Personal connection to homeschooling series

The year was 1977. I saw “Star Wars” that year. My daughter was born that year. I never connected the two events until I started thinking about my editor’s request for me to do a story on homeschooling. I homeschooled my daughter for four years beginning in 1984 and I wasn’t sure whether that was going to help or hinder my efforts to write an objective and interesting story.

During research and interviews, the crawler from “Star Wars” kept coming to mind. The time I homeschooled seemed long ago and it might have been a different galaxy.

I am no longer actively involved in homeschooling, but I do have a sense of history about the subject. When I told the superintendent of our school district, Westmoreland Central School (near Rome, N.Y.), of my intention to teach my daughter, he wasn’t quite sure what to do with me. Although there were homeschoolers elsewhere in the state, we were the first family in the district to make such a request. Regulation 100.10 Home Instruction did not exist. There was no packet of information to mail to a family at that time. Neither the acronym IHIP (individual homeschool instruction plan) nor the format for the IHIP had been developed.

In contrast to the brief letter of intent required today, my original written request was part legal brief. I spent hours in the law library in Utica, looking up cases about the subject, one of which went back to the 1950s. It was part of my job to convince the district I had the right to homeschool. I didn’t give much of a philosophical argument. Most teachers favored individualized instruction. To me, homeschooling was individualized instruction taken to its logical conclusion. Legally, I did not have to prove I could do “better.” I simply wrote I could do at least as much as the school could. I am a permanently certified teacher in Nursery through 6 and Social Studies 7-12 so there was no argument about whether I was qualified to teach. After looking up what subjects were mandated, I provided an eclectic listing of what books and methods I would use.

Requests for homeschooling are now approved by the superintendent of a district. Only if an appeal process is necessary do school boards come into the picture. The summer before we began, a resolution was introduced at a board of education meeting to allow my husband and me to homeschool.

The superintendent advised I not go to the meeting. The Rome Sentinel covered the story, noting one member of the board voted against the resolution. He said he understood parents doing this if the child was ill and unable to attend to school, but not for my reason. When the reporter called for my reaction to his comment, I was very careful to only repeat to her what was in my plan, that I could provide for my daughter’s education as well as the school. I also expressed gratitude to the board for passing the resolution and said I looked forward to working with my child.

There was no local policy on homeschooling, although later another school district asked for my input when they wrote one. There was no requirement to submit quarterly reports; there was no specific reporting requirement at all.

I decided to submit monthly reports. My theory was to give the officials full information, and maybe more than was needed. Reports seemed to reassure the administration. I set up a template on our Apple IIe computer and just modified the information each month. After the second year, doing the report was part of my daughter’s schoolwork. Since she was working well beyond her grade level, I didn’t worry about proving she was on grade level.

Anneke went to the public school each year during testing time. She always did amazingly well. We confined our efforts to making sure she understood the format of the test and gave her some test taking tips (Don’t dawdle over a question you don’t know, and make sure to check to see you are answering the question in the right space.) The only time I taught to the test, was when she was invited to take the SAT early (middle school) to qualify for Johns Hopkins’ summer program for the gifted.

I invited the superintendent to visit us each year at the end of the year. The first superintendent never bothered. The next year the new superintendent accepted the invitation. A wonderful educator, he became a trusted partner. He allowed us to homeschool half-time the year before my daughter re-entered the system full-time as a high school freshman. This was a violation of policy on homeschooling in New York state, but he decided it was the right thing to do for Anneke. He helped me with her placement for half-time, making sure she got the best math teacher and placing her ahead a year in every subject and two years in math. He wrote a wonderful letter of reference for her when we decided to send her to Mary Baldwin College’s PEG (Program for Exceptionally Gifted) in Virginia after her freshman year in high school.

My daughter had a high capacity for academics. She recognized letters early and read pretty fluently at age 2. On the other hand, physical tasks were a problem for her. My original research to meet her needs centered on gifted education. Well before she was school age, I tried to be prepared. I sat on a committee for gifted education in my district. I attended conferences about gifted education. I talked to the principal of an elementary school in Rome who was well-respected for his knowledge and practice in the field. He was excited about planning a program for Anneke and made a request to allow her to attend his school. We could afford tuition, but we couldn’t afford to move into the district. Our request was rejected. The Rome district did not allow anyone outside the district to attend.

