For most, the phrase “back to school” conjures up images of backpacks, bright yellow buses and new boxes of crayons, but that isn’t the case for all kids. A small, but growing number of students in the Lawrence area remain at home and rely on their parents for their education, and as such, they are not confined to a set calendar for their studies.
“We continue to home-school throughout the year,” says Tara Sawyer, who teaches her children Jacob, 11, and Kyan, 5, and adds that the family takes breaks for “traveling, visitors, camps and holidays throughout the year.”
In 2007, a nationwide survey by the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 1.5 million youths (or about 2.9 percent of the student population) are home-schooled, which is an increase from 850,000 in 1999. While concern about school environment is a major factor for families who opt out of public schools nationwide, Lawrence families have more personal reasons:
“In my opinion, the major benefits of home schooling are the ability to go at your child’s pace and teach according to their learning style,” Sawyer says.
“As a Christian, I look at my children as a gift from God, and as a parent, I wanted to be more involved with aspects that make them individuals — like their education,” says Debbie Rask, who is starting her 10th year of home schooling.
While Rask’s oldest son, Kelvin, graduated last year and will be attending Johnson County Community College, her two other children, Brittany and Michael, are home.
“Home schooling was part of the deal when we went to Ethiopia,” says Pam Zicker, who has moved in and out of home schooling with her five children since 2006 when she and her husband, Steve, relocated their family to northern Ethiopia so Steve could work in a veterinary hospital.
“I always had friends who home-schooled, and I was always a little jealous of them and their lifestyle,” she says. “But I was too scared to try it myself.”
That changed in Africa.
“It wasn’t like I was standing up at a podium, it was snuggling up together. We read ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ all snuggled together and did a 16-week unit on Africa, taking each country one by one,” she says. “And I got to learn alongside them.
“We came back and the kids went to public school for two years because I was in culture shock,” she says. “I didn’t think I could do it and keep up with a house and five children.”
When it was time for junior high, however, Curtis, now 14, told his mother that he wanted to be home-schooled, so during the 2009-2010 school year, all five kids: Curtis; Cailyn, 12; Eyerusalem, 12; Lydia, 11; and Nati, 10; remained at home, although Curtis would make daily trips to West for orchestra and choir.
Since that time, the family has approached their children’s education year-by-year, and child-by-child. Last year, Lydia attended sixth grade at Sunset Hill School, and Curtis took online classes based in Lancaster, Pa. This year Curtis is at Free State full-time, and Nati is at Sunset. “Curtis is looking forward to doing science experiments in a ‘real’ lab,” Pam Zicker says.
While the boys are enrolled in the public schools, the three girls are home — but not every day. Zicker has learned to take advantage of resources in the community for home-school families such as programs offered through TEACH, or Teaching Effective Academics in Christian Homes, and LAHN, the Lawrence Area Homeschool Network. Each Wednesday, Zicker’s daughters will join 15 other students at Rask’s house for a history, literature and writing course, a two-year course covering world history. “This school year we will span from Creation through the Reformation (1600 A.D.),” Rask says.
But what about socialization? (The dreaded “S” question, as home-school families refer to it.) Aren’t these families concerned about their children’s ability to get along with others?
“I always cringe when I hear the criticism about socialization and the lack of opportunities that home-schooled kids have to socialize,” Rask says. “The truth is that my kids interact with all kinds of kids of various ages and economic status. In the public schools, it is so monogamous, you’re in school only with others your age.”
“My kids are very social,” says Elizabeth Laufer, who home-schooled three of her four children: Sophie, 16; Will, 13; Rowan, 10; and Emmet, 17 months, for seven years. “[They] had no problems finding other friends to hang out with and classes to participate in elsewhere in the community.”
Zicker concurs: “My kids don’t have any problems getting along with others whether they are at home or in school,” she says.
Overall, the families see the advantages of home schooling.
“The best thing [about homeschooling] was the family and bonding....We had some really lovely times together,” Laufer says. But, they also understand that home schooling does not come without a costs.
“It does consume a lot of time,” Sawyer says. “Most home-schoolers find that it becomes more of a lifestyle than anything else.”
“It also means that there will only be one income for the household,” Sawyer adds.
“I don’t get to have too many lunches with my girlfriends,” says Rask, who worked as a marketing director at Baker University before deciding to home-school her children. “It is a sacrifice I am happy to make. I have a relationship with my children that will last a lifetime.”