Montreal Gazette

Home-scHooling hurdles

CHRISTINE GAUTHIER IS A HOME-SCHOOLING MOM in rural Val des Monts in the Outaouais, but she is anything but isolated.

- Story by ALEX ROSLIN Special to The Gazette

Home-schooling is legal and gaining popularity, but some Quebec school boards are making life difficult for home-schooling families, parents contend.

She and her five kids, ages four to 18, are heavily involved in the region’s homeschool­ing support group, which has 180 families.

“Home-schooling is growing exponentia­lly,” says Gauthier, a non-practising lawyer

he families have neardaily get-togethers at each other’s houses for educationa­l and social activities, including workshops on history, geography, theatre and tai chi. They also organize “school field trips” to apple orchards, museums and the science fair. They even hold their own Olympiads.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” Gauthier says.

But when her oldest daughter turned 15 three years ago, Gauthier got a shock, she said, when she called her local school board to arrange for a test for her daughter to get her secondary school diploma. Her daughter wanted the diploma so she could apply to CEGEP.

She said the school board dragged its feet for months. Then in an ironic twist, it finally reacted with a letter threatenin­g to report Gauthier to youth-protection authoritie­s if she didn’t have her daughter evaluated.

It’s the kind of story that home-schooling parents are recounting more and more in Quebec, said Gauthier, who is treasurer of the 300-member Quebec Associatio­n for Home-Based Education.

Home-schooling is legal in Quebec and the rest of Canada. But as the number of home-schoolers skyrockets across North America, some school boards in Quebec are responding by siccing youth protection on home-schooling families, usually without any evidence of safety problems at home, Gauthier said.

“That’s the worst fear for a parent. It’s traumatizi­ng – it’s an invasion,” she said.

“The parent is seen as the enemy who is mistrusted. They can’t imagine we could do something good.”

CaroleCard­inalagrees.She is a home-schooling mom in the Quebec City area and the province’s rep of the Home School Legal Defence Associatio­n of Canada.

She said many school boards in Quebec are misusing youth protection against home-schoolers, and that has contribute­d to the province’s reputation as one of the most inhospitab­le places in Canada toward the movement.

Cardinal, herself a former elementary and secondary schoolteac­her, said she helps 10 home-schooling families each year on average to fend off youth protection complaints from school boards. That’s up from just three or four cases annually up until four years ago.

“It’s pretty nerve-racking for families. We feel we’re losing our freedoms,” she said.

Cardinal said the school

Many school boards in Quebec are misusing youth protection against home-schoolers, associatio­n says.

boards’ stance is especially frustratin­g because studies have shown home-schoolers do well academical­ly and socially compared to other students.

By Grade 4, U.S. homeschool­ers were on average a grade ahead academical­ly of their public and private school peers, according to a peer-reviewed 1999 study of more than 20,000 U.S. homeschool­ers funded by the U.S. branch of the HSLDA. By Grade 8, they were nearly four grades ahead. That’s even though other reports have found home-schoolers on average spend just three hours a day on academics – compared to the typical sixhour school day. UK home-schooled kids ge 6 to 11 were on average 10 months ahead of their expected reading level for their age, said a 2004 study by British psychologi­st Paula Rothermel in the Journal of Early Childhood Research.

Home-schoolers scored an

■ average of 4.9 out of six on a life satisfacti­on test (with six being the best), compared with 4.2 for public-schoolers, according to a 2003 HSLDA study of 3,800 Canadian home-schoolers.

“They have a privileged, one-on-one education,” Montreal mom Sonya Olthof said of her two home-schooled children. “I want to preserve their interest in learning and help them follow their interests and know themselves.”

Olthof and other homeschool­ing parents in Montreal banded together to open a centre in St. Henri, where they organize parent-led classes on everything from astronomy to math and music.

The centre, which is called Communidée, also offers a book club for parents, an organic fruit and veggie buying co-op and dozens of field trips each year, like excursions to the museum, a bee farm, an apple orchard and a leathermak­ing factory.

