mostly their questions are about how a child can learn without being in school," Falbe said. "I tell them children learn what they want to learn, when they need to learn it. My son learns through research. He loves to read and if he wants to spend three months on something scientific, we can do that because we have that freedom. In regular school, the class sizes are too large and questions are not encouraged. When a subject's allotted time is over, you have to move to the next thing. That doesn't work for my son - he needs his questions answered right then."

Almstrom said that people unfamiliar with homeschool often worry about "gaps" in a child's education, but what she has seen is that "when they want to learn something to get to something they want, they'll learn it. It is a hurdle they cross to get to what they're interested in," she said. "I know one boy who learned four years of high school math in six months when he decided in his teen years that he was going to go to college and he would need math. And he got a scholarship to an East-Coast college."

Colleges vary in their requirements for admission, but Fields said the three Arizona universities require only an SAT score, not a high-school diploma, which homeschool students are not issued unless they funnel into the school system during their high school years. Many homeschool students get around this by attending Pima Community College during some of their high school years, said Harter, so they have a college transcript when they apply to universities.

Bill Davidson, assistant director of admissions for the University of Arizona said the universities require only an SAT or ACT score "to put everyone on a level playing field - so we are comparing apples to apples."

In addition, because applicants must have basic competencies in math, science, English and a foreign language, homeschoolers are required to supply a portfolio of their work to be analyzed to make sure "they have the competencies needed to be successful" he said.

"Last year we had four homeschoolers apply and two ended up enrolling," Davidson said. "Because the numbers are so small, it is very easy to evaluate them individually. But historically, over the last several years, the homeschool students tend to do extremely well."

Another criticism sometimes levied against homeschoolers is that their children will lack socialization.

"They always say that," said Almstrom. "'What about her socialization?' And I ask 'What about the socialization in school?' It's not all good."

Elsberry said homeschooling is not the "anti-social place it used to be." Her family belongs to a number of homeschool support groups (see box pg. 17) and during the summer, when his allergies are not active, Elsberry puts Colin in classes through MUSD, the UA, PCC and a number of museums.

Tim Lambros said his daughter, Rebekah, took classes "a la carte" at Mountain View High School when she was in high school (see sidebar pg. 19) and all his children have been involved in volunteer work and homeschooling field trips.

At the Harter Home, Aubrey, 14, and Jocelyn, 11, mix with both homeschooled and traditionally schooled children, but their youngest sister, 8-year-old Mikyla, only knows other homeschoolers. Jocelyn is involved in showing quarter horses and participating in a Catalina 4-H Club and Aubrey participates in My Kids In Sign, a "singing" sign language group that has performed in various venues including Tucson Sidewinders baseball games. Aubrey also has tested into PCC and will be taking classes in algebra and sign language this fall.

Is homeschooling for everyone?

Vanderbilt University's McDowell said in the Peabody Journal that homeschooling mothers listed a number of stressors that come along with the decision to school at home, including lack of organization, concerns about the children learning what they need to be learning, choosing curriculum and the difference between expectation of homeschooling and the reality of same.

Up on her quiet mountainside in Catalina, Harter agreed that homeschooling is not some thing a parent takes on lightly. When children are young, she said, they take a lot of time and attention with their schooling and that can be very draining on the mother-teacher.

"But once you teach them to read, and you give them a desire for learning, they tend to teach themselves and use (parents) only as a resource," she said.

"I'd advise people to check out the homeschooling support groups to see what they are getting into. But I can tell you, we've never been happier," Harter said. "When I was younger, I owned a day care center and my workers raised my kids. The more time I spent away from them, the less I wanted to be with them. Now I know them on an intimate level and I don't have the need to be separated from them. The only negative thing I can see about homeschooling is there might be severe empty nest syndrome when they leave home."

SUPPORT GROUPS AND ON-LINE RESOURCES FOR HOMESCHOOLING PARENTS

Homeschooling families rely on support groups and Internet resources to offer information on everything from curriculum to organizing a home "schoolroom." There is friendship and support for both students and parents. Below is a listing of homeschooling groups available to parents in the Northwest and Web sites with links to curriculum clearinghouses and suggested readings.

Local Support Groups

Sonoran Desert Homeschool-ers: Focus is on homeschooling without regard to individual religious or political views. Weekly park meetings, men's group, field trips and monthly newsletter. Contact Karen Metcalf, 883-1543, or Sybelle Van Erven, 297-6786, for group meetings in various parts of the greater Tucson area.

Holy Family Home Educators: Support for Catholic homeschooling families with parent meetings, support groups and field trips. Contact Shannon Federoff, 762-0469.

Christian Home Educators of Tucson-Northwest (CHET): Home-school support group requiring profession of basic Christian beliefs. Weekly park days, physical education classes, field trips and parent support. Contact Kelly and Nancy Harter, 240-8940.

Better Education through Trad-ition: Homeschool organization with emphasis on strong family morals and values. Mentor families and field trips offered. Contact: Sonia Gasho 294-5860.

Web sites

African American Homeschool-ing Network: www.aahnet.org

Arizona Families for Home Education: www.afhe.org

Homeschool Legal Defense Association: www.hslda.org

Jewish Home Educators Network: http://snj.com/jnen

Muslim Home Education: http://home.ici.net/customers/taadah/foyer.html

HOME OR PUBLIC SCHOOL? MAYBE YOU CAN HAVE BOTH

When Rebekah Lambros wanted to play in an orchestra, she was at a loss. One of the disadvantages of being homeschooled is that there are rarely enough people in one's family to form an orchestra.

