All parents want the best education for their children. Sometimes, that means the local public school and other times it’s a private institution or nearby charter school. But, for some families, the best choice comes in homeschooling.
More than 27,500 students were homeschooled in Maryland last school year, according to the state Department of Education. Nationally, U.S. Department of Education statistics show homeschooling accounts for about 3.4 percent of students as of 2012, up from 2.2 percent a decade ago.
Homeschooling regulations vary from state to state. In Maryland, parents must fill out a form declaring their intent to homeschool each year. The state does require some proof of learning — either in the form of supervision from the local public school system or from a state Department of Education-approved umbrella program, often through a place of worship or homeschooling cooperative.
The reasons vary for families on why they decided on homeschooling, but usually one theme pops up more than once: the idea that their children would benefit outside the perceived “one-size-fits-all” education of traditional schools.
For Nechama and Shaya Cox, it was something of a family tradition. Shaya had been homeschooled himself growing up and thought their own kids — they now have seven — could benefit. Living in London at the time, Nechama was convinced after talking to a teacher who told her, “I get the kids for the good hours.”
“And I thought, ‘huh?’ I would like them for those good hours,” said Nechama Cox, who has now been homeschooling for 15 years, and living in Baltimore for 11.
Homeschooling also allows them to ensure their kids have a full Jewish education, along with a full secular education. Now homeschooling her sixth child, Cox has been using the Calvert School for a number of years, which provides curriculum as well as tests and report cards that function as sufficient oversight for the state.
The methods of homeschooling range widely from family to family, but for the Coxes, structure wins out. Their approach is very traditional. They have a room set aside as the classroom, and all the kids wear uniforms — including a tie, which they earn once they learn to read. (The youngest of school age, Eliaz, 5, recently won his tie, which he wears proudly, “just like his older brothers,” said Cox.)
Of their four oldest, ranging in age from 13 to 20, two are in college, one attends a local school and the last is at the Gilman School. All four were homeschooled through elementary school but allowed to choose whether to homeschool or attend a brick-and-mortar building for high school, and, so far, all have chosen the latter.
In a break from the norm, the Coxes actually send the kids to a play school during the day when they are young, so they can focus on the home education of the older ones. Right now, the youngest, at age 3, is doing that, while the other two young ones study at home.
“The thing that was surprising was how much I enjoyed it,” said Nechama Cox. Now, she can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Though there are other Jewish families who choose to homeschool, the majority of religious families who homeschool are Christian.
The Maryland Association of Christian Home Educators has a membership of more than 4,500 families, according to its website, and many of the state Department of Education- approved umbrella organizations are churches or other ministry education.
Nationally, as of 2012, the U.S. Department of Education found that, of those families choosing to homeschool, about two-thirds (64 percent) were doing it for religious reasons. An even higher percentage (77 percent) said they chose homeschooling to provide a “moral instruction.” The majority of these families are Christian but, as the Coxes show, certainly not exclusively.
Ja’Near Garrus, the director of Greater Baltimore Christian Homeschoolers, has been homeschooling her children since her oldest, now 8, was in preschool. Her son, Ryan, started at a private Christian school, but the family realized quickly — within the first month — that it wasn’t a good fit, Garrus said.
Now both Ryan and her other son, Azariah, 5, are homeschooled, and she will be starting preschool activities with her daughter, Hillary, 3, this year. For the first year, Garrus chose a curriculum that mirrored what her son’s private Christian school would have taught, A beka — a Christian curriculum that teaches from a Bible literalist perspective. In the years since, she has moved away from any one curriculum and instead uses a variety of different resources depending on what she thinks will work well with her children — different textbooks, library books, online resources, etc.
“The religious benefits were just an added bonus to the academic benefits,” she said of her family’s decision to homeschool.
For the state-required check-ins, Garrus chose a Christian umbrella organization, the Conowingo Rising Sun Christian School. The GBC Homeschoolers group acts as a place for socializing and enrichment activities with other families who share their Christian values. Homeschooling has helped in embracing and teaching those values, Garrus says. As a family, they can do things like read the Bible, pray and talk about current events through the lens of their faith.
“I do hope to [homeschool] for the long term,” she said. “I’ve seen [my children] grow academically and as people.”
Outside of religious reasons, there is a growing group of families choosing “un-schooling” — a nontraditional education approach that emphasizes the child’s interests and de-emphasizes structured lessons. This is what Rashida Simmons and Mar Braxton, both Baltimore born and raised, use for their son, Kendi, 8. They just sort of fell into homeschooling, Simmons said. Braxton works in Washington, D.C., and Simmons was staying home with Kendi when he was young, as well as providing home daycare for friends.
While staying home with Kendi and the other kids, Simmons was providing early education along with play. They enrolled Kendi in kindergarten but found he was ahead of many of his classmates, both academically and physically. Kendi, now 8, is the size of a healthy 12-year-old, his doctor has told Simmons. It provided unique challenges in identifying with his peer group and also with teachers thinking he was older than he was. The schedule, too, was proving to be hard on the family.
“It took maybe three months before we realized it didn’t work for us,” she said.
So, Simmons brought him home. She uses the state education standards as her guide but takes a more un-schooling approach overall. She ensures that he covers all the ground he needs to for the grade level he’s in — currently, most of Kendi’s academic work is about a fifth-grade level — but otherwise allows his interests to direct his learning.
She and her husband have also appreciated that homeschooling gives them the opportunity to talk to their son about current events in the world — including recent racial violence and tensions — and address any questions he may have in their own terms.
So far, it’s been working well, and Simmons will likely also homeschool her youngest son, Aman, who turned 1 in May.
Whatever the reason for each family, homeschooling has been on a fairly steady rise since the Department of Education started keeping track of homeschooled kids in the ’90s. Cox, Simmons and Garrus all felt Maryland had done a good job of balancing the state’s desire for regulation with parents’ desire to dictate the education of their children. As it hits the mainstream, more families are opting for the flexibility and control over what their children are learning.
Homeschooling, it seems, is just hitting its stride.