Home Schooling Flourishes

March 28, 1994|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Sun Staff Writer

The devoutly religious teach their children at home; so do aging hippies. Intellectuals unhappy with public schools and poor families who can't afford private schools do it. Maybe one of your neighbors is doing it, too.

Bringing education home may be the educational craze of the '90s. Ten years ago, 15,000 children were registered as home-schoolers. Today, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that up to 350,000 children are being taught at home. Advocates say the figure is closer to 1 million.

In Maryland 10 years ago, 95 children were being taught at home legally, although tight restrictions forced many others underground. But since the state relaxed the rules in 1987, the numbers have increased steadily. Last year, the number climbed to 4,588, reports the state Department of Education, 1,000 more than the previous year.

What is turning parents into educators?

Many view home education as a way to shape religious values. Others want to tutor their children personally, working within each child's abilities and limitations. Some parents are concerned about the quality of public education and safety in the public school system.

"You don't have to go to school to learn. We see learning as part of life," says Susannah Sheffer, editor of a Cambridge, Mass.-based home-schooling magazine, Growing Without Schooling.

"Having skills, finding work they love, loving to learn are the most important goals," she says.

Says Stacy Batchelder of Millersville, who teaches her 6-year-old daughter at home: "I want Jamie to have the freedom to grow into the person she is meant to be, without artificial restrictions. Even if I could afford private school, she wouldn't go."

Home schooling laws range from the stringent, like Pennsylvania's, to the liberal, which is how some educators view Maryland's regulations.

Parents have significant latitude in Maryland. They are required only to submit a portfolio of a child's work twice a year to the district school superintendent. As an alternative, parents may register with a church or an approved correspondence school, such as Baltimore's Calvert School, which is responsible for overseeing the child's education.

Jane and Christopher Shipley were among the first Baltimore parents to teach their three youngsters at home under the state's more flexible guidelines, passed seven years ago after lobbying by the Maryland Home Education Association.

Being pioneers wasn't easy. Wary Baltimore school officials assigned three employees to check on each child. The law requires only "regular, thorough instruction" in basic subjects, but Mrs. Shipley says she constantly received inquiries about how she planned to "implement" her instruction.

During the third year the family taught their children at home, education officials objected that she didn't include "social studies units" explaining the concept of family, community and society. Instead, Mrs. Shipley was teaching her youngsters ancient history.

Life is much easier today, say the Shipleys and others. Dennis Younger, who oversees home schooling for Anne Arundel County public schools, says some educators may still have reservations, but most try to make the process smooth for families.

"The law says you can home school, and we want to help parents in every way we can," he says. "My experience is that most home instructors work very hard. They are truly dedicated people."

Every county has its exceptions, he notes. Of the 513 students taught at home last year in Anne Arundel, "maybe 30 students were in it for all the wrong reasons, [such as] families that were fugitives from school" out of irresponsibility or rebellion, Mr. Younger says.

In other areas of the state last year, the number of home schoolers ranged from 315 in Baltimore City to 588 in Baltimore County and a high of 702 in Montgomery County.

Pupil personnel workers around the state report an occasional story of parents who fail to educate their children. If a family doesn't turn in a child's portfolio, or if the portfolio doesn't demonstrate study in each required area, superintendents may require a home-schooled child to return to public school.

"Very few" students in Maryland have ever been asked to return, says Mary Albrittain, chief of pupil services for the state Department of Education.

Still, educators "are a little alarmed," says Ms. Albrittain, because they have no way to gauge how Maryland's home-schooled children are faring academically. The state is not permitted to test the children.

Critics of home schooling fear children are deprived of academic opportunities.

However, more than 20 studies of the educational performance of children taught at home have found that they perform, on average, as well as or better than their public school counterparts.

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