The Homeschooling Option
Some families are taking a break from the traditional academic model. Here's why.
Families contemplating home instruction today have a wealth of resources at their disposal. “There are online classes and co-ops. There are huge opportunities at the D.C. museums. And homeschooled kids can apply for internships during the business day when traditional-school kids can’t,” says Sarah (not her real name), an Arlington mom and former CPA who has homeschooled each of her four kids over the past 12 years. Some of her family’s most memorable learning experiences have happened in September or late spring, she says, when other kids are entrenched in school. That’s when they’ve booked vacations around the U.S. and Europe, taking advantage of the lower prices and minimal crowds.
Plus, Sarah contends, study time can be used more efficiently when you’re teaching one or a handful of kids versus a classroom of 20 or more students. “The amount of time it takes to do a day’s worth of schoolwork is a lot less than a school day,” she says. “We could do all the academics they needed in the morning and have our afternoons entirely free. When we were uber-organized, we could finish an entire school year by April and spend our spring traveling or at the beach.”
Teaching duties don’t always fall exclusively on parents, she says, dispelling a popular misconception about how homeschooling works. Many families begin to outsource certain subjects by the time their kids are in the middle grades, or at least share instructional time with other parents.
At that age, “it’s hard to be both their mom and their teacher—so if one is suffering, you have to give the other one up,” Sarah says. “You don’t have to be their teacher but you do have to be their mom. This is where being in a co-op or hiring an outside teacher can help.”
Some well established co-ops even provide opportunities for kids to work on group projects, such as science experiments or public speaking in which they must learn to advocate for an idea, collaborate and compromise.
Cindy (last name withheld), who directs a co-op group in McLean, chose to homeschool her four kids because her family had to relocate every few years for her husband’s job. “We see a lot of military families enroll in our classes,” she says. “Homeschool provides continuity so that your kids don’t get lost jumping from school system to school system and state to state.” This year, the McLean Homeschool Group has 14 kids enrolled in its high school courses, she says, although some years they’ve had nearly double that number.
For many, the choice comes down to flexibility. Asya Haikin, a yoga therapist and Arlington mom of two, says the break from traditional school has allowed her kids, now 10 and 14, to explore a host of enrichment activities. Her son has tried a little bit of everything—including Shakespeare productions at Encore Stage & Studio and weeklong outdoor adventures at Not Back to School Camp, a destination learning experience in Vermont and Oregon that takes place during the school year. Her daughter has taken a variety of movement-based classes (yoga, ballet, trapeze) along with full-day classes through Ancestral Knowledge, a program that teaches outdoor living and wilderness survival skills.
According to the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), competitive colleges are seeing a rise in applications from homeschooled students—many of whom outperform their public school peers on SATs and ACTs by 15 to 30 percentile points. Research by the same group suggests that students who are educated at home outperform their peers academically once they get to college, too—although this may have more to do with family dynamics than the setting for their secondary education. “By definition, homeschooled kids have more involved parents,” Sarah points out. “If you could subdivide the categories of achievement into ‘kids with involved parents’ from public, private and homeschooled, the statistics would all look the same.”
The cost of homeschooling can be hard to pinpoint, given that different families piece together different models, which may include some combination of parental instruction, private tutors, or co-op classes taught by retired teachers or subject experts. NHERI estimates that the average homeschooling family in the U.S. spends $600 per child annually on home-based education—but of course this is a national average that doesn’t account for the higher cost of living in places like Arlington.
The biggest outlay for parents may be time, although it’s not the monumental commitment that many imagine it to be, according to Karen Bate, the PR consultant whose girls are now grown.
“Friends would ask me, ‘How can you stand being with your kids all day?’ ” she says. “I was no paragon of patience, by any means. But when you think about what you don’t have to do—pack lunches, check homework, argue over clothing…all this stuff takes energy. There are no tests, no report cards, no classroom volunteering. I only required that they were up and dressed with their beds fixed by 9 a.m.
“We did all their schooling by noon and had our afternoons free to play,” she says, whether that meant taking in a museum or making time for music lessons, community theater or sports. “On Fridays we never did any academic work. In the winter, we often used that day to go skiing. So that was it: only three hours a day, four days a week.”