Michael and Lisa McDonald attend Essex Community College. Nothing unusual about this. So do 11,500 other students. But what is out of the ordinary is that Michael is 15 years old and Lisa is 14. After passing a placement test, the teen-agers were accepted by Essex and are now taking college courses as part of their home-schooling program, an alternative educational process directed by their parents, Dot and Kerry McDonald. Eleven-year-old Evan McDonald is being taught at home, too.
The McDonalds belong to a small group of Marylanders who are bucking the educational system by directing how and what their children learn. They chose this route five years ago after what they say was an emotionally trying year dealing with their children's teachers at a Baltimore County public school.
Because moving from their neighborhood wasn't an option, theconsidered private schools but found tuition costs for three children too high. They began searching for alternatives and stumbled across home schooling through newspaper articles. Dot McDonald researched the movement for six months before the couple decided to try it themselves.
"I was excited," says their son Michael, recalling the beginning days of home schooling. "I wasn't worried about being lonely because I had friends I played football with." He adjusted quickly to having his parents as teachers, although he admits at first "it was kind of strange." His sister Lisa was equally ready to leave school. "I was very shy," she says, "and the kids teased me about my name -- you know, McDonald. I remember crying."
While some home schoolers tell similar stories of unhappy schoo experiences, others cite different reasons for teaching their own kids. Jean and Bill Soyke decided on home schooling after two of their four children spent a year enrolled in a Baltimore city elementary school. "I don't want to say it was a horrible experience because it wasn't," says Jean. "But the city has so much they want to accomplish besides the curriculum, things like dramatic reading festivals, black history month, AIDS education. I'm concerned that the basics like science and social studies are being squeezed out. I just felt like my kids were missing a lot and that they weren't getting what they needed."
Although Manfred Smith is a teacher at Takoma Park Intermediate School in Montgomery County, he's also one of the leading proponents of home schooling in Maryland and is founder of the Maryland Home Education Association, a local information and support group. Manfred and his wife, Jeanne, have always home schooled, or as he says, "unschooled," their three children.
They prefer the learning philosophy of educational reformer John Holt to what Manfred Smith says is the established system of "regimented school rooms," "emphasis on testing," "teacher-centered curriculum," and the adherence to "coloring the sky blue and grass green." Holt believed that children are natural learners, who, when put in an unstructured environment, can pretty much direct their own education.
Fourteen-year-old Jamie Smith has never been to an established school, and she's very happy. "I'm not on a little island," she says. "I do a lot of things with other kids like ice-skating and Girl Scouts." She likes setting her own pace, a major facet of her learning program.
Kevin and Karen Turner live in Baltimore County. They have a new baby and an 8-year-old daughter whom they home school. They decided to teach Karene at home because, says Karen, "we knew we wanted a good biblical foundation for our daughter." The couple was inspired by the enthusiasm of other home-schooling parents at their church.
Karen Turner adds that while she and her husband are religiously motivated, their concern isn't so much that public education doesn't allow God in the classroom. The Turners believe that school systems aren't teaching moral values or encouraging positive character development, and they worry about the negative effects of peer pressure.
The McDonalds, Soykes, Smiths and Turners are among a growing group of home-schooling families in Maryland. In 1989, 1,500 children were registered as being home schooled, according to Mary K. Albrittain, chief of pupil services and overseer of the home-schooling contingent of Maryland's state board of education. Figures for 1990 show an increase of about 500 children.
Considering that more than 700,000 students attend public schools in Maryland, home-schooled children are very much in the minority. But state figures don't include children who aren't signed up, yet are being taught at home. Manfred Smith estimates about 2,000 additional students are home schooled underground.