Teaching kids at home is soaring in popularity Home-schoolers more than triple in Howard

March 17, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Despite the Howard County schools' top record, parents are pulling their children out of public school classrooms to teach them at home in rapidly growing numbers.

Mirroring the county's dramatic growth in private school enrollment, the number of home-schooled children in Howard more than tripled in the first five years of the 1990s -- from 174 students in 1990 to more than 600 in 1995.

This growth rate outpaces state and national growth rates for home schooling. In the Baltimore area, only Harford County has a higher percentage of students going to school at home.

One in 360 of Howard's school-age children now is taught at home, the state says, compared with a state average of one in 623. Harford's ratio is one in 339.

Experts note that Howard residents, highly educated and relatively affluent, are more likely to have read or heard about home schooling. They also are more likely to be able to live on one salary, while one parent stays at home teaching.

Nearly three-quarters of Howard's adults have attended college, and the median family income -- $61,000 -- is the state's highest, according to 1990 census data.

Reasons for choice

Some parents who opt for home schooling have strong religious or political beliefs. Some do it to protect their children's health, especially in cases of food or environmental allergies. But many want their children to learn differently -- and better.

"People in my neighborhood say, 'You have this great school right here in Columbia. Why are you keeping your kids home?' " says Melissa Simmens, who lives in Columbia's Harper's Choice village and teaches two daughters at home.

"But it's not about what public schools lack," she says. "It's about the pluses of home schooling. We are so much closer as a family, and we're not confined to the school building and the school schedule. That is so great."

But many parents are clearly fleeing the public schools, says Karen Koelbel of Howard County Home Educators. The group includes about 80 families and is one of several home-schooling groups in the county.

"A lot of a child's problems come up mostly because of the impersonalized instruction at the school," she says. "Many people come [to home schooling] when they have a negative experience with the system and they're looking for alternatives."

Too many in classes

Parents' chief complaint: Public schools squeeze too many children into classes, making it hard for teachers to give students attention.

"I live in a neighborhood with a lot of teachers and some really understand it. They say, 'I have 35 kids in my class. I don't blame you.' " Simmens says.

Critics say home-schooled children miss social time with classmates. But some parents -- concerned about drugs and violence -- increasingly view that as a plus.

Home-schooling parents structure their children's social lives around clubs: swimming, drama, science, gymnastics.

This month, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Area in Laurel began offering programs for home-schooled students. They filled up immediately, says Marion Kinlen, outdoor recreation planner, much to her surprise: "I had no idea there were this many out there."

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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