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As home-schooling moves to mainstream, stigma fades

Evidence suggests that home-schooling is a growing trend in America, and the home-schoolers of yesteryear, stereotyped as socially awkward, religiously dogmatic and ill-prepared for the real world, aren’t representative of those who currently do it.
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Fifteen-year-old Tess Rodrigues is a typical teenager: She spends her free time at the mall, hangs out with friends and stays connected on Facebook.

But unlike most 10th-graders, Tess is home-schooled by her mother, and supplements her studies in marine biology, Spanish and world history with help from a weekly home-school co-op group.

“My mom and I laugh a lot and have fun,” Tess said. “And with the work, I get to go at my own pace, unlike a regular classroom. I can speed through lessons that are easy, and take time to go over things if I don’t get them.”

Her mother, Lisa Landis Rodrigues, started home-schooling her three children when they were in second, fourth and fifth grade.

“I’m not anti-school at all — I think teachers are awesome and I think most schools are great,”  said the Rhode Island mom. “But morally, I think they go way too fast. I wanted my 10-year-old to be a 10-year-old, not get caught up in how other kids dress and act, so I decided to home-school them.”

Though such students represent an estimated 3 percent of the population, evidence suggests that home-schooling is a growing trend in America. While most say faith is their primary motivation, others choose this path for a variety of reasons that include dissatisfaction with the local school system, caring for special-needs kids, safety concerns, flexibility to travel and the chance to spend more time with their children.

And, proponents say, the home-schoolers of yesteryear, stereotyped as socially awkward, religiously dogmatic and ill-prepared for the real world, aren’t representative of current home-schoolers who more closely mirror the mainstream.

“Whenever I meet new people or join a new group, I don’t usually tell them that I was home-schooled — it’s like a wild card in my back pocket,” said Brooks Nelson, a confident, outgoing 25-year-old from Iowa who was home-schooled for his entire pre-college education. “Once I get to know them and tell them, they are blown away, they are surprised that I’m articulate — a lot of people have a stereotype about home-schooled students because they haven’t interacted with us.”

Nelson graduated from Iowa State University and said that he had no trouble getting acclimated to college, taking leadership positions in many extracurricular activities. Today, he works in Washington, D.C., as a coordinator at the Business Civic Leadership Center.

“While home-schooling I learned to be independent, and having the flexibility allowed me to take advantage of a variety of opportunities,” he said. “And I traveled around the country and met all kinds of people — it was a springboard to my future.”

Like Nelson, many home-schooled students fare well in college, counselors say.

“We don’t typically see them having any problems beyond what traditional students face,” said Kedra Ishop, vice provost and director of admissions at University of Texas–Austin. “For them, the challenge is navigating the admissions process because their experiences are so individualized. The socialization factor isn’t as much of an issue — otherwise a campus of 50,000 students wouldn’t be for them.”

Ishop says that in the past seven years, she has seen a steady increase in the number of home-schooled applicants, though the percentage is still minuscule. And those are only the home-schoolers who identify themselves as such. Overall, it’s hard to tell exactly how many apply, she explains.

“Home-schoolers can identify themselves as home-schoolers when they apply, or they can be affiliated with one of the many schools and consortia that have programs they are a part of. If they select the latter, we can’t identify them as home-schooled.”

Numbers? Not so simple
The blur over numbers doesn’t stop at the college level — nationally, there are various estimates as to how many home-schoolers there are.

The latest national numbers on home-schooling, extrapolated by government surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, are from 2006-2007 and estimate that 1.5 million students are home-schooled. Because it’s based on survey information, many say that the report vastly undercounts the number of home-schoolers. However, the same surveys were conducted in 2003 and 1999, and that data shows there’s been an increase of 74 percent in the past 10 years.

But why is an exact number so hard to pin down?

Two reasons, says Milton Gaither, author of “Homeschool: An American History” and a professor of education at Messiah College, a private Christian university in Pennsylvania.

One is home-schoolers’ desire to avoid government involvement — a sentiment echoed by several researchers and home-schoolers who spoke to

“Historically, many home-schoolers were suspicious of the government in the first place; they are not the type to like to be studied and many want to remain as private as possible.”

Another challenge, Gaither adds, is that regulations vary widely from state to state.

“There are 50 different laws in 50 different states, and because of this diversity, it’s impossible to have a national blanket statement about the status of home-schoolers,” said Gaither. “For some states, even if they have good policies, there’s so little money in the budgets that home-schoolers are not a priority.”