Groups like Olthof ’s have helped bring home-schooling – once seen as “granola” or the preserve of the religious right – into the mainstream in the past decade. Homeschool­ers’ numbers in Canada have doubled since the mid-1990s to an estimated 80,000. They now account for two per cent of the country’s school-age population.

In the U.S., up to two million kids are home-schooled – about 3.5 per cent of all school-age children. The number is growing seven per cent a year.

In Quebec, the official number of home-schoolers has shot up from 388 in 2002 to 940 last year. But since many families don’t register out of fear, that’s only a fraction of the actual number, according to home-schooling associatio­n officials and researcher­s – they put the number at between 2,000 and 5,000.

The climate is better in other provinces. B.C. provides home-schooling families with curriculum material and computer equipment. Alberta gives them a tax credit.

Ontario is seen as a home- schooling mecca because it requires only that parents notify the school board of their intent to home-school. “Board officials should recognize that the methodolog­y, materials, schedules and assessment techniques used by parents who provide homeschool­ing may differ from those used by educators in the school system,” Ontario’s Education Department says in its home-schooling policy.

Home-schoolers say such a hands-off approach is preferable because it lets parents and kids custom-fit the curriculum to each child’s aptitudes, interests and special needs.

At the other end of the spectrum, Quebec requires homeschool­ers to get instructio­n “that is equivalent to what is

Youth protection officials, however,

said they don’t have any special concerns about home-schooling.

offered in Quebec schools,” said Esther Chouinard, spokeswoma­n for the Quebec Education Department, in an email.

The province also gives school boards broad powers to grant or deny permission to parents to home-school, as well as to scrutinize their progress.

“If the school commission has not obtained the collaborat­ion of the parents (under scrutiny), it must signal the situation to the youth protection authoritie­s, who will investigat­e,” Chouinard said.

Chouinard had no data on howoftenho­me-schoolersa­re referred to youth protection. But she insisted this happens only in “exceptiona­l” cases.

In the Outaouais, Christine Gauthier’s school board, the Commission scolaire des Draveurs, says it gets $750 per year from the Education Department for each homeschool­ed child, but it isn’t obliged to give them any curriculum material.

Parents who want to homeschool must present a detailed education program and get it approved by the school board each year in order to get permission, said Yvon Landry, the school board’s secretary-general.

.“When there is no agreement with the family, we refer them to youth protection. Not every parent has what’s needed to do home-schooling,” he said.

Youth protection officials, however, said they don’t have any special concerns about home-schooling. “If the child is generally on par with their age group, how they get their schooling is none of youth protection’s concern,” said Madeleine Bérard, director of youth protection at Batshaw Youth and Family Centres in Montreal.

“If it’s strictly because a child isn’t going to school, we rarely sustain (a complaint). There would have to be other risk factors, like neglect or mental health issues.”

Bérard said her office gets 20 to 30 complaints each year involving home-schoolers. Only 15 to 20 per cent are deemed to require youthprote­ction interventi­on in the family – “a lot less,” she said, than for other types of complaints her office gets. The remaining complaints are dismissed as unfounded, she said.

Back in Val des Monts, Gauthier said school officials could learn a lot from homeschool­ers and their more personaliz­ed approach to learning, especially as Quebec struggles with a soaring dropout rate.

“They want to pass everyone through the same mould. Quebec is closed to alternativ­e education. We have lost sight of the goal of education,” she said.

“Home-schoolers have something to share. The best contributi­on I’ve made to society is to have educated my kids. They are engaged.” For more informatio­n about home-schooling in Montreal, visit the Communidée website at www.montreal homelearne­

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 ?? Dave SiDaway  THE GAZETTE ?? Sonya Olthof with some of the kids at the Communidée home-schooling centre: five-year-old Anna Grier (left), Eli Shiller, 5½, Tomek Shiller, 3½, and Kelly Geist, 10. Olthof and other home-schooling parents in Montreal banded together to open the centre...
Dave SiDaway THE GAZETTE Sonya Olthof with some of the kids at the Communidée home-schooling centre: five-year-old Anna Grier (left), Eli Shiller, 5½, Tomek Shiller, 3½, and Kelly Geist, 10. Olthof and other home-schooling parents in Montreal banded together to open the centre...

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