Grading parents of homeschoolers

Education: Reviews with the school system or a group help keep learners and teachers on track

May 29, 2002|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's a twist on the parent-teacher conference. Instead of teachers giving parents an expert view of how their child is progressing in school, the tables were turned. Parents Melanie and James Jackson of Columbia were prepared to meet veteran teacher Vernice Lacy. They had a large box of books, videos, worksheets and tests - evidence that they have been doing a good job homeschooling their three daughters.

"We have learned their best learning style," said Melanie Jackson, a part-time domestic violence counselor, adding that she and her husband can change their teaching to fit their children's individual needs.

For the past two weeks, Howard County's Department of Home Instruction has been conducting evaluations of homeschoolers at the Staff Development Center in Columbia's Wilde Lake village. Lacy is one of six reviewers, all retired public school teachers and pupil personnel workers, hired to go through learning materials with parents and their youngsters. The teachers met with nearly 500 homeschooling families, many of whom brought boxes or suitcases full of materials. The evaluations take place twice a year, though some families do an annual review.

At this parent-teacher conference, it was not just the kids being evaluated, but the parents as well. Reviewers must examine parents' ability to provide a balanced and challenging curriculum that meets standards for each grade level.

"When they critique you, they give you positives and negatives of your program," Melanie Jackson said. "They really do help you strive to have the best program that you can do."

A partnership

Betsy Rice, who coordinates the evaluations, is a resource pupil personnel teacher for the Department of Student Services and Special Education, Home Instruction Program.

"We form a partnership with the parents," Rice said. "One of the biggest challenges was to make the program very inviting, making parents comfortable with the process. When we sent out the criteria [for evaluation], many of them were nervous. We were there to help make it easy for them." One way she puts parents at ease is by pairing the same reviewer with a family for each evaluation.

By law, every school system in Maryland has a home instruction department. Rice and her staff provide information on procedures and regulations, and they help parents prepare for reviews. They also give families a list of private groups registered with the state to supervise and evaluate home instruction. Parents can opt to have their children's progress monitored by one of these "umbrella groups." Parents must have their progress monitored by either their local school system or an umbrella group.

With about 900 families in county homeschooling, more than half choose to be assessed by the Department of Home Instruction.

James Jackson said he and his wife chose to be evaluated by Rice's department instead of an umbrella group because "we wanted to make sure that we were right on the mark with what they were being taught in public schools."

Jackson, who works nights as a police lieutenant at Loyola College in Maryland so he can teach his daughters during the day, said he was impressed with the thoroughness of the review. "They went through every single child and every single thing that we've done," he said.

`Very proud'

It is also an opportunity for the girls to get feedback from an adult outside the family. The Jacksons brought all four of their children with them to the evaluation. April is 14, her sisters Angela and Ashley are 11 and 9, respectively, and brother Jay is 2 1/2 .

"It makes me feel like not only my parents like my work, but other people do," April said.

Lacy asked Angela to sit next to her while she went through a math workbook. She looked at each page, checking off items on a review sheet. "You've done lots of work, young ladies. You can feel very proud of yourselves," Lacy said.

"A lot of them [homeschoolers] are doing lots of writing, integrating their program across the content areas - not just a lot of worksheets but getting the children to express themselves," Lacy said.

Although her comments tended to be positive, one of Lacy's critiques was that the girls had not kept a record of their free reading. She asked them to keep a book list and to bring it with them next time.

"When we get the OK from the Board of Education, then we know that we're giving the kids everything that they need," Melanie Jackson said.

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