Homeschooling is gaining in popularity, but is it right for your child? There are many pros and cons that factor into a family's decision to forgo the traditional education system in favor of one more personally tailored to their children's needs.
"There are an estimated 5,000 children currently being home educated in New Jersey," says Carla Abrams, the regional representative and convention coordinator for the Education Network of Christian Homeschoolers of New Jersey (ENOCHNJ). "There are less students [homeschooling] than there are in private school, but it is hard to know for sure because in New Jersey, parents don't need to report," Abrams says. "New Jersey says to parents, "We trust you. We trust you to feed your children, to clothe your children and to educate your children.'"
For Pennsylvania, the number is equally hard to estimate because the laws surrounding when a student must be reported are complicated. "If you try to look at the total number, it's like comparing apples to oranges," says Gloria Molek, the current head of the south western Pennsylvania Home Educators Network (PHEN) group. "There is a lot of support that indicates [homeschooling] is increasing," Molek says. "I think that with the advent of the Internet, more people know home education is an option. The information is able to travel better than before."
Laura Jones of Aldan, PA, who has been homeschooling Eric, 12, Brent, 10, and Billy, 10, for five years, also had issues with negative behavior at school. "Children at five and six years old were calling each other curse words. Basically the morals were not there," she says.
"One of the benefits of home schooling is that you can deal with character issues," Abrams says. "Bad behaviors can easily be pushed under the rug in a large group situation. This is a good opportunity to work on character."
Timothy Hass, one of the founders of the New Jersey Homeschool Association (NJHA) tells us that two of the four most typical reasons parents homeschool their children are "to rescue children being bullied in school," and "to educate in line with the families religious/moral/political beliefs." Educational issues, such as providing a more personalized or more advanced instruction plan than is available in local public or private schools and aiding special-needs children who are not being served effectively in the traditional school system are other typical motivating factors.
"At first it was a safety reason, but after I did the research, it became for their education as well," said Williams. She says she was surprised at the academic progress her daughters have made this year. "They were getting good grades [in public school], but I knew they could do better. I am surprised at the initiative they are now taking," Williams adds, describing how her daughters are now thriving. They usually go far beyond the work she asks of them. "I'm very proud of them. They've really come a long way."
Williams appreciates the flexibility that allows her to tailor her children's instruction to their individual needs. For example, she may have her daughters read and study geology, then immediately follow the lesson up with a field trip to collect and identify stones. "I think education is so much more than sitting down with a book. There are ways to get math into a child without a textbook," she says.
For Jones, homeschooling allows her to address the needs of each of her sons, which vary from being gifted to having special needs.
Hass says, "Because home education is inherently flexible, it's often the perfect way to develop an effective, highly individualized program. You're in complete control of instructional methods and content, lesson length and scheduling, etc., and if something isn't working you can quickly change gears."
Jones says that forming a strong family bond is another pro of homeschooling. "I have been there for my children in ways I could never have imagined. They have been there for me as well," she says. "We have learned to be a family through difficult times."
"With homeschooling, you have the ability to foster a really close relationship," Molek says. "Not to say that you can't do that with a traditional school, but there is less of a need to try to bond with your kids and ask, 'How was your day?' [Homeschooling] opens up an enormous amount of opportunity."
"When you homeschool, you tighten your relationship with your children," Abrams says. "We felt that society today is so busy. [Family members] are sometimes like ships passing through the night."
"You have the ability to really get intimately involved in your children's lives," Molek says. "You're really a part of the day-to-day of watching who they become."
"When I first started homeschooling I had envisioned these wonderful, perfect days of me schooling the children around the kitchen table with everything in its place, but I quickly realized that wasn't how homeschooling really was," Jones says.
One of the biggest drawbacks to homeschooling seems to be the time commitment of the parent who is taking the bulk of the educational responsibility. Jones says she was surprised by this aspect. "What I soon realized was that this was going to be a full-time job and the pay was going to be very low. But I must say that it has been worth it.
"One of the frustrations of homeschooling," she continues, "is that there isn't a whole lot of alone time or time to yourself. I have found trying to get up before everyone else and just having time for things like devotions and a morning cup of coffee has really helped me. Taking a shower also has a whole new meaning for me as well."
"It takes a lot of time; the demand is high," Abrams says. "You do have to realize that some of your extra things have to go. Your day doesn't end." Abrams adds, "You are it. You have to be willing to do it on your own. It demands you become more than you were."
According to our experts, homeschooling may not be suited for the very laid-back personality. "To homeschool, you need to be a self-starter with the drive and ability to seek out what you need, from curricula to activities to friends. It is a commitment," says Pauline Harding, a homeschooling mom from Delaware County, PA and the creator of askpauline.com, a website devoted to helping families comply with the complex Pennsylvania homeschooling laws.
"You have to look for opportunities," Abrams says. "You have to be a go-getter and go to conventions, look at curriculums, know the law."
"In the beginning, what was hard was trying to find all of the information," Williams says. "But most parents who love their children will push past the fear."
Being a go-getter is important for another reason -- socialization. Many critics of homeschooling will cite poor social opportunity as a reason not to pull kids from traditional schools. The homeschoolers we talked to, however, were very proactive in seeking out opportunities for socialization, from alliances with homeschooling groups to volunteerism in their communities. "When children are homeschooled, they have the opportunity to spend time with a large selection of people, from a 50-year-old shopkeeper to a 40-year old artist," Molek says. "It is not just about being stuck in a bunch of desks with other eight-year-olds."
"Take the opportunities in your community," Abrams advises. "Habitat for Humanity, science fairs, music programs."
Williams, whose daughters are active in several groups including team sports activities and musical events, says that she appreciates the ability to choose the people with whom they interact. "We get out and meet positive people," she says. "What my kids were picking up from their peers [in public school] was not what we are trying to teach at home."
The bottom line? Homeschooling is a personal choice highly dependent upon your own level of commitment as a parent fully in charge of your child's education, and the laws of your state. Families who choose to homeschool are in for a challenge, but one that can be extremely rewarding for both parent and child.