In states like Florida, school districts require parents to register their children as home-schoolers and, in turn, districts must report those numbers to the state’s department of education. But in other states, like Texas, the number of home-schoolers is not compiled. In addition, Gaither explained, the accuracy of numbers can vary from year to year.

“Sometimes it depends on who is in the state’s department of education and their funding issues — they might be thorough one year and have nothing the next.”

The actual number of home-schoolers in America is between 1.9 and 2.5 million students, says Brian D. Ray, head of the nonprofit National Home Education Research Institute. Ray culled data from private home-school organizations and co-ops to supplement statistics from state departments of education, finding that “a notable number of home-schoolers might not show up on government records.”

While there is a lack of up-to-date national statistics, states that thoroughly keep track of home-schooled students offer some recent evidence of growth. In Florida, for example, the number of home-schooled students is up 7.5 percent since 2008, and in both Ohio and Minnesota, it’s up 5 percent.

Mirroring the mainstream
As home-schooling becomes more common, the demographics and ideologies of the population are slowly broadening.

Ray’s research found that people of color currently make up about 15 percent of home-schoolers, up from less than 10 percent a decade ago.

Angela Jenkins, 39, started home-schooling her 14-year-old son two years ago because he was having speech problems and she wanted him to get more individual attention with schoolwork. When she started, Jenkins, who is black, wanted to connect with other people of color who are home-schooling.

“I really wondered if any other minorities were out there home-schooling,” said the Texas mom. “I was surprised by just how many there were!”

Jenkins started DFWhomeschoolcafe, a website originally created to connect people of color to home-schooling resources and provide a place for them to share ideas with each other. Her site is one of various sites and support groups for people of color; among them are Black Homeschoolers Club; National Black Home Educators; Mommy Maestra, a Latina home-schooling blog; various Yahoo! and Google groups for Chinese-American, Latino and Native American home-schoolers; and Homeschooling Muslimah Mommy’s — a Facebook group that offers support for Muslim parents.

The majority of home-schoolers, about 83 percent, cite religion as one of their reasons for home-schooling, and most are conservative Christians. But others are also getting in the mix.

Brennan Dean is a home-school parent and co-founder of the Midwest Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, one of several conventions held annually in cities around the country. He says that he’s seen that change firsthand.

In 2007, about 1,000 families attended the convention; in 2010, that number increased to more than 4,500 families and a total of 15,000 people. Dean asserts that his organization is “unabashedly Christian,” but says that this year, attendees were ideologically diverse.

“We wanted to make the nuts and bolts of home-schooling the primary focus, so we had home-schoolers who were Jewish, Catholic, secular, conservative, liberal — it ran the gamut.”

Not for everyone
Despite its success stories, home education doesn’t always work. Liz Barker, 32, was home-schooled for four years and says not only did it leave her ill-prepared educationally, but it affected her social skills and even created a rift within her family.

“The majority of my day was spent just me and my mom, and I really didn’t learn much,” said Barker, who grew up in Texas, where there are few regulations around home-schooling. “When I went back to school my junior year, I was completely overwhelmed and I wasn’t normal socially.”

Barker, now an accounting administrator, was home-schooled with a conservative Christian curriculum. She ended up graduating a year late and says that she didn’t speak to her mom for two years, adding that it also took her several years to have a healthy adult relationship because she was so sheltered while being home-schooled.

The bottom line, say educators, is that this path to education isn’t for everybody — but it can be a great option for some.

“There are home-school parents who are knuckleheads just like there are public school parents who are knuckleheads,” Dean said. “It’s all about parental involvement and their desire to give their kids a good education.”

So will home-schooling continue to see growth? Signs point to yes, says Robert Kunzman, associate professor at Indiana University’s School of Education.

“I’m reluctant to say it’s going to level off … I think there’s still plenty of room to grow,” said Kunzman, who has been studying home-schooling for seven years. “It’s hard to know what the root of it all is, but technology now gives parents the opportunity to encourage one another and get resources, making home-schooling more accessible than in the past.”

And if the experience of Tess Rodrigues — the 15-year-old from Rhode Island — is any indication, the stigma around home-schooling is slowly fading.

“Kids my age think it’s cool and don’t think it’s weird at all,” said Tess, who says she wants to be a veterinarian. “It’s just adults who try to put down what I’m doing and say I can’t be what I want to be — but I know that they’re wrong.”

Kyle Miller contributed to this report.