Despite a committee, the local school never implemented a comprehensive gifted program. We sent her to an alternative school for pre-school and kindergarten and then a Catholic school. No one was deliberately unkind, but neither did they understand what my daughter needed as well as I did. The truth is either my husband or I figured out how to meet her needs. Rather than advocating for her within the system and trying to change the system, I cut out the middle man and just instructed her myself. It saved time and cut down on my stress level.

I never felt we fully fit into the homeschooling community that was developing. In our area, there were two main types of homeschoolers. The larger group was evangelical Christians. The other group was what has come to be known as unschoolers. I genuinely liked and respected some in each group, and often gave my expertise to provide workshops. I wrote for homeschooling magazines and with another teacher turned homeschooler offered a course called “Teach Your Own” through the continuing education department of Mohawk Valley Community College. The course was geared for homeschoolers as well as those parents who sent their children to school but wanted to take a more active role in their children’s education.

Although at times the path was difficult, we had fun learning. We learned about our community through the use of community resources, making friends of librarians, museum staff, and instructors such as the swim teachers and our music teacher. Our vacations were geared to what we did in school. For example, we visited Prince Edward Island in Canada after my daughter became fascinated with the Anne of Green Gables books. We even brought back books by Lucy Maude Montgomery that weren’t in print in the United States at that time. Both my husband and I like to learn so we became informed about topics we may not have otherwise considered.

As I wrote about homeschooling now, I found some things had not changed. Gina Gerace spoke to me of her teaching background and her feeling that while her children would do fine in school, she wanted more. Susan Hillman talked about her philosophy of enriching her children’s lives through wide use of community resources and travel. I saw Jenna Heim in action at the Westfield library. Enthusiastic about teaching and learning, she told me how “seamlessly” lessons seem to fit together. What she meant was study about a topic could go across many separate school subjects. (For example studying a historical event can lead to a consideration of literature of the time, writing, spelling, music and cooking.)

For Gina, too many misconceptions about homeschooling arise from the subject of socialization, sometimes phrased as “How will they make friends?” I have heard it asked way too many times. Worse still are those who just consider it fact that all homeschooled children are socially inept. I have heard a lot of this through the years, especially from people who don’t know any homeschoolers.

For me one of the most amusing things I learned was that Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace’s family is homeschooled. The humor stems from the fact that some children and a few adults were absolutely sure we were going to be arrested. Gina laughed and said at least if she and her children were arrested, they could talk to their dad.

I asked my daughter, who now works for the New York State Office of Child and Family Services and is working on her Ph.D., for her thoughts about her homeschooling experience and the practice in general

She wrote, “The point is that I think that for certain children, in certain situations, homeschooling is the best possible option, and I was almost definitely one of those special cases. However, a lot of homeschooling is done for reasons that are questionable at best, and those people are a problem for homeschooling families that absolutely need the option for a truly serious reason.”

Jolene Walker Nelson is the daughter of the woman with whom I co-taught the “Teaching Your Own” class at Mohawk Valley Community College. To Jolene and her sister, I became “Aunt Diane.”

Jolene wrote, “Yes, the experience was definitely positive … I really can’t think of any regrets I have about being homeschooled. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I was homeschooled ‘successfully’ from pre-K through 12th grade, because I do believe that it’s not for everyone. I think there can be more than one way to homeschool ‘well,’ but I think my parents gave us an excellent combination of time at home and time with other kids and adults in many settings. As a private school teacher today, witnessing the amount of time teachers have to spend on classroom control and bureaucracy even in a fairly small school, I realize that we had time for all those extra activities because we could get our academic work done in much less time – or spend longer on schoolwork that we didn’t understand or really enjoyed. I would definitely consider homeschooling as an option for my own children unless I encounter a serious reason why they would personally be better suited to classroom education.”

Diane Chodan is an OBSERVER Staff Writer. Comments on may be sent to dchodan@observertoday.com