Homeschooling In The City Part II

Matthew Hennessey
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Posted: Aug 07, 2015 12:01 AM
Homeschooling In The City Part II

Some ambitious homeschoolers craft personalized educational programs from scratch. Many others purchase off-the-shelf curriculum and supporting resources—lesson plans, reading materials, and tests for subjects ranging from American history to advanced Latin to calculus—from well-established companies, such as Sonlight and Oak Meadow. Some companies even operate as accredited distance-learning schools, providing students with what amounts to a correspondence course. According to the HSLDA, four major curriculum types predominate: the “traditional” approach, which uses textbooks and workbooks to teach reading, writing, grammar, and spelling through repetition; the “classical” model, which emphasizes grammar, logic, and rhetoric for the study of the great works of Western literature; “unit studies,” which employs a multidisciplinary approach to exploring particular themes; and “unschooling,” a student-directed approach, popular with countercultural types, that rejects formal, curriculum-based education and lets children explore subjects at their own pace.

“I knew I wasn’t going to just wing it—especially on math,” says Wade, who initially relied on library books to flesh out lesson plans that she wrote herself. Eventually, she gave in and purchased subject-matter curricula from Sonlight. It wasn’t cheap: the second-grade curriculum package with “everything you need to teach one child for one year” in history, geography, math, science, language arts, and handwriting costs $849. But Wade notes that if her children were in private school, “we’d be spending at least that much on books and materials.” Plus, she hopes to use the materials for her other children, and she notes the time she has saved by not having to write her own lessons and tests.

By contrast, Amy Millstein, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is an unschooler. Her two children direct their own learning by following their natural inclinations and organic interests. Millstein offers support, when called for, and guidance, when asked, but she doesn’t otherwise shape—or interfere with—their education. The idea behind unschooling, which can work well with certain kids, is that people learn something only when they’re truly interested in learning it. “Of course, there will be holes in their education,” she concedes. “But I have holes in my education, and I went to school.”

The current crop of homeschoolers has one major advantage over the movement’s pioneers: modern technology has put all of history’s collected knowledge at their fingertips. No homeschooling parent need become an expert on differential equations or Newton’s Third Law of Motion. He or she can simply visit YouTube’s Khan Academy channel and find thousands of video lectures on these topics. Rosetta Stone, the well-known foreign-language software company, offers a specially tailored homeschool reading curriculum for just $99 per year. Wade’s children use a free website called Duolingo to practice Spanish. And many popular curriculum packages and distance-learning education programs provide Skype-based tutorials, online courses, and other learning supports.

Cities offer homeschoolers rich educational opportunities. The Fredettes of Philadelphia have used their storied city to supplement American history lessons. Their travels have brought them to the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall, of course, but they’ve also visited a glassblower’s studio, taken archery classes, and toured the facility where the Inquirer, the nation’s third-oldest daily newspaper, is printed. “We even went to the Herr’s potato-chip factory and watched the chips coming out of the machine,” recalls Fredette. The children’s favorite trip was to the studios of FOX 29 News, where, as part of a unit on meteorology, they watched a live broadcast of the midday weather report, complete with green screen.

Boston is known as a college town. Kerry McDonald lives across the Charles River in Cambridge—“between M.I.T. and Harvard,” she says. On her City Kids Homeschooling blog, McDonald writes: “We use the city as our primary learning tool, taking advantage of all its offerings, including classes, museums, libraries, cultural events, and fascinating neighbors”—including a Tufts University biology professor who brings home snails and mollusks for the kids.

It’s no surprise that New Yorkers see their city as “the best place on the planet to homeschool a kid,” as Millstein puts it. She and her husband own a locksmith business in Manhattan and live with their two children in the neighborhood behind Lincoln Center. When her 14-year-old daughter expressed an interest in taking pictures, Millstein enrolled her at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan.

“The resources we have here in New York City are amazing,” Wade enthuses. “We study an artist and then we go to the museum and actually get to look at that artist’s paintings.” Ballet for Young Audiences, a repertory dance company that plays to public school kids on field trips, needed dancers for a production of Snow White. Wade’s nine-year-old daughter got the job—she was, after all, free during the day. Homeschooling allows kids the flexibility to pursue a passion without schedule or space constraints, whether it’s taking a morning ukulele class at the local guitar shop—as McDonald’s son does—or a midday outing to an L.A. beach.

Homeschooling has its critics. Some say it’s a choice reserved for those with the household wealth to get by on one income—a notion most homeschoolers reject. Too often, they say, the extra money that comes from having both parents work goes mostly to cover day care or after-school expenses, making the choice of one parent (typically the mother) to stay home and teach the kids a financial wash. Other critics charge that by withdrawing their children from struggling public schools, homeschoolers do a disservice to the system. But Wade and others point out that they still support the public school system with their dollars. “I pay school taxes,” she says. “But my children are not sitting in a school all day costing the city money.”

