As Gwinnett County Public Schools students head back to school on Aug. 6, Amie Ray Davis prepares to begin homeschool classes for her three children just a couple of days later.
“We take a break and to be honest, following the county calendar just works out easier for us,” Davis said. “I know a lot of families that feel the same way - and I know some that follow a year round calendar.”
Davis, who lives in unincorporated Gwinnett between Loganville and Snellville, is part of the growing homeschool community. She has already homeschooled two of her children up to college level and has three more coming up through the ranks. Davis said it didn’t begin as a permanent education system for her family, that is just how it ended up.
“I started in middle school for my four oldest and the youngest was started in kindergarten,” Davis said. “My original motivation was seeing my oldest son struggle - and was only supposed to be temporary! We moved to Gwinnett County from a small school in the Cherokee County system. Their previous school was a K-6 with under 300 kids total. Needless to say, it was a bit of a shock when we moved. It was the first time that I was able to actually be a stay-at-home mom, so I figured I would do my part to help my son while I was able. From there, the temporary assistance for one turned into, ‘Hey! This is great! Let's homeschool them all.’”
In the beginning, it wasn’t quite as easy as it might seem now, Davis said.
“When I started in 2004, I was clueless. I ended up buying a box curriculum online. It turned out to be a great lesson in how to plan, teach, engage, etc. My youngest has just finished kindergarten. It's a completely different world now,” Davis said, adding the biggest challenge for her in the beginning was finding other homeschoolers with whom to connect.
“ I felt so overwhelmed and unsure about which direction to head,” Davis said. “Another early challenge was just getting into the groove daily. Outside of my youngest, this was something I faced with each child. They were used to being in each class for x amount of time, having a certain amount of classwork with lecture time, and a million rounds of standardized testing all being crammed into a certain time slot per day. Homeschool is far different, so we had a learning curve to get the hang of everything.”
Davis said her main resources now are message boards on Yahoo and networking with other parents who homeschool.
“There are three main groups that I look at on there that people post current events, classes, etc. And then we have a few associations like the GGC Barons that we turn to for 'school' sports,” Davis said. “In terms of curriculums, I have done the virtual schools, build your own, and everything in between! There are resources all around just really depending on what a parent wants. What's unique about my family is that we don't home school for religious purposes. We're in a small minority.”
Although she doesn’t have as much extra time to herself, Davis said she doesn’t feel disadvantaged in any way.
There are some things, however, that are still a little difficult to deal with – such as how to make sure her children still get the necessary social interaction through group sports.
“There are certain activities that my kids have been excluded from,” she said. “For example, my 15-year-old son has tried to find a JROTC program and has run into walls every step of the way. He even spoke directly to one of the people in charge through a public school and was basically told tough luck because this was for public school kids only. We later found out about a piece of legislation that is keeping homeschool and charter kids from participating. It was written to keep our kids from being recruited for sports purposes (and being a majority of the team), but the legislation trickled over to other programs.”
For Davis, however, the positives far outweigh any negatives. She can see that in the two of her children who have now gone on to college.
“One way is that their thinking has changed,” Davis said. “It always bothered me knowing my kids had a test coming up and seeing them studying from a list of questions with the answers. It always felt like there was very little by way of critical thinking or even utilizing testing methods like essay question or short answer questions. This mode of thinking is very important in terms of college where they focus on the individual's successes and failures.”
Davis said she also can see how homeschooling her children has increased their independence levels.
“Once we reached the high school level, a lot of the work was done independently through reading, research and hands-on work. In order to accomplish all of this, my children have had to learn the valuable lesson of proper time management,” Davis said, adding this has translated very well into the college arena. “In terms of planning, staying on top of deadlines, getting all of their reading in - and without feeling overwhelmed. Homeschool has allowed my children to focus on things that were important to them in conjunction with the required courses. This has made declaring a major a breeze for my kids. They have had years to explore and test their interests in ways that weren't available to them before.”
What it takes to homeschool
Not everyone can homeschool. Teachers are recruited to the public school system based on their education. In order to be successful, a teaching parent needs a certain level of education too. But Davis said there is more to it than just having the right education to teach.
“When my children were younger and I struggled with finding them daycare, I would always hear, ‘No one will ever love them like you,’” Davis said. “I think the same principle applies here. No one will be more invested in their success and futures than we will (and the kids, too!).”
Davis said on an academic level, she and her husband split the subjects between them, based on who is most qualified in any particular area.
“My husband and I have very diverse backgrounds. He is the engineer brain - everything is black, white and along a perfectly straight line. He has a bachelor's in Construction Management from Southern Polytechnic State University and is one class shy of a master's in Heritage Preservation from Georgia State University. He's the math and science go to,” Davis said, adding that she, however, is the exact opposite. “I see all colors of the rainbow in every direction. I have a bachelor's from Oregon State University in Liberal Studies with an emphasis on Creative Writing and Women's Studies. I handle everything else.”
For the Davis family, however, homeschool doesn’t necessary mean just staying home. Field trips can be very beneficial - and a whole lot of fun too.
“Because of flexible schedules and environments, they were able do their school work even on a cruise,” Davis said.
Included in the Davis family curriculum - learning how to work on cars, heading to Los Angeles for a “Hollywood Bound” project and target shooting, to name a few. Social activities include softball, coaching and working as camp counselors. It is all the misinformation about this part of homeschooling that Davis said make the experience more challenging than it should be.
“A main challenge that I still face is the stereotyping, judgment and criticism over my choice to homeschool,” she said. “I wish that there was more information out there to let people know that we aren't cookie cutter families that are socially depriving our children.”
In 1980, home schooling was illegal in 30 states. Now, it is legal in all 50 states with about 1.5-2 million children being homeschooled in the U.S., roughly 3 percent of school-age children nationwide, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.
In the same study, it was found that between 1999 and 2007, the number of homeschooled children rose 77 percent.The actual number may be even higher because not all parents who homeschool report information to the government. However, the general consensus is that the stigma associated with homeschooling is gone as it becomes more and more mainstream.
As for why more parents are homeschooling, it is not surprising that the highest percentage listed religious and moral instruction (36%), the next most popular reason being concerns about the school environment (21%), followed by dissatisfaction with academic instruction (17%).
There is also a trend toward co-op homeschooling where small groups of parents take turns teaching the children and/or hiring tutors to assume some of the responsibility. The image of homeschooled children spending their days sitting at the kitchen table are long gone. Today’s homeschooled are out and about with many museums offering programs to homeschoolers as well as other hands-on activities, such as nature centers. There are endless websites dedicated to non-traditional learning opportunities in addition to websites offering support and resources for homeschooling families
According to the Homeschool Progress Report 2009: Academic Achievement and Demographics, homeschoolers, on average, scored 37 percentile points above their public school counterparts on standardized achievement tests.
Almost every study touches on a few other facts. It seems homeschooled kids are far from isolated from peers, do well in social situations, and are more likely to be involved in their community. The education level of the parents had little effect on the success of their children, as did state regulations, gender of the student, or how much parents spent on education.
Speaking of spending per student, in public school about $10,000 is spent on each student, each year, as opposed the $500 spent on the average homeschooled student.
Schafer concluded by saying maybe the public school system could learn something from the homeschool community. She may just have a point there.
In Walton County, resources for parents who may consider homeschooling their children can be found online at http://waltonechoes.weebly.com