When John and Holiday Hays decided to home school their eight adopted children, the decision was based in part on practicality. "Six of the eight have special needs, and the bus ride to their school would have been more than an hour," says John of rural Bearville, Minnesota. Add to that the countless meetings they would have needed to attend to deal with educational and behavioral issues, and they decided it would make more sense to instruct their children at home. They would be able to pack instruction into every one of the limited "high attention" moments special needs kids have, they reasoned. For the Hays family, and many other families, home schooling is a viable and positive alternative to public or private schools.
The Hayses are not alone in their decision to home school. According to a comprehensive 1998 study commissioned by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), an estimated 1.23 million U.S. students are educated at home--87.7 percent of them by stay-at-home moms. The study, conducted by the director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation, used 11,930 family questionnaires and standardized tests of 20,760 students to evaluate home schooling.
Why do parents decide to instruct their children at home? While 78 to 83 percent of home schooling parents in the HSLDA study cite religious and moral reasons for their decision, Vicki Brady--Host of Home School U.S.A., a nationwide radio show broadcast from Colorado by the Home Education Network--says that the home schooling movement is clearly attracting people from all walks of life.
Judy Grove, the Adoption Council of Canada's (ACC) executive director, reports that home schooling is a growing trend in Canada as well: "We’re seeing it more and more, especially in Alberta and B.C." ACC hears from parents who believe schools in their provinces aren’t responding to children’s needs. Says Grove, "Schools sometimes have [negative] assumptions about adopted children or about children of color." Because of this, some adoptive parents feel they can do better than schools at bolstering both their children’s academic achievement and self-esteem. Above all, adoptive parents, like most parents beginning home schooling, want to provide their children with a quality education, and they don’t trust that schools can educate their children as well as Mom and Dad can. Indeed, Brady and the Home Education Network claim that the largest growing population of home schoolers are those seeking superior academic training and those who, in the wake of school violence, want increased safety for their children.
What about Socialization?
Opponents of home schooling worry about socialization. Compulsory public education is designed to "normalize" children, help them to learn academics, and teach them societal norms so they can fit in with peers. Learning at home--with only parents and siblings--isolates children and makes them social misfits, claim skeptics.
Research contradicts these claims, however, as 87 percent of home schoolers report that their kids regularly play with children outside of the family. On average, claims the HSLDA study, home schooled children participate in 5.2 activities outside the home, and 98 percent of them participate in two or more activities. "Because the students can choose the activities and therefore the social contacts, they are not pressured by their peers into things they don’t really want to do," says Brady. She also explains that home schooled students, without social pressures pulling them in undesired directions, can put more focused energy into chosen activities, developing leadership skills as they go.
An Individualized or Combination Approach May Work Best
While high social and academic success are the norm among home schooled children, there are times when a little public school can go a long way--even for the student schooled at home. Many schools allow kids to come to school for a subject or two or even three. Attending school for band or orchestra or for a math class can add the right mix for some. Some families find their children benefit from small doses of school, like academic subjects, music, or sports.
Emma, 13, "got the best of both worlds," says her mom Lori. During seventh and eighth grade, Emma participated in band, volleyball, and soccer at a middle school, while completing other academics at home. "The peer pressure of seventh-grade girls, the gossip, and the cliques intimidated Emma," says Lori. "With two years at home, I think she has a stronger sense of who she is." Emma will return to public school this fall. Emma’s brother, Dylan, will also go to public school this fall after completing an accelerated first-grade program at home. Though Lori will be glad to have her children back in public school, she is quick to add that there were many benefits to home schooling her children. "Emma is interested in sewing, cooking, gardening...she’s broadened her interests. Dylan got what he needed to stimulate his mind."
Adoptive families may have additional reasons for trying home schooling. Laura Jasen home schools her three adopted children because their needs are so diverse--and so particular. Six-year-old Zach is cognitively delayed while younger sister Lexie is exceptionally bright. Halie, a four-year-old adopted from a Romanian orphanage at 22 months, has attachment issues. Zach flourishes in the limited playing field of home school, and his sisters support and encourage him. "Seeing the smile on his face is more important than an A," says Jasen. Halie, Jasen explains, "needs guidance, consequences, and limit setting. She is easily influenced by others and has trouble with social judgment." When asked if she decided to home school because her children are adopted, Jasen says, "No, it’s more the mix of kids we have. If I had children by birth and they had similar diverse needs, I’d home school them too." She’s happy to be living in Wisconsin where home schooling regulations are fairly relaxed.
The Hayses agree that home schooling is practical for their children’s diverse needs, but, as John explains, "the single greatest reward is bonding. The one-to-one attention we give the kids promotes a bond we wouldn’t have otherwise." And parent-child relationships are especially important to John and Holiday since some of their children are diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). "A lot of adopted kids have RAD," says John, "and [children] with RAD really need someone to be the authority and they need to know it’s a safe place. At home, they’re not exposed to instructors who don’t understand them. It’s the same with the fetal alcohol syndrome kids--their brains are different, and we help them overcome the confusion they feel."
Rules and Laws
In the U.S., individual states regulate home schooling with laws ranging from how to properly notify school systems about the parents’ intent to educate a child at home, to the ages of "compulsory education" in each state (most require that children aged 6 to 18 attend school or have an alternate plan for home schooling). Depending on the state, home schooling parents may:
- have strict guidelines about what children must learn or how many hours per day and days per year children must engage in educational activities
- have to establish a private school or propose an "alternative home study plan" or
- need to obtain certification or have a high school or undergraduate degree.
California requires home instruction to be in English, consistent with state laws recently passed for public schools. Some states, including Georgia, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Tennessee, require regular standardized testing, while states like Arkansas, Colorado, and Virginia require just an approved evaluation and documentation. A number of states--Utah and Texas among them--have no testing requirement at all. Visit the Home School Legal Defense Association web site (www.hslda.com) to view requirements by state. In Canada, where each province establishes its own regulations for home schooling, rules also vary.
States and provinces may also govern the education of foster children. In jurisdictions where a child placed for adoption is considered a foster child until the adoption is finalized, there may be a period of time when families can home school their birth and previously adopted children, but not the newly placed child. Additional rules and laws may apply. In Wisconsin, for example, a foster child may be home schooled only if he is expelled from one public school and cannot attend another, OR if the child receives more frequent social worker visits, is taught from an established curriculum, receives regular evaluations, participates in extracurricular activities, and is likely to remain in the same foster home for at least six months. (Source: Conversation with Mark Mitchell, Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services)
Despite published guidelines and organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Association that help parents in the home schooling process, parents still report problems getting school systems to support their efforts. In Clark County, Nevada one family sued the public school system after it refused to offer speech therapy services to their home schooled 12-year-old. U.S. federal law--the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)--requires that equal opportunities and necessary accommodations be offered to students with disabilities, so the 12-year-old's parents requested similar services for their son. If the parents win this landmark case, all home schoolers would be entitled to exceptional educational services. At present, only parents who establish private schools in their homes (as required in California and 11 other states) qualify for special services.
Home schooling has many merits. Interest in the practice is high and systems are in place to support families who choose to educate children at home. When making the decision to home school, parents must consider their children’s needs and the family’s ability to teach children at home. If the situation will not support a home school, parents must take advantage of other opportunities. But if everything falls into place, home schooling may be just the safe and structured educational experience your child needs to do his best.
If you are thinking about schooling at home, take these steps:
Plan for ongoing evaluation--not only of academics but also of relationships and social development.