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At Home with School

Teaching your children may seem a daunting task, but these alumni have joined the homeschooling movement and are discovering its joys.

By the time Meredith Warshaw ’79 of Newton, MA, saw her son Keith finish third grade, both of them felt miserable. Keith excelled in math and science but struggled in writing and foreign languages. His school day stretched into long periods of boredom, while he sat through math and science instruction at too low a level, or frustration, while he strove to complete his writing and language lessons. At home, Keith and his mom argued over homework. And Warshaw found that Keith’s school wasn’t able to give him the extra instruction he needed. She had heard about homeschooling from other parents of gifted and special-needs children but was skeptical about her ability to handle the logistics as a single mother. As fourth grade loomed, Warshaw investigated other schools for Keith without success. “It was the end of August, and we had no idea what we were going to do,” she says. “We had to do something, so I said, ‘I guess we’re homeschooling him.’”

Warshaw is part of a growing population of parents in the United States opting to teach their children at home. It’s an educational insurgency that dates back to the 1960s, when Raymond Moore and John Holt began advocating homeschooling, each for his own reasons. Moore, a former Seventh-Day Adventist missionary, saw homeschooling as a way to maintain Christian values during the educational process. Holt, a teacher and author, advocated school reform and appealed to the countercultural left. Separately, both men influenced a movement that becomes more popular with each passing year. The numbers are sketchy because data collection methods vary, but the U.S. Department of Education estimates that as far back as 1983, as many as 125,000 kids were being homeschooled. By 2003, that number had grown to 1.1 million, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

With its high-powered curriculum, MIT seems an unlikely place to attract or produce homeschoolers. But in fact it does both. Anecdotal evidence from alumni gatherings, online forums, and articles from the Alumni Association indicates a growing interest in homeschooling among MIT graduates with families of their own. In addition, the number of homeschooled students applying to MIT has nearly doubled since 2001, with several admitted each year. Their parents’ reasons for eschewing traditional education vary, but they include concern about schools’ values and safety standards, the prevalence of drugs, the quality of teaching, and the lack of resources for children with health problems or special learning needs. Alumni who opt to take the leap quickly learn about the many resources available from national and local organizations to help them with curricula, legal questions, and support. Still, there are plenty of misconceptions about home-based education. Stereotypes abound and challenges arise, but MIT’s characteristic self-starters have the traits that make for good homeschoolers, and they are pursuing alternative education their own way.

Making the Leap
No alumni interviewed for this article said they jumped into homeschooling with great enthusiasm. They had heard about the stereotypes—the disciplinarian parents, the antisocial kids—and they wondered how they would find the time or the teaching materials to give their children an adequate education. Whether to alleviate their doubts or confirm them, alumni attended local information sessions or consulted with other parents already teaching their kids at home. Many national and local homeschool organizations answer questions for tentative parents, provide support and resources such as magazines or online chat rooms, and sell curriculum materials designed to meet a wide variety of educational goals.

Nevertheless, deciding to homeschool is not easy. When Wyatt Webb ’92 and his wife Stefanie were considering options for their son David’s education, homeschooling didn’t initially make the list. But David has special learning needs related to his premature birth. New concepts must be presented to him in particular ways, and he grows distracted when confined too long to a chair. The Webbs, who live in Beaverton, a suburb of Portland, OR, were also concerned about the prevalence of drugs and violence in the public school system. They looked into private schools but found they couldn’t afford them. Then they attended an information seminar at their local library about home learning, going in with a more or less open mind. Wyatt says, “We saw a few things that night that really convinced us that we should try homeschooling.”

First, many of the parents they met had the same reasons for homeschooling that they did. Second, the Webbs discovered that sharing learning experiences as a family produced strong connections. “Parent-child relationships were strong and deep. That was a very pleasant surprise,” Wyatt says. Lastly, the high-school kids in attendance seemed like polite, well-adjusted teenagers who could carry on intelligent conversations with adults. The session also reinforced the notion that parents did not have to re-create classrooms in their homes. They simply had to find the right resources and be flexible. The Webbs decided to take the plunge and, if necessary, reconsider private or public school later. That was seven years ago. David is 12 years old now, and the Webbs have managed to provide him an education that suits his particular needs. They speed up material he grasps easily and slow down material that proves difficult.

For the first couple of years, the Webbs did what many homeschool newcomers do: they ordered a year’s worth of edu­cational materials from a home-study provider. For fees ranging from about $500 to $2,000, these companies provide parents with textbooks, curricula, lesson guides, and phone and e-mail support. They also take care of legal requirements, reporting test results in accordance with state laws. Prepackaged curricula help parents set up a structured learning environment at home, which can be great for kids making the transition from classroom to kitchen table. After the Webbs got the hang of it, they began to mix and match curriculum materials.

Interestingly enough, the lesson plans take only a couple of hours to finish each day, compared to the six or seven hours of instruction a child might receive in school. “Much of how school is organized is about having the student be manageable,” says Diane Curtis ’78, SM ’79. She and her husband, Jim Bidigare ’78, educate their four children—Danielle, 14, Luke, 13, Hannah, 11, and Claire, 8—from their home, which sits on 40 acres of farmland east of Columbus, OH. They use an Ohio charter school that offers a structured, time-saving educational experience over the Internet. “I so value that [my children’s] school lessons don’t take up too much of their time,” says Curtis, who believes that playing is children’s most important formative experience. “We need people who can think creatively. Our school structure works against that.” Curtis says her children spend more of their free time reading and playing outside than other children they know, who prefer television and video games.

