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For Home-Schooled Students, Few Routine Days

Home-schooling gains popularity in Northern Virginia and across the nation.

For Tia Murchie-Beyma of Rose Hill, finding a home-schooled student in a crowd just 10 years ago was like a game of “Where’s Waldo?”

But in the past decade, the number of home-schooled students has risen in Northern Virginia, mirroring state and national trends. Murchie-Beyma, who home-schools daughters Madeline, 14, and Megan, 11, has seen the change firsthand.

“We used to kind of have to hunt and find people, and now, everywhere we go, we see somebody in the middle of the day,” she said. “So that’s a change. … I see them out there, doing things, and it’s become far easier to connect and find people with similar interests.”

Home-schooled students represent less than 2 percent of students in Fairfax County and less than 1 percent in Alexandria City. 

However, the number of home-schooled students in Fairfax County increased 20 percent from the 2001 to the 2010 school year, to 2,225 students, according to the Virginia Department of Education. During the same period, the number of home-schooled students in the City of Alexandria more than doubled, to 99.  The increases, which include students granted a religious exemption from public school attendance, far outpaced growth in the school-age population in both school districts.

Statewide, the number of home-schooled children jumped 50 percent during the past decade, and Virginia is no anomaly. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of home-schooled students nationwide rose 74 percent, to 1.5 million, a U.S. Department of Education study found.

Modern home schooling began largely as “a hippie thing to do” in the 1970s, said Anne Miller, president and interim executive director of the Home Educators Association of Virginia. Later years saw the growth of Christian-based home education, and more recently secular home schooling has gained ground. The most common reason for home schooling among parents nationwide remains religious preference, according to a 2008 federal study, but close behind were concerns about a negative student environment and dissatisfaction with existing academic instruction.

In Virginia, Miller said, many parents who home-school do so in order to provide their children with individual attention, and the heightened visibility of these students has more parents considering home schooling as an option.

 “The numbers continue to go up,” she said. “We think of it as the ‘great kid/average parent’ syndrome, where people look at kids who are home-schooled and say, ‘That’s a great kid,’ and they look at the parents and say, ‘That’s an average parent—I can do that.’ I think the results speak for themselves. Home education is providing a tutorial method, which has that one-on-one instruction, so parents can know exactly where the child is and progress at their own rate—whether that’s an accelerated rate, or they can slow down. And that’s the beauty of home schooling.”

Miller is currently home-schooling the youngest of her eight children. One of her sons, who didn’t learn to read until age 10 and would have required special education classes in a traditional school environment, is now working toward his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and is employed at NASA, she said.

Leslie Nathaniel of Springfield, who sits on the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers board, and her husband decided to home-school their two daughters to provide a broader, richer education than they believed their children could receive in public schools at the time. They also wanted to enhance family life by spending more time together. In recent years, she said, media coverage and the growing number of home-schooled students have heightened visibility and acceptance.

“People ask, ‘Oh, do you home-school?’ whereas just a few years ago, they would be more likely to ask, ‘Why aren’t your kids in school?’” she said.

Home-schooled students today come from diverse political and religious backgrounds, Nathaniel said. One impetus behind the growing popularity of home schooling has been technology, particularly the Internet, which has made home schooling more accessible in terms of both connecting with other families and finding educational resources.

For example, parents can Google “math curriculum” and find information and resources such as online tutoring and textbooks, Nathaniel said. When she first looked into the idea of home schooling, she found a plethora of online regional and topical home-school groups that helped give her a picture of what the home-school life was like. Nathaniel reads regional home-school online newsletters and uses the Internet to find new lessons, library books, educational materials and field trip opportunities like museums and historical sites. Technology has also allowed home schooling parents to team up for group activities.

No ‘Typical’ School Days for Students

Home-schooled students in Northern Virginia today are likely to spend a good deal of the day out of the house. While Fairfax County and Alexandria public schools do not allow non-students to participate in extracurricular activities, a growing number of businesses, recreation associations and cultural institutions offer activities that draw in the home-schooled population.

Some school districts, including Fairfax County, let home-school students take a limited number of classes at their local school.

When Stephanie Elms of Annandale began home-schooling her oldest son, she had to travel to Reston so he could participate in a YMCA gym class for home-schooled children. Now, she’s found an increased number of sports and education activities closer to home, such as a 20-family park day Tuesdays at . There’s also a gymnastics class offered during the day for home-schooled students, and one of Elms’ two sons took a pottery class through the Fairfax County Parks and Recreation Department. To top it off, living in Northern Virginia offers easy access to a long list of museums and other cultural attractions, many free of charge.

“It’s one of those things that’s kind of, build it and they will come,” said Elms, who is also an Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers board member.

One of Nathaniel’s daughters, 10-year-old Kalea, is enrolled in a watercolor class at in Alexandria. Murchie-Beyma’s daughters raise approximately 100 butterflies every summer, which helps teach them about botany, biology and conservation of natural resources. They also observed, free of charge, an orangutan learning project at the National Zoo.

Springfield resident Mona Kidwell, who home-schools her two children, has found opportunities for them in pottery classes, home-schooled Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and a theater group for her oldest, 12-year-old Nathan.

“In this area there’s just so much to offer,” Kidwell said. “We kind of had to cut back on activities.”

Nathan, for one, doesn’t feel like he’s missing out by not attending public school. “I like it,” he said. “We can do what subjects we want when we want to do them. We do lots of different subjects.”

Murchie-Beyma’s oldest daughter, Madeline, is also a fan. “I like home schooling for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I have a more flexible schedule and it allows me to do things I really like in addition to schoolwork,” Madeline said. The schedule allows her more time to practice piano, for example.

Madeline also participates in National Novel Writing Month each November, an activity for which she would have little time under a traditional academic schedule. Last year, she fell 5,000 words short of the project’s 50,000-word goal, with a fantasy novel about book characters that come to life. This year she’s determined to meet that goal, which equals approximately 175 pages. “I can’t wait,” she said.

Home schooling is not for every family. Most home-schooled students live in two-parent households, according to federal data. Challenges of home-schooling for parents include working with a child’s learning style, determining what materials work best, maintaining organization and keeping a high level of commitment. For many home-schooling families, education is not a day job—it’s a way of life.

“Everything we do is part of our home school,” Murchie-Beyma said. “So, eating breakfast is part of it—where do these foods come from, and where is that country, and what trade relations do we have with them? All of life is to learn about.”

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