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New York City
December 2001

Special Feature: Homeschooling

Homeschooling as Alternative to Classrooms
By Sarah Elzas

Is 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.

“I 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.

“We 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 1880s.

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 at home.

“This 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,” explains Phillips.

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 bored.”

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.#


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
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