Another school year is about to get underway. But not every student will be returning to a traditional classroom to begin another year of learning, as homeschooling has become an increasingly popular option for educating today’s youth. So what entices parents to homeschool their children? And do homeschooled students fare as well academically and socially as their counterparts in public schools? Parents may opt for homeschooling for many reasons, and though results vary, the data suggests these students are finding success.

Homeschooling: The Basics

Homeschooling is an alternative to a public or private school education in which parents choose to teach their kids at home. According to publicschools.org, homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, but requirements vary by state. The website notes that while millions of kids thrive in this type of learning environment- with most of them scoring very highly on standardized tests as well as other measures of scholastic performance- homeschooling is not for everyone. But it can be a good choice for some families, and the number of homeschooled kids continues to grow.

According to statistics from the National Center for Education, the number of homeschooled students in the U.S. grew from 850,000 in 2009 to almost 1.8 million in 2011. And National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) data from January says there are now an estimated 2.2 million home-educated students nationwide. An estimated 23,220 of these students live in Alabama, according to AL.com. NHERI President Dr. Brian Ray calls homeschooling the fastest-growing form of education in the country.

Why Homeschooling?

With homeschooling participation numbers continuing to grow, there must be several reasons why parents are choosing this option, right? Absolutely. According to Ray, the most common reasons parents give for homeschooling their kids are to customize the curriculum and learning environment for each child; accomplish more academically than in schools; enhance family relationships between children and parents and among siblings; provide guided and reasoned social interactions with youthful peers and adults; provide a safer environment for children and youth because of the physical violence, drugs, alcohol, psychological abuse, racism and improper and unhealthy sexuality associated with institutional schools; and/or teach and impart a particular set of values, beliefs and worldviews to children and youth.

In a phone interview with The Daily Sentinel on Thursday, Ray said the biggest advantage to homeschooling is the customization of the curriculum.

“Home-based education makes available to the child what teachers in public education dream of,” he said. “Each child’s curriculum can be customized to his or her strengths, dreams and desires, and homeschooling affords parents the perfect opportunity to transmit beliefs and worldviews rather than having the government do it.”

Irene Tucker, a mother of five in Huntsville, said she decided homeschooling was the way to go after seeing a special quality in some of her piano students.

“I was teaching piano, and I noticed something different about some of the students,” she said. “I discovered that these students had been homeschooled, and I wanted to give my children that special opportunity as well. The best part about homeschooling is you can impart your value system on your children and teach your kids what you feel is important.”

Tucker said another advantage of homeschooling is that her kids can fit in an entire school day into just a few hours, allowing for flexible schedules. And she added that homeschooling is accessible to everyone.

“I’ve heard some people say they’d like to homeschool their kids but think they can’t do it,” she said. “But anybody can do it. You don’t have to fit a particular profile to begin homeschooling. All you have to want to do is be around your kids and love them.”

Homeschool or Public School: Which is Best for My Child?

There are many factors to consider when deciding whether to put a child through homeschool or public school. Chief among them are the learning environment and teaching methods with which the child would be most comfortable.

According to publicschoolreview.com, environment and curriculum are the two areas that most distinguish homeschooling from public schooling. In regards to environment, the website says, proponents of homeschooling believe children thrive better in a safe, comfortable, familiar environment: their home.

“At home, a child does not have to deal with peer pressure or with fitting in with the popular cliques. This gives the child the opportunity to focus on the lessons being taught and on the required educational expectations,” the website says. “And homeschooled students usually have the opportunity to work at their own pace and in their own style. For some, that spells the difference between success and failure.”

But proponents of public schooling believe children need to interact and work with one another in the public school classroom setting to build the vital skills needed to succeed later in life.

“Public schooling helps teach students relationship skills, how to problem-solve with their peers and how to handle and overcome peer pressure,” the website says.

As this information illustrates, both schooling methods have their strengths and weaknesses. But, according to home-school.com, the perceived social environment weaknesses of homeschooling may not exist, as homeschoolers outscored public school kids on every level in a study measuring communication, daily living skills, socialization and maturity. Ray agreed, saying his research suggests the perceived social weaknesses of homeschooling are overstated.

“In home-based education, the parents are more able to guide their children’s social interactions and who their kids hang out with,” he said. “This can be an advantage because kids’ social interactions that are self-guided can lead to problems. And public-school kids today are subjected to a lot of issues that are not related to academics.”

“Homeschooled kids are probably better socialized than those attending public schools because they learn from a young age how to speak with respect and interact with people of all ages since they aren’t confined to a class of a certain age group,” Tucker added.

The other main area of difference between homeschooling and public schooling lies in academics. Children in each learning environment are taught the same basic skills- reading, writing, solving math problems, etc.- and studies have shown that homeschoolers, when tested, tend to fare slightly better on reading and writing than math and science, while public-school students score slightly better on math than reading, according to responsiblehomeschooling.org. But the two educational methods differ outside of these core academic areas as well.

“Parents who homeschool their children generally get to decide for themselves the focus of their child’s education. The curriculum can be developed on the passions of the parents or for those areas in which the child has a natural curiosity,” publicschoolreview.com says. “Public schools, for the most part, base their curriculums on state standards, and lessons are geared toward students reaching and surpassing those standards. There is usually not a lot of time to cover material in-depth, but students are exposed to a broad range of ideas and concepts. Homeschool curriculums usually take fewer ideas to a deeper level, while public school curriculums usually take more ideas and connect them with one another in hopes of showing students the bigger picture.”

But which method is best? Like other factors, it depends on the child, but the data gives the scholastic advantage to homeschoolers. Ray says home-educated children typically score 15 to 30 percentile points higher than public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests. And homeschoolers have proven to score above average on the SAT and ACT that colleges consider for admission. Further, according to home-school.com, homeschooled students have an average college freshman GPA of 3.41 that rises to 3.46 in their senior year. By comparison, non-homeschooled students have a college freshman GPA of 3.12 that rises to 3.16 in their senior year. And homeschoolers graduate from college at a higher rate than their peers, 66.7 percent to 57.5 percent. However, there is some indication that fewer homeschoolers attend college than their counterparts, says responsibleschooling.org.

Sports participation is another aspect to consider, as some states prevent homeschooled students from being a part of public school athletic programs. But Ray said there is a way around this if parents believe homeschooling is the way to go. And Tucker said her kids are actively involved in church activities, scouting, sports and dance.

“Many homeschool families get together and develop their own athletic teams, musical clubs or other groups,” Ray said. “And there are lots of organizations out there- local youth sports teams, Boy and Girl Scouts, Bible study groups, etc.- that welcome participation regardless of school affiliation.”

Final Verdict

It’s important to remember that the effectiveness of schooling methods varies by student and how he or she learns best. Thus, while one child may thrive in a homeschooled environment, another may struggle. Ray said deciding between the two can also come down to the amount of time and effort you can and want to put into your child’s education.

“If you want strong academics and want to spend more time with your kids, choose homeschooling,” he said. “But homeschooling is a lot of work, and if you don’t want to put in that much time and work into educating your children, put them in public school.”

However, homeschooling certainly has its advantages, Ray said.

“The simplest way to put it is to look at the research, which has shown that home-educated children are scoring well above average on standardized tests,” he said. “But this shouldn’t surprise anyone because of the one-one-one attention, customized curriculums, relaxed environments and focus on reading, writing and math that home-educated children receive. Any qualified teacher would say the combination of the above factors is a very solid educational formula.”

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