Home schooling says parents do matter

June 14, 2000|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Home-schooled students startled the nation by capturing all three top prizes in the recent Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, a first for the 73-year-old competition. But weeks earlier, a home-schooled student already was making his mark on my neighborhood.

Robert Grigsby, 11, one of my son's playmates, decided as a class project to survey how many cars would run the stop sign at a busy intersection in our neighborhood during a typical busy morning.

The result: Almost half of the cars failed to come to a complete stop.

He sent his findings in a neatly typed letter to local officials and newspapers. The community newspaper featured the boy in a Page 1 story, and the police followed up with its own survey that confirmed the results, winning praise for the boy from a grateful community.

Most striking about Robert is that he did not do his project for the local school. Robert is home schooled, along with his brothers, Daniel, 9, and William, 5, by their mother, Rosalind Grigsby, who stays home to handle the job while her husband works downtown.

In many ways, the Grigsbys represent a new era for home schooling. The early back-to-home movement was promoted in the 1960s and 1970s largely by liberal-progressives who thought public schools were too conservative and limiting. In the mid-1980s, it was embraced by social conservatives who thought public schools were too liberal, immoral or prone to violence.

In recent years, experts say, it has expanded into more than a million youngsters from families too diverse to fit the usual stereotypes.

Ten years ago there were no home-schooled students in the National Spelling Bee finals. This year there were 27 among the 248 total finalists, compared with 19 from parochial schools and 24 from other private schools.

The National Spelling Bee winner, George Thampy, 12, of Maryland Heights, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, also was one of four home-schooled students among the top 10 finalists in the National Geographic Bee, which tests knowledge of geography.

Nationally 200,000 home-schooled students are currently enrolled in colleges and more than a million more are expected to apply over the next decade, according to the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association.

So far, studies show home-schooled students score higher than the national average on college-preparatory standardized tests and tend to make higher grades in college than other students.

The Grigsbys began home schooling when they lived in Madison, Wis., and wondered whether their children's needs might get lost in the crowd at their local schools, Rosalind said.

"So we decided to home school see if I was any good at it," she said. "Then it turned out that there were other benefits. We have the chance to go more deeply into subjects that catch their interest. It's also a chance for the family on the whole to share in whatever interests them."

Like many other parents who send their children to conventional schools, I was skeptical when I heard that the Grigsbys had decided to teach their children at home. I wondered whether parents untrained in education could handle the job. Would the children be too socially isolated?

"The word that gets thrown in home schoolers' faces all the time is the S-word -- `socialization,'" Rosalind said. "But you know this neighborhood. Our kids have lots of social interaction after school."

Indeed, they do. At play in our neighborhood, the home-schooled kids are indistinguishable from the rest.

The biggest criticisms of the home-schooling movement appear to be its isolation, disorganization and lack of accountability to central school boards and other educational authorities -- and that's the way home-schoolers like it. If the tradeoff means less power to parents, they'll take the isolation. The proof of home schooling is in the pupils, they say, and the pupils, on the whole, appear to be doing quite well.

Still, as impressive as its growing success stories may be, home schooling is not for everyone. Most of us parents are not ready, willing or able to take on the mammoth task of schooling our own children. We're still trying to make neighborhood schools work.

For us, the home-school movement reinforces a lesson common sense should have taught us long ago: Parents matter. You don't need to have a doctorate in education to instill in children an eagerness to learn. The best educational support systems begin at home.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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