Charting a movement: Variations on homeschooling

Education. Homeschooling families in New York and New Jersey share their perspectives on the growth of the educational movement and how homeschooling works for them.

28 Dec 2019 | 11:23

In her 15 years of homeschooling, Melissa Newell of Chester has seen a lot of ups and downs.

“I think with anything, there’s trends that fluctuate and go up and down, depending on what’s happening in the world,” she said. “You’ll see that.”

Currently educating the three of her four children who live at home, Newell said it’s difficult to pigeonhole homeschooling.

“People do it for different reasons,” she said. “I think there’s a big influx of people doing it now because they don’t want to vaccinate their kids, whereas a few years ago there was a big influx because they didn’t like what was going on with Common Core.”

Homeschooling tends to be more popular in states where it is less regulated, Newell said.

“New York State loves to have paperwork, they love documentation,” she said. “They love to keep their finger on the pulse of everything. As long as you do what you’re supposed to do, most of the districts leave you alone.”

Newell said she began homeschooling as a second-time mom’s response to what she saw as the schools failing children.

“If you weren’t at the bottom of the chart, where you needed remedial help, or you weren’t at the top, where you excelled, you really didn’t get the help or the attention that you might have needed,” she said. “You didn’t get any ‘Atta boys!’ and you didn’t get any ‘Let’s stay after and help you out.’”

Homeschooling’s flexibility is what appealed to her, because it allowed her to create routines for her family that worked better than those of the traditional public schools.

But Newell said the term is somewhat misleading, at least in her situation.

“I wouldn’t even call it homeschooling,” she said. “That’s just the way we live.”

As year-round schoolers, Newell said she takes different curriculum approaches with her different children, though there are elements, such as the ability to take frequent field trips, that she’s done with all of them.

“We were able to join the Bronx Zoo and go at off times,” she said. “So we were able to talk to the curators because they weren’t as busy and we were able to explore more avenues because there weren’t crowds of people.”

In addition to the book work, which begins at 9:30 a.m. in the Newell home, following breakfast and chores, there is an emphasis on real world education.

“We would go to the grocery store and use that as math and science and English,” Newell said. “We would talk to the fish guy and he would pull a map out and he would show us where the salmon came from and he would talk about the geography of that area and why that water was better for one kind of fish and not another.”

Similarly, home improvement projects, such as having a new roof installed, became learning opportunities for her children, Newell said.

“We’d ask the roof guys, ‘What’s that material you’re using? How long is it going to last? What’s it made of? Where does it come from?’” she said. “My kids are inquisitive like that; they’re looking for knowledge. That’s the way they were brought up.”

A cross between unschooling and traditional school, Newell said her children will direct their own curriculum if they’re motivated enough.

“They’ll self-teach something they’re really interested in,” she said. “They want to learn how to braid their hair, they look it up on a YouTube video and then they braid their hair.”

Newell said she noticed something of a homeschooling ripple effect when a friend came to visit recently and commented on the impact Newell’s home environment had on her two daughters.

“She said, ‘The one thing I love about coming to your house is, because your kids aren’t in public school, my kids tend to act more their age,’” Newell said. “‘They’ll still play, they’ll still do art, they’ll still get Play Doh out – they’ll still do things they wouldn’t do if their public school friends were in front of them.’”

Although she has homeschooled for nearly two decades, Newell stressed that her children would be free to attend public school if they wanted to.

“My husband and I are not anti-public school – we both went to public school quite fine,” she said. “We’re just pro-home school.”

“A good homeschooling state”

After nine years of public school, Wendy Fabian, of Stillwater, had had enough.

“I just happen to be a mom that finally said, ‘You know what? She’s mine, she belongs to me and I’m done with all of you,’” she said.

Her daughter had struggled since the third grade, and Fabian and her husband decided to pull her out and homeschool when Common Core education standards arrived in New Jersey in 2010.

“I used to tell the school, ‘You’re ruining my relationship with my family,’” she said. “It wasn’t just my daughter – it was my whole entire family. I’m yelling at her, she’s crying, my husband’s yelling at me.”

Without a medical diagnosis, however, the school district could not give her any extra help, Fabian said.