Once parents gain experience with prepackaged curricula, they often integrate components from different companies, as the Webbs do. Or they create their own courses of study altogether. Although many states require that children pass certain standardized tests, they also recognize a broad range of educational experiences. “Often you can turn outside activities into credit, such as an elective,” says Warshaw, whose son Keith is now 13. A book on tape during a car trip can become a literature lesson. A trip to the museum can serve as a history class. This is where seasoned homeschoolers seem to thrive, turning everyday activities into learning.

Questions and Challenges
While all of this seems to paint a rosy picture, homeschooling does have its challenges. The first year seems to try parents and kids the most. It takes time to find the best curriculum and the right balance between schoolwork and free time. Often, parents set rigid but unrealistic goals. “You have to expect the unexpected,” cautions Warshaw, who works part time as a special-needs-education advisor. She believed that she and her ex-husband would have no problems instructing Keith in math, since they had both excelled at it. But it proved the one area where Keith needed a tutor. “The way we taught and the way he learned just didn’t match,” she says.

There is also the problem of expertise. As kids get older, math and science curricula can advance beyond their parents’ understanding. “A common concern for a lot of families is that when you get to high-school level, math or science gets hard, and they don’t feel capable of teaching it,” says Wyatt. Also, providing hands-on lab experience in biology and chemistry can be difficult. But there are many resources available on the Internet, such as computer-based biology experiments, and some community colleges allow high-school-aged students to enroll in classes, including lab-based science courses.

Parents who stay with homeschooling for the long haul face challenges preparing their children for college. In some states, it can be difficult to acquire the high-school diploma necessary not only for college admission but also for federal aid. Warshaw is now working with North Atlantic Regional High School, an accredited private school in Lewiston, ME. Schools like North Atlantic offer to keep track of homeschoolers’ coursework and test scores, provide tutoring services, and, when students have met state criteria, issue diplomas.

None of the MIT alums who homeschool say that they are mandating college for their kids, though. The Webbs have set up a college fund and are encouraging David to go but say the decision is up to him. Warshaw is leaving it to Keith to choose when he wants to enroll. Curtis and Bidigare have similar thoughts about their children’s futures. “I want them to have their options open. That means taking all the classes,” says Curtis. “But I would not be disappointed if none of them wanted to go to college.”

Homeschoolers at MIT
For those home-educated students who do embark on college careers, MIT is certainly an option. In the last four years, the number of homeschooled MIT applicants has nearly doubled. In that same span, the Institute has admitted on average about 14 percent of homeschooled students, compared to 15 percent of traditionally schooled kids. But homeschooled applicants form a much smaller group—about 50 per year—than applicants from public or private high schools—around 10,500. And according to MIT dean of admissions Marilee Jones, the homeschooled students are “absolutely extraordinary or not even close.” Those who are admitted have the same characteristics as most other MIT students, says Jones: they’re emotionally flexible, take risks, are not easily shaken, pursue their interests (not their parents’), and yearn to go out on their own.

But even for those homeschoolers who get in, the transition to MIT is not always easy. Sarah Huber ’02, who is currently pursuing a master’s in international finance at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs and interning at a startup in New York City, says she had a hard time applying to college and then easing into undergraduate life. She received most of her secondary education at home, except her last year, which she spent at a community college. When she was applying to colleges, she was frustrated and concerned because she had no teachers or counselors to advise her. She also worried that her lack of a foreign language and of opportunities for leadership experience would put her at a great disadvantage. But to her relief, MIT accepted her. Once she got there, however, other problems loomed. “The transition was more difficult socially than academically,” she says. Huber reasons that she, like many homeschooled children, emulated the adults around her: “While I was confident and comfortable around older adults, I had a great deal of difficulty interacting with and relating to people my own age.” Now that she has graduated, she knows that her experience at MIT helped her become more socially confident. In her opinion, “Many MIT students are similar to the stereotypical homeschooled student anyway, in being very independent, hardworking, and socially awkward.”

Not all homeschoolers have such a hard time, though. Heather Jones ’05 spent most of her school years in public and private institutions but switched to learning at home at the beginning of her sophomore year in high school. She took classes at local community colleges, signed up for online courses, and enrolled in summer programs at various universities. She passed all of her advanced-placement tests and also took the SAT and ACT exams. Being able to explore most of the subjects that appealed to her as a teenager was an invaluable experience for Jones. By the time she got to MIT, she felt focused on her end goal: politics. “To me, it’s very strange for people to come into college and not know what they want to do,” she says. Although she had to make the social adjustment from living in a small household where she didn’t get out much to being on her own, she says her community-college and summer-school experiences made it easy.

Homeschooling may not be for everyone. Certainly it presents many obstacles, both emotional and logistical. But this growing national trend is one that MIT alums are a part of. For those considering homeschooling, Sarah Huber recommends that they not take the decision lightly. “Simply offer it as a possible option if traditional schooling is failing for some reason, and you have the resources, commitment, guidance of educational professionals, and adequate social network to make it a success.”

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