Thursday, March 5, 2009

When hard times reached the Schneider household in central Oregon, the longtime stay-at-home mom got a job at Subway to offset a drop in her husband’s earnings. What she didn’t do was also notable - she didn’t stop home-schooling her three teenage children.

Colleen Schneider works evenings so she’s home for her favored morning teaching hours. But an inflexible 9-to-5 job that would force her to quit home-schooling was not an option.

”I would fight tooth and nail to home-school,” said Mrs. Schneider, 47, a devout Roman Catholic who wants to convey her values to her children. “I’m making it work because it’s my absolute priority.”

Other families across the country are making similar decisions - college-age children chipping in with their earnings, laid-off fathers sharing teaching duties, mothers taking part-time jobs - with the goal of continuing to home-school in the face of economic setbacks.

Before the recession, the ranks of home-school students had been growing by an estimated 8 percent annually; the latest federal figures, from 2007, calculate the total at about 1.5 million.

While some families are giving up because of a stay-at-home parent’s need to get a job, the recession overall will likely be a further boost to home-schooling, according to parents and educators interviewed by the Associated Press.

‘We’re going to see continued growth,” said Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore. “The reasons parents home-educate are not passing, faddish things.”

Christopher Klicka of Warrenton, Va., senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association and co-teacher along with his wife of seven home-schooled children, says hard times enhance home-schooling’s appeal as private-school tuition becomes unaffordable and some public schools contemplate cutbacks.

“People are looking to home-schooling as an alternative more now in light of economic circumstances,” he said, citing its low cost and potential for strengthening family bonds.

At Allendale Academy in Clearwater, Fla., which provides resources for home-schoolers, enrollment has risen 50 percent over the past two years to about 900 students as families desert private schools, says academy director Patricia Carter.

“Often one parent has been laid off,” she said. “That makes private-school tuition impossible, and they don’t want to send their kids back to public school.”

Her academy charges $65 per year to support students through 8th grade, $95 for high school students, compared with private-school tuitions often running many thousands of dollars per year.

For frugal families, home-schooling can be a good fit. Used academic material is available at low cost, while free research resources are on tap on the Internet and at libraries.

“Home-schoolers are pretty self-reliant,” said Judy Aron of West Hartford, Conn., who has home-schooled three children. “They’d rather cut back on other things. … They very vehemently don’t want to see themselves as victims.”

Michael Marcucci, of Middlebury, Conn., is president of the Connecticut Homeschool Network, which has about 1,500 member families, including 34 who signed up in January alone.

”During difficult times, people tend to go back to basics,” Mr. Marcucci said. “I know a family with five children - the father’s been out of work 18 months and they’re still home-schooling.”

His own family, with three home-schooled children, got a taste of that challenge last year when Mr. Marcucci, a banker, was out of work for six months. His wife continued home-schooling, rather than seek a job, and he supplemented his job-hunting with teaching stints of his own.

”It was a chance to reconnect with family, to get to know your children in a different way,” he said. “I was excited about the opportunity to teach Greek history, to help out with algebra.”

Andrea Farrier, a mother of three girls from Kalona, Iowa, does double-duty - home-schooling her daughters and working part time for her school district as a supervisory teacher for 23 other home-school families. Several are struggling financially - in some cases because of a father’s layoff - but abandoning home-schooling so the mother can find a job is not their response, she said.

“These families are already sacrificing - when times get tough, there’s no belt left to tighten,” she said. “These are families who home-school because public education wouldn’t serve the needs of their children - it’s the last thing they’ll give up.”

In Michigan, among the states hardest hit by recession, April Morris, 44, of Auburn Hills remains committed to home-schooling even though she’s now working full-time at Target, a job she started after her husband was laid off from his computer job.

The three oldest Morris children have moved on to college, but Ben, 13, continues to home-school, getting help from his father and older siblings as well as his mother, who works evenings and has Thursdays off to maximize her teaching availability.

Shelly Mabe, a coordinator for a group of 250 Christian home-schooling families in Michigan’s Macomb County, said she hasn’t heard of any of them giving up home-schooling, but some have moved to other states where laid-off fathers had better job prospects.

In La Pine, Ore., Mrs. Schneider is trying to adjust to the challenges that arose when a booming local real estate market collapsed and her husband’s earnings in drywall work plummeted. Initially, she tried to work an early-morning shift at Subway, but soon switched to evenings.

”I felt ripped out of my house,” she said. “When you home-school, the morning is a very precious time. You greet your children, encourage them to get on schedule. … Otherwise, the tendency to sleep in and put things off really creeps in.”

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