Enter Mountain View High School. Through a chance meeting at a swimming event with the MVHS orchestra teacher, Rebekah and her mother discovered that Rebekah could attend MVHS under a state law that allows homeschoolers to participate in interscholastic activities such as sports, band and orchestra at public schools. Rebekah registered as a part-time student and took both orchestra and an English class.

Homeschooled students attending public schools part-time for either interscholastic or academic reasons are still rare, but becoming more common as public schools decide welcoming homeschoolers is a good idea.

According to the 1999 U.S. Department of Education's National Household Education Survey, 28 percent of homeschooling parents reported that public schools offered extracurricular activities for homeschoolers, 21 percent said curriculum support was offered and 23 percent reported that books and support materials were offered.

Robert L. Crowson, professor in the Department of Leadership and Organization at Vanderbilt University, wrote in the Peabody Journal of Education in 2000 that support from public schools toward homeschoolers demonstrates that homeschooling "has come of age (because) public officials are now making adaptive responses to parental school-them-at-home initiatives."

Prior to 1997, Arizona homeschoolers were not allowed to play sports for public schools nor attend classes on an "a la carte" basis. But, inspired by what essentially amounted to joint operating agreements between homeschool groups and public educators in other states to allow homeschooling families access to the facilities their taxes help fund, Arizona homeschoolers pushed the state Legislature to make some changes.

In 1997, a law was enacted that allowed homeschooled students to participate in interscholastic activities at their local public school as long as the parent-teacher could show that the student was receiving a passing grade in each subject being taught and maintaining satisfactory progress towards promotion.

Chuck Schmidt, assistant executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, said the organization does not keep track of how many homeschooled students participate in AIA activities in the state's public schools, "but anecdotally, it doesn't seem to be many."

Locally, the participants number in the handful. Susan Sloan, MVHS assistant principal, said the school has had "a couple tennis players and basketball players" over the six years since the law was enacted, and Michael Bejarano, Amphitheater Public Schools athletic director, said there's been "less than five" that he can recall.

"We don't keep the record at the district level. Only the sites themselves know (the student is) a homeschool student," Bejarano said. "I know we had one interested last year, I think it was for swimming, but I don't think they followed through. And I remember a couple of years ago we had a girl who played basketball at CDO. It is very few."

As for academics, "the state law allows districts to take what it terms 'fractional' students, but it is up to the district if they want to," said Kim Fields, program coordinator for the Pima County school superintendent's office. The Marana Unified School District accepts homeschoolers on a part-time basis, but the Amphi does not.

According to state funding formulas, a district can receive funding for part-time students, "but it depends on how the students are reported," said Amy Rezonnico, Department of Education public information officer. On average, each student represents about $5,000 in state funding, Fields said. Most homeschooled students only want to take one or two classes, for which, "there's a possibility the school could receive (pro-rated) funding," said Fields, but most funding formulas center around a student attending at least half of the day.

MUSD Superintendent Rick Lesko said "there have been a few" homeschoolers who have come to his district for academic classes and he welcomes the idea of "partnering" with homeschool students.

"We just try to serve all the kids we can - we kind of hope they'll like the atmosphere enough that they'll come full-time," he said.

Todd Jaeger, assistant to the superintendent and legal counsel for Amphi, said when the law was passed concerning interscholastic participation, "there was discussion with the old board and it was decided that (allowing homeschool students to enroll part-time) would create an added student load for our schools without recompense from the state and it wasn't something that board wanted to pursue."

Amphi Superintendent Vicki Balentine said allowing part-time enrollment doesn't "seem to be a good decision at this time" for her district.

"We've had proposals shown us, reported as revenue generation, and I don't believe it's revenue generation, so at this point, for us, since it (won't generate) revenue, we simply provide any state-required (interscholastic) options for homeschooled students," she said. "The fact is, we aren't receiving dollars for these (homeschooled) students and then to provide our resources for students we're not getting any revenue for, it does not seem to be a good decision within state funding realities - we have large classes and then you bring additional children in for whom you're not receiving funding."

Fields said some public school administrators view homeschooled students as "stealing" money from the schools because each student is worth approximately $5,000.

"It is true they aren't generating any revenue, but they are not generating any cost, either," said Fields. "For every child who is homeschooled, that is one less desk to buy, one less computer, fewer supplies. And these people are still paying taxes into the state general fund. I know if I was a (superintendent) knowing these people have a choice of where to go - with charter schools, for instance - I would start working with the homeschool groups."

She added that homeschool parents tend to be educated, involved and invested in their child's education, which is just the sort of parent public schools want around.

Bradley Barrett, superintendent of the Gilbert Unified School District, came to this realization about a decade ago when he started "partnering" with homeschoolers in the Kyrene Unified School District. In the January 2003 edition of School Administrator magazine, Barrett detailed how he now does this in Gilbert. He meets with homeschool groups and tries to work out options that provide homeschoolers with what they want and the school with revenue from the state. It has been a beneficial experience for both sides, and especially for the face of public education because "even (homeschoolers) who do not take advantage of our services are softening their antagonism against public schools because of their interaction with homeschooled families who've had positive experiences in our schools."

Indeed, Vanderbilt University's Crowson argued in the Peabody Journal that whether school districts want to partner with homeschoolers or not, the time may have come to recognize that homeschooling might receive credit as the "tail that ends up wagging key pieces of 'the dog' of public education."

"…for a social movement initiated by …a small 'niche' of dissenting families (20 years ago) to begin to shake successfully the larger institution of public education - that is a potential 'story' of educational reform well worth much attention and deep analysis."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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