When ‘back to school’ takes place at home

For many families, the end of the summer means preparing their children for school in the fall: buying school supplies, reviewing schedules, and bidding farewell to sleeping in.

But on the first first day of the public-school year, homeschooling parents in the area will be doing something else: having a “Not-Back-to-School” picnic together, said Paulette Ryder, of Medusa.

“It’s a celebration of homeschoolers not having to set their alarms, not having to stress for tests … it’s a celebration of freedom,” she said, adding later that is a freedom from these “physical and mental or academic constraints of traditional schooling.”

Ryder — who lives in the Greenville school district — has raised three children who have been schooled at home, entirely or partly. She began home instruction in 1996, and her youngest child graduated this year and is now attending college. But she can recall the activities and anticipation of the back-to-school season as a homeschooling parent.

“It’s magnified with homeschooling because at the beginning of each year the parents and the students can decide what they want to learn,” she said.

How to “find each other”

The picnic is representative of an aspect of homeschooling that can be very important to both parents and students, establishing a sense of community. While their children are playing, parents will exchange curricula and other ideas for the upcoming school year, Ryder said. In the past, she was either active in or leading groups of homeschooling parents in the area, although she also founded and ran her own private school for some time.

“It can be hard to find each other,” she said of parents who teach their kids at home since  school districts cannot give out information on other homeschooled students.

Ellen Doolin, a homeschooling parent, was praised at the July Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board meeting for helping the district develop a policy that would allow homeschooled students to participate in some BKW activities. Homeschooled students are not allowed to play on interscholastic school teams in New York State, but individual school districts may decide whether or not to allow students to partake in intramural sports and other extracurricular activities.

At its August meeting, the BKW Board unanimously approved an updated policy that will now allow homeschooled students to play in intramural sports.

Ryder, while she believes homeschooled students should be able to participate in school activities, objects to the idea that homeschooled students lose out on the social activities found at public schools.

“The one thing that I hear the most is they don’t know how to socialize,” she said. She says that homeschooled students are often engaged in social activities, including Scouts, in 4-H clubs, Little League, or the YMCA.

Who homeschools today?

At the July school board meeting, Superintendent Timothy Mundell said that there are currently 40 students homeschooled in the BKW school district, down from 53 three years ago. BKW currently has 762 enrolled students. In the Guilderland school district, 52 students are homeschooled, 505 attend private schools, and about 4,900 are enrolled in district schools, said Demian Singleton, the assistant superintendent for instruction at Guilderland. So just under 1 percent of students are homeschooled in Guilderland.

“I’m really not sure it is disproportionate in the Hilltowns,” Ryder said. “Homeschooling is a really … growing phenomenon.”

According to information from the United States Office of Non-Public Education, there was a jump of over 50 percent for the estimated number of homeschooled students between 1999 and 2012, from 850,000 to 1.8 million. In contrast, the total population of the United States increased by a little under 9 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to census records. The rate of homeschooling increased from 1.7 percent to 3.4 percent.

Ryder attributes this, in part, to more awareness about homeschooling with the advent of the internet and social media, but also believes other parents may have reacted to what she described as a change in public education.

Ryder had studied education at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, and was in the midst of student teaching in the 1980s when she said she saw individual needs often weren’t being met in schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the 1980s started a trend that continued into the 1990s of focusing on student output, including standardized tests and proficiency exams.

Ryder said she also reacted — and believes other parents feel the same — to the “demoralization of today’s youth” due to a change in popular culture; parents have also come to her with concerns about physical violence at public schools, she said. She believes that homeschooling is an answer to this since a family’s morals can be reinforced at home.

According to the Office of Non-Public Education, the top answer parents gave for homeschooling was a “concern about environment of other schools,” followed by a “desire to provide moral instruction,” and a “dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools.”

A typical homeschooled student — at least according to information gathered in 2012 from the National Center on Education Statistics — is white, “nonpoor,” with one parent who works and another who does not. About 40 percent live in rural areas, according to the report.

Ryder said that, while homeschooling, her family had to budget its money for school supplies and lessons. She said that parents who may want to keep earning money while homeschooling could work from home, or part-time. But she says the benefits of being able to see her children and have less stress is worth it.

Lesson planning

As summer draws to a close, Lee Ackerman-Sawyer has finished up a weekly STEAM Lab program at the Westerlo Public Library. The pilot program, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, offers both individual activities and group instruction, allowing students to learn in a variety of ways.

“This is popular for both homeschool and conventional school students,” she said.

Ackerman-Sawyer will soon be preparing programs that will run during the school year that can be offered to preschoolers, homeschooled students, and students in public or private schools at both the Westerlo and the Rensselaerville libraries. At Rensselaerville, another STEAM program will be offered on Tuesdays, with a label on the website describing it as a homeschool program.

“I piloted my STEAM Lab in Westerlo this summer,” she said.

Ackerman-Sawyer has worked for the Westerlo library for seven years, and the Rensselaerville library for about two years. She has observed and met homeschooling parents at both libraries where they do research for their curricula, she said.

“They do a tremendous amount of background work and a tremendous amount of research,” she remarked.

Ryder recalls going to the library with her children so that they could pick out books on subjects they wanted to study whether astronomy for a science portion of the curriculum or medieval history for social studies. While math and English have to have set topics, other courses do not, she said. While Ryder generally preferred writing her own lesson plans, which can be developed with research online or at the library, parents can also find lesson plans online.

“The internet has now really made it so easy … ,” she said. “You have one question … and then you Google it.”

Additionally, groups of homeschooling parents — either locally or nationally — usually meet once a week throughout the year, either online or in person, to share advice, Ryder said. Parents may also offer to teach a lesson or tutor another student within these groups, she said.

“You find a parent who can teach math, or who can teach a small group,” she said. “Or that’s when you buy the curriculum.”

Lessons varies with each parent, said Ackerman-Sawyer, from offering courses like a conventional classroom, to “unschoolers,” in which the lesson is chosen by the learner. In her programming at the libraries, Ackerman-Sawyer said she is careful to cater to all interests and learning styles.

“There’s a certain amount of sensitivity,” she said. “I like to stress the option of choice in my programs.”

This can mean that she has less of a straightforward lesson plan and “more of a flow chart,” she said. In doing a program on geology, for example, children were more interested in talking about fossils, changing the focus of the program to that. Programming often focuses on math and sciences, with lessons ranging from coding to paleontology.

“Many homeschool families look to the libraries for science and even mathematical-type programs,” Ackerman-Sawyer said, as homeschooled students often are well-instructed in literature and social studies. She surmises this may stem from “cultural biases,” in which women who may be parents now may not have been as well-trained in math and science when growing up. But there will also be a reading program offered at the library.

“I guess the key is we respect the parents’ educational philosophies and values,” Ackerman-Sawyer said.

Another aspect that varies with each family, said Ryder, is whether or not children use a regular schedule at their home for schooling. Some parents, she said, plan a schedule, while others don’t; while they must complete the same amount of hours in a year as public school students, children can take a break when they are tired, restless, or hungry, and start and finish the day when they are comfortable doing so, and incorporate other aspects of the day into their education.

“The real beauty of homeschooling is that everything’s a lesson,” Ryder said.

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