as Alternative to Classrooms
a classroom education essential to the educational and social
development of a child? With teachers and legislators debating
‘accountability’, parents taking a closer look at school safety,
and students exposed to ever-changing cultural and media influences,
more and more parents and students are asking this question. Since
John Holt started a school reform movement in the 1960s advocating
homeschooling, increasing numbers of parents have looked to this
option as a viable alternative to classroom settings, challenging
traditional notions of how children learn.
Celine, 12, and Julian Joris, 13, are homeschooled by their parents
in New York’s Greenwich Village. But it is a wonder that they
are ever home, with weekly Shakespeare rehearsals and sketching
classes at the Met, various Tai-Chi classes, violin lessons and
other activities. Yet neither has ever gone to school.
am not against school,” says their mother, Françoise Joris, who
was exposed to John Holt’s ideas by her parents when she was in
high school. “Great schools are wonderful,” she says.
But unschooling her children was more appealing. Unschooling is
a term that has been coined for a method of homeschooling in which
the student’s interest directs the course of study – a laissez-faire
approach that, while it does not necessarily have to be unstructured,
differs from other, curriculum-driven homeschooling methods.
don’t have time to do all the things they want to do,” explains
Joris in mock-exasperation. Julian is currently writing a science
fiction novel, a project that can take up to six hours a day.
The challenge for the parent in homeschooling, says Joris, is
that she needs to be one step ahead of her children, anticipating
what they might be interested in next, so that she can frame a
history, math or reading lesson around it.
Parents have always homeschooled their children, whether because
there was not a school available, or because they wanted to ensure
a certain kind of religious or moral education, or even because
they felt they could do a better job. But since the 1970s, homeschoolers
in New York and the rest of the country have increased rapidly.
The Joris family is part of the New York Home Educators Alliance,
the secular homeschooling network for New York City. Françoise
estimates that the Alliance encompasses over 200 families with
about two students each. New York homeschoolers are required to
register with the school district; however, many choose not to
do so. It is therefore difficult to know exactly how many there
are. Another organization, NYS Loving Education At Home (LEAH),
the Christian network in New York State, has 150 local chapters
serving over 3,700 families. Researchers have estimated that there
are from 700,000 to 1.15 million homeschoolers nationwide.
The Jorises were drawn to homeschooling because they were worried
about the increasing emphasis on testing in New York City public
schools. Susan Madley and Jesse Phillips of Santa Monica, California,
who homeschooled each of their three children in their junior
high school years, did so for a different reason. They moved from
urban Santa Monica to a cabin in the northern California woods
when their oldest son, Ben, was 11. Phillips says they “really
didn’t have any choice” but to homeschool him. Madley describes
the experience as “everyone’s Laura Ingalls Wilder dream,” referring
to the Little House on the Prairie books where the author
recalls growing up on the Midwestern frontier in the 1870s and
But even after they left the woods and moved back to Santa Monica,
their daughter, Cory, and other son, Lincoln, both decided to
homeschool their junior high school years, despite available schools.
“One of the most powerful times a parent can homeschool their
kids is in the junior high years,” explains Madley who, along
with Phillips, holds an education degree from University of California
at Berkeley. The subject matter in junior high school will all
be repeated later, she explains. “All you have to make sure is
that they are reading, writing and doing math,” which can be accomplished
period of time is when a child is susceptible to moral education,”
continues Madley. Thus, history lessons can bring up ethical issues
that may not be raised in a junior high school classroom. “ I
think Ben’s love of history comes out of discussions with me,”
While their reasons for homeschooling are different, both families
have the same attitude towards classroom-based schools: it is
“ a logistical nightmare” as Françoise puts it. Students really
only need a few hours of “book learning” during the day, the rest
of which should be devoted to play, says Madley. Yet, she says,
“ the most curious, alive and verbal kids are trapped in the classroom.”
Robert Culpepper, a second year law student at the University
of Mississippi who was homeschooled through junior and senior
high school, agrees. “It seems kind of inefficient,” he says of
the traditional classroom education. Culpepper, like Jorises,
was unschooled, but he took it a step farther. He spent most of
his time on his own reading, relying on his interests to guide
him– history, geography, and eventually, film. He describes his
schooling as “pretty much hands off,” although his parents were
very interested in what he was reading and how he was doing.
Culpepper attributes the success of this method to his personality.
His two younger siblings tried homeschooling as well, but found
they could not stay focused. He admits that there were gaps in
his education—science and Shakespeare, in particular—and he did
feel unprepared for deadlines and writing papers when he got to
Columbia University. But he also emphasizes that “I never got
The library was Culpepper’s biggest resource, as it has been for
Viki Kurashige who has been homeschooling her two sons, Sotarou,
12, and Hanjirou, 9, since Sotarou was in kindergarten. She uses
a Waldorf curriculum, and is dependent on interlibrary loan to
get the books she needs in rural Chattaham, NY.
Many battles between homeschooling parents and school districts
have been fought in courts across the country since the 1970s,
but now homeschooling is a legal and viable option in all 50 states,
although regulations vary. In New York, a homeschooling family
must register with the local school district and submit an annual
notice of intent, a plan of instruction and four quarterly reports,
all paperwork that many homeschooling families resent.
Often, homeschooling families feel at odds with school districts
and legislatures because public schools see homeschoolers as lost
revenue. “My own feeling is that nothing good for homeschoolers
is likely to come out of the New York Legislature,” writes Mary
O’Keefe in Growing Without Schooling, the newsletter about
homeschooling founded by John Holt in 1977.
The majority of homeschooled students come from white, non-Hispanic,
two-parent households, with one parent not working. This is according
to a new study released by the US Department of Education. In
New York, Françoise describes a spread of families in her organization–
from single parents to two working parents.
While homeschooling families often share similar ideologies about
education and ethics or towards school districts, the sheer number
of homeschooling resources in books and on the web reveals that
this is an option that can be approached in any possible way.
How to homeschool is up to the families, but the ways and means
are as varied as the people themselves.#
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