All parents want the best education for their children. Sometimes, that means the local public school, and other times it’s a private institution or nearby charter school. But, for some families, the best choice comes in homeschooling.
About 13,000 families homeschool in Maryland, according to the Maryland Home Education Association. Nationally, U.S. Department of Education statistics show homeschooling accounts for about 3.4 percent of students as of 2012, up from 2.2 percent a decade ago.
Homeschooling regulations vary from state to state. In Maryland, parents must fill out a form declaring their intent to homeschool each year. The state does require some proof of learning—either in the form of supervision from the local public school system or from a state Department of Education-approved umbrella program, often through a place of worship or homeschooling cooperative.
The reasons vary for families on why they decided on homeschooling (see sidebar), but usually one theme pops up more than once: the idea that their children would benefit outside the perceived “one-size-fits-all” education of traditional schools.
For Tracey Grumbach and her family, it really was driven by the needs of the children. Her two oldest, 19-year-old Tyler and 17-year-old Brenna did well in school and either have or will be graduating from the family’s local public school in Harford County.
Her two youngest, adopted 8-year-old twins Natalie and Zachary, had a harder time in school due to a number of different circumstances. She noticed Zachary was bored by the work and starting to exhibit behavioral issues as a result. Natalie, on the other hand, was falling behind. So, Grumbach took them out of school.
Additionally, because the twins first came to the family at nearly 2-years-old, Grumbach wanted more time to bond with them, like she’d had with her older children.
“I felt like I was missing a huge part of their life,” she says.
It helped that Grumbach, an elementary school teacher by trade, knew more or less what she was getting into. She ultimately chose curriculum from The Calvert School and altered it as necessary to fit her children’s needs.
Grumbach says she often hears the stereotype that all homeschoolers are religious and anti-social, but says that is not the case for her family and many other homeschooling families she knows. There was no religious reasoning the family decided to homeschool; instead, it was driven by their desire to provide the education they felt their children needed.
And, she says, homeschool kids are often just as social—and socialized—as kids in traditional schools. Grumbach has been part of a homeschooling cooperative, which was a mix of both religious and secular families, which taught some classes and allowed kids to socialize. Plus, Grumbach goes out of her way to schedule play dates and activities with other kids.
Grumbach says that while homeschooling works for her family, she is well aware that it may not be the right choice for everyone.
“It’s up to each family to decide,” she says.
Rashida Simmons and Mar Braxton, both Baltimore born and raised, sort of just fell into homeschooling their son, Kendi, 8. Braxton works in Washington, D.C. and Simmons was staying home with Kendi when he was young, as well as providing home daycare for friends.
While staying home with Kendi and the other kids, Simmons was providing early education along with play. They enrolled Kendi in kindergarten, but found he was ahead of many of his classmates, both academically and physically. Kendi, now 8, is the size of a healthy 12-year-old, his doctor has told Simmons. It provided unique challenges in identifying with his peer group and also with teachers thinking he was older than he was. The schedule, too, was proving to be hard on the family.
“It took maybe three months before we realized it didn’t work for us,” she says.
So, Simmons brought him home. She uses the state education standards as her guide, but takes a more “un-schooling” approach. She ensures that he covers all the ground he needs to for the grade level he’s in—currently, most of Kendi’s academic work is about a 5th-grade level—but otherwise allows his interests to direct his learning.
She and her husband have also appreciated that homeschooling gives them the opportunity to talk to their son about current events in the world—including recent racial violence and tensions—and address any questions he may have in their own terms.
So far, it’s been working well and Simmons will likely also homeschool her youngest son, Aman, who turned 1 in May.
Even though neither Grumbach nor Simmons chose to homeschool for religious reasons, there is still a strong community of families who do, particularly in Christianity. The Maryland Association of Christian Home Educators has a membership of more than 4,500 families, according to its website, and many of the state Department of Education-approved umbrella organizations are churches or other ministry education.
Nationally, as of 2012, the U.S. Department of Education found that, of those families choosing to homeschool, about two-thirds (64 percent) were doing it for religious reasons. An even higher percentage (77 percent) said they chose homeschooling to provide a “moral instruction.” The majority of these families are Christian, but there are families of other faiths who also choose to homeschool.
Ja’Near Garrus, the director of Greater Baltimore Christian Homeschoolers, has been homeschooling her children since her oldest, now 8, was in preschool. Her son, Ryan, started at a private Christian school, but the family realized quickly—within the first month—that it wasn’t a good fit, Garrus says.
Now, both Ryan and her other son, Azariah, 5, are homeschooled, and she will be starting preschool activities with her daughter, Hillary, 3, this year. For the first year, Garrus chose a curriculum that mirrored what her son’s private Christian school would have taught, A beka—a Christian curriculum that teaches from a Bible literalist perspective. In the years since, she has moved away from any one curriculum and instead uses a variety of different resources depending on what she thinks will work well with her children—different textbooks, library books, online resources, etc.
“The religious benefits were just an added bonus to the academic benefits,” she says of her family’s decision to homeschool.
For the state-required check-ins, Garrus chose a Christian umbrella organization, the Conowingo Rising Sun Christian School. The GBC Homeschoolers group acts as a place for socializing and enrichment activities with other families who share their Christian values. Homeschooling has helped in embracing and teaching those values, Garrus says. As a family, they can do things like read the Bible, pray and talk about current events through the lens of their faith.
“I do hope to [homeschool] for the long term,” she says. “I’ve seen [my children] grow academically and as people.”
Whatever the reason for each family, homeschooling has been on a fairly steady rise since the Department of Education started keeping track of homeschooled kids in the ’90s. Grumbach, Simmons and Garrus all felt Maryland had done a good job of balancing the state’s desire for regulation with parents’ desire to dictate the education of their children. As it hits the mainstream, more families are opting for the flexibility and control over what their children are learning.
Homeschooling, it seems, is just hitting its stride.