Published: Nov. 13, 1992

Mercury News Staff Writer

WHEN the first bell of school rang this fall, thousands of bright, eager-to-learn California kids didn’t run into a new classroom.

They didn’t buy back-to-school clothes, Batman backpacks or school lunch tickets. Their parents weren’t struggling with bus schedules or after-school care programs.

These kids don’t go to school as most of us know it. They’re “homeschoolers” — part of a national movement that began with Christian fundamentalists and in the past few years has grown to include parents who’ve given up on public schools.

Historically, parents pulled their kids out of school because they felt God was getting short shrift. But now, poor academic standards, differing educational philosophies, district cutbacks and classrooms spilling into hallways are the reasons parents are concluding that they can do a better job.

As the numbers grow, it has also become more socially acceptable, freeing those who once feared isolation and ostracism to choose homeschooling, a word its proponents have coined.

There’s no single reason why a*family*opts out of organized education. Sometimes it’s a lifestyle decision, sometimes it’s a refusal to accept a child’s failure, sometimes it’s a temporary measure to boost a child’s confidence or sometimes it’s just a complete rejection of compulsory education.

“In this area, I’ve met more people doing it now for philosophical reasons,” says Lucy Salcido Carter of Palo Alto, who began teaching her 8-year-old son, Danny, last January. “It isn’t just religious fanatics anymore. It’s people who have done a lot of thinking about their children’s education. People stick to school because they don’t know what else to do. They don’t consider homeschooling, but they should.”

Although the approaches differ — from accredited correspondence schools to letting kids pursue what they want that day — the families share a conviction that one-to-one learning is best and that children triumph when they learn at their own pace.

Carter, a lawyer, agonized for over a year about taking her son out of school but finally decided to when, among other things, she believed Danny’s self-esteem was suffering because he couldn’t write letters well.

“When there’s a learning time line that doesn’t fit with your child’s time line, there’s a problem,” she says. “For example, Danny’s math and reading skills are very high but (the school) said his letter formation isn’t good. So, he said, ‘I’m not good at writing. I don’t like writing.’ Where did he get that message?”

Unhappy with the message, Carter made the break.

The majority of people doing this are like Carter, two parents surviving comfortably on one income with mom doing the teaching. The couples — few single parents can do this — often are better educated and more affluent than the national average. Generally, the husbands work and pitch in when they can. Last week, Jim Nelson, Danny’s father, took the day off to teach his son.

Round-the-clock Moms
“I’m all for this,” Nelson said. “I was worried initially about whether he’s getting enough socialization. But he is. I have faith that we’re doing the right thing.”

He has faith, his wife has patience.

“You have to be a mother willing to be with kids 24 hours a day,” says Terry Neven, head of the Christian-oriented California Home Educators in San Fernando. “That knocks out a large chunk of people. It really takes a special kind of mother to do it.”

These mothers might say that’s the down side — you can’t go home at the end of the day. Despite that, the numbers are rising as school budgets plummet.

“It’s increasing but we don’t know how many are doing it,” says Roger Wolferetz, a lawyer for the state Department of Education. “There are a lot of underground homeschoolers that report to no one.”

The exact California numbers run from 6,000 to 20,000, according to the State Department of Education — or up to 60,000, say home-teaching groups. No one knows exactly because no one keeps specific figures.

Nationwide, the total is estimated at 500,000 — about 10 times what it was a decade ago.

Once a decision is made to teach at home, parents often can imagine no other way. Public schools “are not an option for us,” said Jane Becktel, whose been teaching her two kids at home since her 11-year-old son should have begun school. “I have a whole lot of questions about compulsory education. It just doesn’t work for us.”

Jackie Orsi of Pacifica agrees. “If you want to ruin a child’s joy in learning, make it like school,” she said.

If, at some point, kids and parents agree to give public school a try (or another try), the school district may test the student to determine grade placement. And what about college? Most colleges require prospective students to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test; students with extensive home- schooling may be required to furnish additional information about their studies.

The socialization question
Not surprisingly, professional educators, trained for years in childhood education, don’t take kindly to homeschoolers’ criticisms. Teachers agree personal attention is very effective but they worry about kids being alone.

“I believe one of the valuable things public schools offer is that you come in contact with racially diverse people,” says John Burns, a San Jose board member of the California Teachers Association. “You run into people with different value systems, and you learn to accept the fact that there are a wide variety of individuals living on this planet.”

Many educators argue there are some things, besides book learning, kids get in school that can’t be duplicated at home — learning to work in groups, learning to wait their turn, taking direction from adults other than parents.

