For some, home is where the school is

Grow­ing num­bers of D.C. par­ents are chart­ing their own course on ed­u­ca­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MICHAEL ALI­SON CHAN­DLER

When Lisa Cain’s sec­ond-grade son be­came bored at his char­ter school in the Dis­trict last year, she started search­ing for a new school. She went to public schools — “about 25 open houses,” she said — and vis­ited a hand­ful of pri­vate ones, too. At the same time, she pored over ed­u­ca­tion re­search and the­ory.

“The more I learned about ed­u­ca­tion, the more I found that kids learn by be­ing ex­cited about the sub­ject and tak­ing it upon them­selves to learn. Not, ‘Okay, now we are go­ing to do this,’ ” she said. She de­cided that pri­vate schools are too ex­pen­sive and that her con­cerns about large class sizes and test-driven cur­ricu­lum would not dis­ap­pear at another public school.

Ul­ti­mately, she opted to homeschool her son and first-grade daugh­ter.

In a city known for its ev­er­grow­ing ar­ray of school choices, small but grow­ing num­bers of par­ents are opt­ing to chart their own course. The num­ber of reg­is­tered home-school­ing fam­i­lies grew by a third over the past two years to nearly 400 this fall, up from about 290 in the 2013-2014 school year.

The growth has brought an in­crease in the num­ber of homeschool co­op­er­a­tives and In­ter­net mail­ing lists that of­fer sup­port, struc­ture and com­mu­nity for fam­i­lies. Clas­si­cal Con­ver­sa­tions, a Capi­tol Hill-based home­school­ing “com­mu­nity” with a Chris­tian fo­cus, started two new groups this year, one in Brook­land and the other in Capi­tol Hill. “We got so­many in­quiries last year, we had to turn peo­ple away,” said Emily Bradley, who di­rects the Capi­tol Hill group.

Thirty years ago, there were few le­gal pro­tec­tions for home­school­ers. But the num­ber has grown as state reg­u­la­tions have eased or have been for­mu­lated. Na­tion­wide, about 3 per­cent of the school-age pop­u­la­tion was home-schooled in the 2011-2012 school year, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent data from the Ed­u­ca­tion


The Dis­trict did not have a spe­cific law for home-school­ing un­til 2008, when Banita Jacks, who had claimed to be home­school­ing her chil­dren, was ar­rested in the killing of her four daugh­ters. Their bod­ies were not dis­cov­ered for months, and the case raised alarms about a wide range of break­downs in the safety net for chil­dren in the city. Jacks was con­victed in 2009 of mur­der­ing her four daugh­ters.

That year, the D.C. State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion ap­proved a pol­icy that re­quires par­ents to give writ­ten no­tice to the Of­fice of the State Su­per­in­ten­dent if they want to home-school and to main­tain a port­fo­lio of stu­dent work that is avail­able for the state agency to re­view.

Ethan Reedy, a fa­ther of three and pres­i­dent of the D.C. Home Ed­u­ca­tors As­so­ci­a­tion, said home-school par­ents in the Dis­trict make up a very di­verse group.

“We have both ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum and all sorts of worldviews,” he said.

Groups have formed for African Amer­i­cans, Chris­tians, gifted stu­dents, mil­i­tary fam­i­lies or for those who have pro­gres­sive views on ed­u­ca­tion. “There are quite a few ‘un­school­ers’ in the Dis­trict who think of school­ing as much more of an ad­ven­ture than a rig­or­ous ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion,” Reedy said.

Many home-school par­ents say the Dis­trict of­fers one of the na­tion’s best class­rooms, with its ex­ten­sive nat­u­ral and cul­tural re­sources.

“It’s the land of free mu­se­ums and free pro­grams,” said Far­rar Wil­liams, who home-schools her sixth-grade twins in Columbia Heights. She said many arts or­ga­ni­za­tions or taek­wondo gyms of­fer classes for home-school­ers.

When she started out seven years ago, there were few other fam­i­lies in the city home school­ing, so she of­ten joined with fam­i­lies in Mont­gomery County or in Alexandria. Now there are more re­sources in the Dis­trict, she said, in par­tic­u­lar for younger chil­dren.

Lisa Cain said ven­tur­ing out on her own was scary. “There were def­i­nitely wak­ing-up-in-the-mid­dle-mo­ments, think­ing, ‘Is this the right thing?’ ”

The Mount Pleas­ant mother formed a co-op with some other fam­i­lies. They meet to­gether four days a week and take turns lead­ing op­tional field trips on a fifth day. That al­lows her to con­tinue work­ing part time in public re­la­tions and party plan­ning, she said.

At home, and through the co-op, her two chil­dren are learn­ing at their own pace and pur­su­ing their in­ter­ests. They spend a lot of time in Rock Creek Park, she said, and in their veg­etable gar­den. Her first-grade daugh­ter’s love of birds led to lots of read­ing about birds and a trip to the zoo, where they learned about dif­fer­ent ways to at­tract birds. Her hus­band, an IT net­work engi­neer, likes to tinker with elec­tron­ics and ex­plore ro­bot­ics with them.

So far, a month into the new school year, she has no­ticed a change in her son. “He is ex­cited and talk­ing about what he’s do­ing dur­ing the day,” she said of the third-grader. She also no­ticed a dif­fer­ence in the stress level at home with­out home­work bat­tles and a hec­tic rush-hour com­mute to school.

“My sur­prise, so far, is how nat­u­ral and how much eas­ier it is,” she said. “We are all nat­u­ral learn­ers, and learn­ing doesn’t just hap­pen at school. It hap­pens ev­ery­where.”


Lisa Cain shows her 6-year-old daugh­ter, Lil­lian, how to use a Phillips screw­driver in their home in the Dis­trict. Cain be­gan home-school­ing Lil­lian and 8-year-old son Sam, left, last month.

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