Home-school appeal surges abroad

Parents: Two Maryland educational material providers are among those seeing an increase in Russian interest since the Beslan hostage crisis.

September 23, 2004|By Sara Neufeld and Jennifer McMenamin | Sara Neufeld and Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

In the wake of the siege of a school in Russia by Chechen militants that ended with 330 dead, some parents across Eastern Europe are apparently afraid to send their children back to the classroom.

And they're turning to North Baltimore's private Calvert School - among other American educational institutions - for help.

The Calvert School, an internationally known supplier of educational materials for parents who teach their children at home, is seeing a surge of online inquiries from families in Russia, where a school in the southern city of Beslan was stormed by militants last month, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Its nonprofit home instruction division sells textbooks, lesson plans and other educational materials.

In the past week, Calvert School has gotten 75 inquiries from Russia - compared with 12 in the past year. There have also been 11 from Belarus, nine from the Ukraine, two from Uzbekistan, and a handful from Estonia and Latvia.

"The numbers are just so statistically significant that it would be hard for me to come up with any other explanation" other than safety concerns, said Jean C. Halle, president of Calvert Education Services, the distance-learning arm of Calvert School.

Calvert School bills its home-schooling program, nearly 100 years old, as the oldest such U.S. program. About 10 percent of its nearly 20,000 enrolled home-school pupils in prekindergarten through eighth grade live overseas.

Families receive the curriculum (in English) that Calvert School uses and materials including pencils, protractors and lined paper. The cost is about $550 per student per year.

Patricia M. Lines, a former senior researcher with the U.S. Education Department who is working on a book about home-schooling, said she was not surprised.

"Home-schooling has been growing all over the world," Lines said. "Whenever people think public education is missing something, they'll turn to another option. Sometimes that's a private school option and sometimes that's a home-schooling option.

"If it's safety that they fear is missing, that might extend to private school as well," leaving home-schooling as the most viable alternative, she said.

Other providers of home-schooling material have also received additional inquiries since the tragedy. Staff at the Laurel Springs School have also seen a measurable increase in the number of inquiries from Russia. Amber Walker, the marketing manager of the Ojai, Calif.-based company, said she has received 11 requests for information from Russian families in the past week - a significant increase over the one a month she typically gets.

"It's really strange that you should ask," she said, "because we were just talking about the increase and wondering if it was due to the events going on in Russia at that school."

Laurel Springs enrolls about 3,000 students in 38 countries and all 50 states, Walker said. The 14-year-old home-schooling program, she added, is known as the "school for the stars" because its student roster includes entertainers and athletes, including actress Lindsay Lohan and rapper Bow-Wow.

Alayne Thorpe, vice president of the Silver Spring-based Home Study International, another supplier of home-schooling materials, said she saw an increase in inquiries after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo.

"We had a large number of inquiries from parents - and especially parents of high school students - who told us they were just afraid to send their kids to a public high school," she said. "Anytime there's bad news in a school system anywhere - it's apparently not just limited to the United States now - we see an increase in interest in home-schooling."

Although Home Study International - an accredited K-12 program affiliated with the Seventh -day Adventist Church that provides home-schooling materials to about 5,000 children worldwide - has not seen a measurable increase in calls from Russia, Thorpe said one or two people requesting information about the home-schooling program have specifically mentioned the Beslan crisis.

"That is really frightening to parents, and it's made more frightening when public figures say, as some have said in recent weeks, that it could happen here in this country," she said.

Others said that international interest in home-schooling has increased in recent years, especially in former dictatorial and Communist countries.

"Parents in countries like Russia have a lot more freedom, especially compared to 10 years ago. With access to the Internet, they can talk to each other, they can hear about home-schooling in America or England and it spreads" quickly, said Manfred Smith, Maryland Home Education Association president.

Calvert School pays to have a link to its Web site appear when "home schooling" is entered in Google and other Web search engines. That is likely how many Eastern European families found out about its program, Halle said.

Inquiries come by online form. Although there is no place to write why there is interest in home-schooling, Calvert School officials say the Beslan link is clear.

"These families are doing what's part of the modern world: You have a problem, you go to the Internet for solutions," said Halle, a former vice president of The Sun.

Halle said a major benefit of home-schooling is the strong relationship it forges between parents and children. In Russia, she said, "this is certainly a time in these children's lives when that comfort and security would be a very welcome addition."

Sun news researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.

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