“Socialization” is by far the most frequently voiced concern. How will children learn to be well-adjusted members of society, the thinking goes, if they aren’t in school with other kids their age? Won’t they become social outcasts? Homeschoolers, particularly urban ones, view the question as ludicrous. Cities are social places.

Anyone fearing that homeschooled kids are being improperly socialized should visit the Yonkers home of Anne and Erik Tozzi. The couple met at Oxford, where Erik, a native New Yorker, spent a year studying medieval history. The Tozzis say that living on a closely packed city street has been a social asset for their five homeschooled children. Yonkers is New York State’s fourth-largest city, and the Tozzis’ backyard abuts those of other houses brimming with kids. On a sunny day recently, the neighborhood bustled with young people zooming from yard to yard, shooting baskets, playing tag, and shouting with abandon. Most of the Tozzi children’s neighborhood friends attend traditional schools, and some express jealousy of what goes on in the Tozzi house all day—not much, they imagine. “We get that a lot,” says Anne, in her plummy Birmingham accent. “ ‘Oh, I wish I was homeschooled,’ because they think it means you get to sleep all day. They don’t realize that we’re actually doing schoolwork.”

Schoolwork for the Tozzi children, who range in age from two to 14, can mean a day spent at their book-strewn dining-room table discussing Chaucer or a visit to the Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. Anne holds an M.A. in classical art history and worked as a rare-book specialist for Christie’s in London and New York (where she once handled a first edition of The Canterbury Tales). The family makes frequent visits to the New York Botanical Garden, with its 50-acre tract of old-growth forest, and the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, less than ten miles away on the Saw Mill River Parkway.

Last year, the older Tozzi kids worked with students from around the country to write a radio script, which they produced for an all-online course. They took online classes in Latin, religion, and math with teachers based in other cities. They used Skype for live class lectures and to communicate with other students for their projects. “They did a lot of e-mailing each other and ‘meeting’ outside class times to study and prepare, which tapped into their developing maturity and independence,” says Anne. The younger children used Skype for a weekly “Story Time” with a teacher.

Some critics claim that homeschooled kids won’t be prepared to do college-level work, but available data suggest otherwise. In 2009, NEHRI’s Ray looked at the standardized test results of 12,000 homeschoolers from all 50 states, as well as Guam and Puerto Rico. He found that homeschoolers scored 34–39 percentile points above the norm on the California Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and the Stanford Achievement Test. A recent study published in The Journal of College Admission found that homeschooled students had higher composite ACT scores than their non-homeschooled peers and graduated college at higher rates—66.7 percent, compared with 57.5 percent. “In recent years, we’ve admitted ten or 12 homeschooled students” per year, says Marlyn McGrath, admissions director at Harvard, where each class numbers about 1,600.

Other skeptics, still focused on socialization, warn that homeschoolers may have trouble in the less structured environment of college life. Not true, says Celine Cammarata, a 25-year-old graduate of the William E. Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. A native of Greenwich Village, Cammarata was unschooled. She never wrote a paper or took a test before sitting for the SATs at age 15. It was her traditionally schooled peers, she says, who found freshman year so challenging. “A lot of kids struggled with the autonomy they were given. I was already used to taking care of my own education, so it was less of a big transition for me,” she says. Despite never receiving a grade before entering college, Cammarata earned a 3.98 GPA while majoring in behavioral neuroscience. She works as a lab manager at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology and is thinking about graduate school. Her brother, also unschooled, graduated from Harvard Law School.

An alumnus who does admissions interviews for another Ivy League institution confirms Cammarata’s experience. He finds the homeschooled kids he interviews more self-assured than their peers from traditional schools. “They are much better at interacting with me as an adult,” he tells me. “They know who they are—much more so than the prep school kids.”

Neither dropouts nor go-with-the-flow conformists, the new urban homeschoolers defy easy labeling. They don’t like what they see in the public schools, but they don’t necessarily want to tear them down. They want control, but mostly in the service of flexibility. They tend to reject newfangled educational theories, but they aren’t such traditionalists that they can’t see the educational value of Skype. They are religious—some of them—but their faith compels them to engage with their neighbors, not withdraw into isolation. Above all, they want a better education than their children can typically get sitting in a traditional classroom for six hours every day. Most homeschooling parents sound satisfied with their choice.

Ottavia Egan’s daughter, for instance, now in the seventh grade, is thriving. The vampire books are gone, replaced by historical fiction and classics. “She’s happy,” her mother says. “She likes to read. What more could you want for a 12-year-old girl?”