Like most educators, Julie Ryan, principal of Escondido Elementary school in Palo Alto, is concerned about the social aspects.

“If you read about skills children will need in the 21st century, the ability to group problem-solve and work as a team is very important,” she says. “There are very few jobs people do in real life that are totally independent.”

Children’s choice
Although teaching at home was once isolating, the numbers in the Santa Clara Valley, for example, have increased five-fold since 1986 when the Santa Clara Valley Homeschoolers Association began. “It was lonely in the beginning,” recalls Becktel. “We started with nine families and now we have 40 to 45 families.”

“Homeschoolers tend to vary a lot,” says Sharon Vierhus, of San Jose, who is teaching her daughter. “The way we homeschool is very liberal. We don’t have a desk. Sometimes we just curl up on the couch and read.”

Vierhus first taught Katie at home when she was in first grade and having some trouble reading. Then she pulled Katie out again in the fourth grade because Katie wanted to do it again. “I don’t like the fact that if I’m having a really fun time doing math,” said Katie, 12, “I’ll have to stop and go do something else. With homeschooling, I can do it for hours without stopping. I have more freedom of choice.”

Katie’s mother is a former teacher, but most parents aren’t and educators worry about their qualifications.

“Maybe they are teaching the core curriculum, but how are they teaching and what are the kids learning?” asks Grace Foster, a vice president of the California PTA.

Many homeschooling parents recognize this and compensate by hiring professionals to fill the gaps. Becktel’s two children study Spanish outside the home; a few mothers pay a working scientist to teach their kids several times a week.

“My kids or I do stuff in the morning and then they’re free to play,” says Becktel. “There’s a lot of talk about socialization, but we think our kids are better socialized because they’ve so many hours in which to play together.”

In a twist, more and more homeschooling parents are going back to the school district — but not the school — for money and support.

School districts wince each time a student drops out. It means less state money for them. In the Cupertino Union School District, for instance, for each child pulled out, the district loses $2,900, which is the state average. Rather than harass homeschoolers into sticking with public schools as some districts are now doing, three years ago Cupertino began an independent home-study program.

Working together
“The philosophy stems from the fact that we know that people are out there doing it,” says Beverly Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the Cupertino Union School District. “It’s not an alternative we actively promote. However, it doesn’t do any good to leave kids out on their own adrift.”

The program allows families to join the district, use its expertise and resources and receive $1,000 for educational expenses. The district gets the remaining two-thirds of each $2,900 state allotment.

Last school year, 148 children signed up for Cupertino program — three-fourths of whom were from outside districts. This year, the number jumped to 206.

Other districts within Santa Clara County — San Jose Unified, Milpitas, Lakeside, Gilroy and Whisman — also have programs similar to Cupertino’s that 211 kids are using.

IF YOU are interested in learning more about homeschooling, the following may be helpful.

“Home School: Taking the First Step,” by Borg Hendrickson (Mountain Meadow Press, $14.95). A non-sectarian guide to homeschooling written by a former teacher. Lists support groups and talks about laws.

“The Home School Manual,” by Theodore E. Wade Jr. (Gazelle Publications $15.50). An extensive how-to guide for Christian homeschoolers.

“Homeschooling for Excellence,” by David and Micki Colfax (Warner Books $8.95). The story of the celebrated family who sent three home-schooled children to Harvard.

“Teach Your Own,” by John Holt (Bantam Doubleday Dell $11.95). Holt, a leader of the non-Christian movement, makes the case for homeschooling. His other books, “How Children Learn,” and “How Children Fail,” also are recommended by homeschooling parents.

Growing Without Schooling, a bimonthly magazine published by Holt Associates on a variety of issues facing homeschoolers. 2269 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass. 02140.

Home Education Press, P.O. Box 1083, Tonasket, Wash., 98855. A catalog of different materials available for homeschooling.

Support groups
Northern California Homeschool Association — a secular, non-profit volunteer organization with a list of support groups; also watches legislation and provides information to homeschoolers. (707) 765-5375, P.O. Box 431, Petaluma, 94953.

For a local contact: Northern California Homeschool Association board member Debbie Eldridge in Redwood City at (415) 367-9730 or Jill Boone in San Jose at (408) 379-6835.

California Home Educators. A Christian support group in San Fernando. (800) 525-4419.

Christian Home Educators Association in Norwalk. (800) 564-2432.

Transmitted: 93-03-27 18:21:39 EST


Spread God's love