Home-schooling skeptic has a change of heart

Around this time last year my wife said she wanted to home-school one of our daughters.

“No way,” I said. “Not my children.”

When I was growing up, I didn’t know many families that home-schooled. I figured those who did were probably religious zealots or weird hippies.

Those were ignorant assumptions, in hindsight. In recent years I’ve gotten to know many home-schooling families and they’ve been models of American values. The children are mature, smart and well-adjusted. The parents are as normal as anyone else. The only abnormal thing about these families, that I could see, is that they appeared happier and healthier than the rest of us.

Still, even with those examples, my past ignorance kept me skeptical. Besides, our daughter was enrolled in a great private school. There wasn’t really a need.

But when my wife persisted, I did voice some more reasonable concerns: What about socialization? What about extracurricular activities? What about the quality of the education? After weeks of discussion I finally agreed to try home-schooling for a year, based mostly on trusting my wife’s instincts and wanting to support something she felt strongly about. In the back of my mind, though, I thought it’d be a failed experiment.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

I was wrong about the whole socialization concern and whether she’d have access to extracurricular activities. Businesses and other organizations have responded to the growing market of home-schoolers. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education showed that the number of U.S. students home-schooled has doubled in the last 15-years, growing from 850,000 in 1999 to nearly 1.8-million last year. More are doing it every year, and they’re finding a market full of academic, athletic and other extracurricular activities to choose from. In fact, we had to be choosy. There were simply too many fantastic options for enrichment.

My daughter was involved in a sports league, took science and art classes at museums, sang in our church’s choir and belonged to a faith-oriented club for little girls, similar to the Girl Scouts. Her schedule was comfortably full, and her time was spent with people and organizations we purposely selected. And let’s be honest; there’s a lot of socialization a kid can do without. There are better ways, and better times, to learn about bullying and peer-pressure than to be the target of it in elementary school.

Second, I was wrong about the academic quality of the education we could provide. The chief advantages are curriculum and time, we found. My wife was able to choose curriculum à la carte, meaning she could choose the best individual math program and then the best individual reading program without having to accept a one-size-fits-all or a curriculum-in-a-box program that many schools use. They also moved according to my daughter’s needs. Once she understood, they dove deeper or moved on. If she didn’t, they stayed put until she did. In essence, my daughter had a one-on-one tutor for an entire year.

Research proves the point, too. Home-schoolers typically score 15-to-30-percentage points above public school students on standardized tests and it doesn’t matter if their parents were ever teachers, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. A study by the University of St. Thomas also showed that home-schoolers outperformed both public and private school students on the ACT, scoring higher in English, reading and science and matching them in math.

It’s not for everyone, of course. Some say you have to be “called” to it like a vocation. Rather than investing in a child’s education with tuition money, home-schooling parents invest an even more valuable commodity: their time. Most busy families don’t have much of that.

Was the experiment a success? Yes. I’m convinced that, at least for us, it provided the best education and personal formation available. Next year my school-age kids will likely be back in private school until we decide whether we have the ways and means to home-school all five.

Still, in a year’s time I went from declaring “No way” to asking “Is there a way?” I’m not sure, but based on the results, it’s certainly worth finding out.

(J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. Contact him at jpepperbryars@gmail.com and jpepperbryars.com.)