The two-story, brick house is tidy, inside and out. Nary a stray Barbie shoe or Lego lurks to pierce the soft underbelly of feet as homeschooling mother of four Brittany Thomas gives a tour of her 1920s-era home, shared with husband Justin Thomas and their four children.
Self-described as “green” and “crunchy,” Thomas and her family live in Seattle. He works and she stays home, but little else about them adheres to the now-aging stereotype of homeschool families. Instead of a frazzled mother on the fringes of suburbia, Thomas is collected and organized, with a laid-back, yet purposeful, approach to the home education of her children.
She is one of an increasing number of city-dwellers choosing to opt out of traditional schooling in the Seattle area. It’s not difficult to see why: Washington state is well below the national graduation average at 76 percent, tied for 32nd along with California, Utah and West Virginia, and decreasing — down nearly a percentage point from 2011.
“With the increase in families’ dissatisfaction with the ‘traditional school’ and not being able to afford private institutions, homeschooling continues to grow in Washington state,” said Anna Johnson, family liaison for the North Seattle-based Cascade Parent Partnership (CPP) Program.
Thomas, who was also homeschooled, feels that the individual instruction and one-on-one attention children receive from home-based education is invaluable to the learning process.
“You get to make sure that you actually understand what you’re being taught,” Thomas said.
And it shows. According to a study done by the University of St. Thomas in 2009, homeschooled students ranked much higher than their public-school counterparts, surpassing public (and private) students’ test scores in nearly every subject.
Flexible learning, interaction
In addition to the academic benefits, a flexible schedule is a boon to busy families. Homeschooled students, like public-school students, must have a yearly total of 180 days or 1,000 hours in grades 1 through 12, but how and when those hours are met is entirely up to the family.
“We love [learning from] events that happen on the weekends,” said homeschooling mother Amber Callahan. “That is what I like about homeschooling: It’s fluid, and learning can happen anywhere.”
Callahan, who teaches son Seamus, 8, at home, keeps a relatively structured schedule during the week. Starting around 9 a.m., she teaches Seamus three or four lessons per day, in half-hour intervals, taking breaks often to “get out the wiggles.” She uses a mix of purchased curriculum and materials from the library, as well as writing some of her own.
Washington laws are relatively flexible on the type of curriculum used, as long as students complete certain units for each grade, such as math, science, reading, physical education, art, language and so on. Parents can choose to write their own, buy pre-made sets or some combination.
Equally flexible is parent certification: Homeschooling parents in this state without at least 45 college credits have several alternative routes to eligibility: a stamp of “sufficient qualification” received from a local school superintendent, a completed Parent Qualifying Course or weekly supervision by a certified teacher.
Despite myriad benefits of home education, there are challenges, particularly for the parent doing the schooling: If kids are constantly at home, so are they.
“The break that most parents get, I don’t get,” Thomas said. “If I wanted to continue my education or work part-time — well, those things have to wait.”
As for the kids, often the greatest disadvantage is lack of peer interaction — although, according to Thomas, it’s only a problem if not compensated for. In Seattle, homeschool centers (such as CPP) offer a variety of supplementary classes for K-12 students. Some, like
CPP, are publicly funded; others are parent-organized and volunteer-staffed. Aside from providing a break for parents, they supply much-needed socialization for home-educated students. Such integration is crucial to development, even if academic success isn’t stunted, educators say.
While it’s been legal in all 50 states since 1993, homeschooling is not federally regulated, so each state is free to implement its own standard for home education and the certifications required for parents. Neighboring state Idaho, for example, has a “no-regulation” statute, perhaps explaining why Akin’s home education was without school-district check-ups or co-op supplement.
According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, Washington state has “moderate regulation,” meaning there are some limits and rules around homeschooling but they are relatively non-interfering. A downside to this is underrepresentation, as not all homeschoolers comply with the moderate laws for registration (a Declaration of Intent form is to be submitted by each homeschooling family to its local school district), and not all districts report the numbers they do have. Further, districts do not count children under age 8, as this is when compulsory attendance technically begins.
Despite the ambiguity, the Washington Homeschool Organization estimates that 30,000 children are homeschooled statewide, outside of the more than 1 million publicly and privately enrolled Washington students.
Also, families who homeschool must pay out-of-pocket for curriculum and materials but bear the same tax load as their public-school-utilizing neighbors. Costs can be mitigated through participation in publicly funded charter schools or resource centers (some offer free or reduced-price curriculum) or enrollment in an Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) program, a hybrid of public education and independent home study. ALE students are provided for by the school district, but ALE parents do not have the same liberties (such as incorporating faith into teaching or opting out of standardized testing) as independent homeschooling families.
For children who toddle into (or out of) the traditional school system, results vary. Molly Christman, a third-grade teacher at a private K-8 school in Seattle, observed the transition in her classroom and saw success.
“[Homeschooled kids] initially seemed a little overwhelmed in the classroom without that one-on-one attention,” she said. “Overall, though, they did great.”
University of Washington student Meredith Barrett was homeschooled from the third through seventh grades and afterward entered the public-school system. Although she adapted socially and academically, she admitted feeling like she had missed some experiences.
“I don’t want to say ‘regret,’ but I feel like I would be further along if I wasn’t [homeschooled],” Barrett said. “Also, I have a lot of test anxiety, and I think that’s just because I didn’t have that when I was younger and so I didn’t get used to it. Now I have to deal with it in my college years.”
Ballard’s Jo Simonian, who homeschooled her now-college-aged boys through the majority of their elementary years, has noticed an attitude shift: “It seems like more and more people are [homeschooling],” Simonian said, “and for lots of different reasons — not just because of religion. I think people used to look down on it and think, ‘You’re crazy,’ but people are doing it now because it works.”
In 2010, an estimated 2 million children were homeschooled nationally — nearly double the 1.2 million counted in 2000 — according to the National Home Education Research Institute. And although there is no official data on the growth of homeschooling in Washington state, ALE participants have decreased from 4,656 in 2009-10 to 2,397 this year, indicating a rise in independent homeschooling families in this state.
“The biggest fear I had was, ‘Am I going to be able to teach them to read?’” Thomas said. “Once we got over that hump, it was easy.”