- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

It's happening again. Everywhere I go, people who find out I home-school start asking questions: How do you get started? How much time does it take? Do you have a degree? Were you a professional teacher? What curriculum do you use?

People are curious about our lifestyles, our educational methods and how our children are doing. In some cases, people ask because they can't imagine how a person would be able to educate several children in all the various subjects. In increasing numbers, however, people are asking for personal reasons. They may be dissatisfied with their current schooling situation, or they may be weighing the options for their children.

When answering their questions, I feel compelled to present people with the wide range of home-schooling options. I outline the legal structures in our state, followed by the various curriculum possibilities. I explain such ideas as correspondence schooling, in which the student sends completed assignments to a central teacher for correction, grading and comments; parent-graded workbook systems; and even the idea of unschooling, in which the child's interests become the core of an exploratory style of learning.

Many people ask about tests and grades the central focus of both public and private schooling in America. Again, I explain that parents can choose from a strongly graded and tested system, or they can eliminate grades and work instead on a completion-of-skills basis.

Only after explaining the full range of possibilities do I describe my choices. I don't want anyone to think that unless they do things my way, they can't home-school. That would be unfair and misleading because virtually anyone who has the desire can find a way to educate their children at home.

Some reasons for the increasing openness to home-schooling lie in areas other than poor test scores. Many parents have had disastrous experiences, even in private schools, with such problems as children disseminating pornography to others, even in the elementary grades. In some cases, parents find their children are having trouble concentrating or are picking up negative habits such as using profanity and derogatory words and gestures.

Let's face it, today's schools are becoming petri dishes for the development of many dangerous activities. Drug dealers, child molesters, hate groups and gangs all are part of the environment into which we send our children daily.

One also could cite the onslaught of amoral (or downright immoral) messages in the television, film and music industries, especially those targeted at the youth audience. Let's face it, unless children are watching PBS, their leisure hours are likely to be filled with frequent demonstrations of violence and nonmarital sex.

But I believe the problems in the schools come from a very simple, easily overlooked fact: The schools separate children from parents, collecting children into a large crowd, all the same age.

This system was created for an efficient and rapid means of transmitting information. Ideally, a given age group would be able to learn the same subject at the same time from the same teacher.

Schools can be considered the human equivalent of agribusiness. As small family farms were thought to be inefficient, with each family planting a small number of vegetables in a modest space, agriculture became collectivized. Huge areas were devoted to each individual crop, and only large corporate or government entities were able to afford to farm. In education, just as we were able to produce huge amounts of identical crops, we were able to turn out bumper harvests of high school seniors.

Yet, over time, we found that agribusiness methods led to the rapid spread of insect and fungus blights, depletion of the soil and contamination of rivers and lakes. In the same way, with a large population of children of the same age in schools, it's easy for a single contaminating force to spread. Teen pregnancy spreads, drug use spreads, violence spreads, racism spreads and each would have a much harder time being transmitted if the population were more diverse and in greater contact with the more experienced (and hopefully wiser) elder population.

Even while Josef Stalin collectivized Soviet agriculture, nearly every family found a way to cultivate its own small garden plot. Home gardens virtually fed the Soviet Union for 70 years as collectivized farms failed miserably. In this, the Russians and others were wiser than we were. Family farms are almost extinct here.

In the same way the family garden mixes crops, the family school mixes ages and interests in the same small area. Thus, we gain strength from the mix, and we gain immunity from many of the opportunistic diseases that are so hard to control in large school bodies.

Another reason home schools are protected is that parents control the environment. We can be sure there are no guns in our classrooms. We know no pornography is around. We keep children safe by eliminating unsafe situations such as school proms and homecoming games.

This is the exact point we are criticized for, by the way. We are accused of denying our children the wonders of "socialization." We should allow them to dress up in sexy attire and get into cars alone with members of the opposite sex. We should allow them to focus on overheated group events and develop school spirit. We should let them try out for cheerleading or the basketball team and let them run in school elections. Why? Perhaps to increase their attractiveness for college recruitment? Or is it really just to get them conditioned, get them used to going along with a group agenda?

It is because home-schoolers don't do these things that they are more successful than their institutionalized contemporaries. Each child gets lots of attention without having to put on an image. Wow. What a concept. Self-esteem, accomplishment and authenticity. Letting a child be a child. Wait until the public finds out about this.

It's no magic formula; it's no big secret. Home-schooling gives children what they need to grow up smart, safe and successful. People are noticing. That's why people keep asking us how we do it, and that's why the number of home-schooling families is expanding.

If you want to home-school, call a home-schooling family and ask how that family got started. If you have a unique situation, ask if the family knows someone with your circumstances. Believe me, there are home-schooling families with the same situation you have. When you put your children first, you will see the rewards are infinite; I can promise you that.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer living in Maryland.

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