“Finally, I take her to a neurologist who diagnosis my kid with ADHD,” she said. “Now they can modify her work for her. They had no problem with me getting a prescription for my kid – who I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, did not have ADHD.”

From Fabian’s perspective, something was very wrong.

“I think this is one of the biggest reasons why homeschooling is being talked about so much,” she said. “Parents are frustrated. They feel like they don’t have a choice, and they do.”

With both her and her husband working full time, Fabian said she found a free online curriculum for her daughter to use during the day.

“My daughter was old enough and trustworthy enough to be home,” she said. “I’ve had parents say to me, ‘Oh my God, I could never trust my kid to be home by themselves all day,’ and, to me, that’s just a parenting fail, plain and simple.”

What it came down to, for Fabian, was the quality of the school environment for her daughter.

“She was safer and more secure inside these four walls than she was inside those four,” she said. “I had learned enough about homeschooling that her education was going to come. They learn every single day. We can cook together, we can shop together, we’ll do fractions and percentages.”

Now 19, Fabian’s daughter graduated last year and is continuing her education in the real world.

“I tell my daughter, ‘You better not be bringing home any babies until you know how you are going to educate that child outside of the system,’” she said. “As a whole, I think we need to take a couple steps back and start realizing that those family values and parents raising their own children again is the core of all that is good.”

Sparta resident Kristin Jackson is the first to admit her homeschooling journey is anything but conventional.

“(It’s) something that I would have never considered,” she said. “I was a teacher, and I come from a family of public school teachers.”

Jackson began homeschooling her now 9-year-old daughter four years ago after a medical diagnosis made her rethink her education.

“She was diagnosed with a severe migraine disorder and ended up getting pulled out of school by her doctors at the end of the year,” she said. “The pediatrician is the one who said to me, ‘I think you need to consider homeschooling.’”

Because of the freedom homeschooling provides, Jackson said she doesn’t have to worry about scheduling her daughter’s medical appointments, and her sick days don’t interfere with her education.

“We just kind of fell into it and, my goodness, it’s become such a blessing!” she said.

Now mother to a 5-year-old son as well, Jackson said teaching both of her children is reminiscent of early American education, where multiple ages and abilities all learned together in a one-room schoolhouse.

“It becomes second nature, and there are things that he knows simply from hearing me work with Grace,” she said. “If we’re doing a science lesson, why wouldn’t I do the lesson with both of them? Gracie could do a little bit more and he does what he can.”

Getting to that place in her thinking, though, took a little time.

“When I started I thought, ‘This would be impossible,’ but it just works,” she said. “You just do it as a family.”

Although the number of homeschoolers cannot be verified by the state Department of Education, Jackson said anecdotally that the movement is growing.

“I was astounded, even when we first started, at how many groups there were,” she said. “There are so many homeschoolers – you just have to find them.”

Unlike New York, New Jersey does not regulate or accredit homeschooling programs. The state also does not track or collect any data on the numbers of homeschooled students, according to Michael Yaple, director of Public Information for the New Jersey Department of Education.

“New Jersey is known as a good homeschooling state because you don’t have (regulation) hanging over your head,” Jackson said. “New York and Pennsylvania have very strict guidelines, which is strange because they’re the states that border us.”

As things stand now, New Jersey parents who choose to homeschool their children are responsible for their educational outcomes, but Jackson said she errs on the side of caution.

“To be on the safe side, I always keep her work from previous years, just in case,” she said. “Who knows when the laws are going to change and you’re going to have to start showing portfolios?”

In a sampling of school districts across Orange County, there was a net decrease in the number of homeschoolers in kindergarten through 12th grade from 2017 to 2019, according to data from the New York State Education Department.
Between Chester, Goshen, Monroe-Woodbury, Tuxedo, Warwick, Greenwood Lake and Florida there were 148 students being homeschooled during the 2016-2017 school year.
As of the 2018-2019 school year, that number fell to 142, with the largest decrease of 12 students being seen in the Warwick Valley Central School District.
Greenwood Lake Union Free School District had the largest increase, with 14 students being homeschooled in 2016-2017 jumping to 22 students in 2018-2019.
We would talk to the fish guy and he would pull a map out and he would show us where the salmon came from and he would talk about the geography of that area and why that water was better for one kind of fish and not another.”
- Melissa Newell