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Where school is home

April 10, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

The number of Washington County students taught at home grew 475 percent in the last nine years, an explosive increase that is mirrored in state and national trends.

Parents and people who monitor education cite a spectrum of reasons for the boom, from dissatisfaction with the social environment in public schools to a strong economy.

In Maryland, laws are lax enough to allow almost anyone to try teaching at home.

"You don't have a lot of barriers to go through as a home-schooling parent," said Maryland State Department of Education spokesman Ronald Pieffer.

Raymond Moore, considered a pioneer in the national movement, said home schooling is as old as the Garden of Eden. It is part of America's history, and great thinkers such as Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison were taught at home, he said.

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"People are coming into home education because of the superior results," he said.

Mass education has caused the country to go downhill, Moore said. But he cautions against criticizing public schools. To those that are dissatisfied with public schools, he says, "go and look in the mirror, because you own them."

U.S. Department of Education researcher Patricia Lines estimates the number of home-schooled students tripled nationally between 1990 and 1995. Although states don't keep uniform records, she compiled the available statistics.

"It's still small relative to the total population," Lines said. During the 1995-1996 school year, between 700,000 and 750,000 students were home schooled, she said. "And it's continued to grow."

In the 1960s, home schooling became a countercultural movement, Lines said. For the last 15 years, parents mainly kept their kids at home to combine instruction with religion. But recently the reasons have changed as acceptance has grown in the mainstream.

Florida surveys its home-schooling parents, and more are saying they are dissatisfied with public and private schools. "It used to be the dominant reason was religion," Lines said. "I suppose there's a shift in the people who home school."

In Maryland, there is varied interest in home schooling, according to Pieffer. "Anectdotally, I'm hearing these are not parents with extreme political views, as they are sometimes characterized," he said. "They fit the whole gamut."

In the last nine years, the amount of home-schooled children in Washington County rose from 68 to 391, more than population of Hancock Middle-Senior High School.

During the same period, the numbers grew in every county, jumping more than 500 percent in 12 of 24 jurisdictions. Kent County had the smallest growth, 48 percent. Queen Anne's County had the highest, a 1,114 percent increase.

Statewide, the number soared 495 percent in seven years. The 1990-1991 total was 2,296 and the 1997-1998 total was 13,665, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

Pieffer said he believes a strong economy has enabled some spouses to stay at home and teach. But they do it for different reasons. Some say they want to be closer to their kids. Others want to improve their behavior or sharpen their academic skills.

Judy Berry of Hagerstown said she decided to keep her fifth-grader at home because he has behavioral problems. Teachers didn't know how to deal with him and she got tired of visiting the principal.

"Nobody seemed to know what the answers were," Smith said. Since she brought him home, her son has improved in some areas, she said. Next year she plans to re-enroll him in middle school.

Dianna Smith of Sharpsburg was worried her son wasn't getting enough one-on-one attention. She didn't like the behavior her children picked up from their peers. They were fighting and calling each other names, so she pulled them out of school.

"It isn't the teachers, it's the other kids," she said. "The teachers do a great job." At home, parents can teach more than academics, she said. "You're also teaching your values."

Maryland law requires parents who teach their kids at home to "provide regular, thorough instruction in the studies usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age."

That includes English, mathematics, science, social studies, art, music, health and physical education, according to the rules. Parents must keep portfolios that show what the students are doing.

The parents submit forms to the local superintendent at least 15 days before beginning the program. The Washington County Board of Education reviews their portfolios twice a year, near the end of each semester.

Parents go to the School Board's Central Office on Commonwealth Avenue to meet for half an hour or more on those two days. If they don't demonstrate an adequate curriculum, they are given 30 days to improve before another review.

"It's usually pretty friendly and easygoing," said Joe Millward, supervisor of pupil personnel, who coordinates the reviews. "For the most part, the kids are operating pretty much where the parents say they are."

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