At home with teaching: Homeschooling growing in popularity

At home with teaching: Homeschooling growing in popularity

Gail Parmentier, of Cumberland, right, helps daughter Emily, center, with her work last Friday as Emily’s twin sister, Rachel, plays with their cat Terri. The Parmentiers say they homeschool for many reasons, adding that though there are frustrating moments, they’ve never regretted their decision. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)

Thirty years ago, a request to educate one’s children at home was rare enough to make front page news in the local paper. Today, school boards approve a list of requests toward the end of their meetings, often with no questions asked.

Over the past 15 years, the number of homeschooled students in Rhode Island has risen by some 42 percent, from 857 students statewide in 2002-2003 to 1,466 students in 2017-2018, according to statewide data provided to The Breeze by the Rhode Island Department of Education, in response to a records request.

And with that increased popularity of homeschooling has come a wider public acceptance of the alternative education method, say area home educators.

Some of the largest increases in homeschool populations are in northern Rhode Island, where:

• Cumberland has seen a jump from 30 students 15 years ago to 70 students today.

• Pawtucket has gone from 29 homeschooled students to 76 students.

• Woonsocket’s homeschool population has increased from 35 students to 99 students.

• Lincoln has gone from nine students to 37 students.

• Scituate has seen an increase from five homeschooled students to 32 homeschooled students.

• Smithfield has gone from 18 to 27 homeschooled students.

• Foster-Glocester has jumped from 32 homeschooled students to 49 students.

• And North Smithfield has gone from five homeschooled students to 14 students.

One of the few exceptions to the growth seen across the state is in North Providence, where there are three homeschooled students this year compared to 20 students 15 years ago. Supt. Bridget Morisseau didn’t immediately respond to a question on why she thinks that is.

Other districts seeing substantial increases over the past 15 years include Warwick, which has raised its homeschool population from 22 students to 155 students; Providence, which has jumped from 49 students to 111 students in that time; Cranston, seeing an increase from 37 to 66 students; and East Providence, which has jumped from 19 students to 78 students.

According to the National Home Education Research Institute, there were about 2.3 million homeschoolers in the U.S. as of January, up from about 2 million home-educated students in grades K-12 in 2010. With annual growth between 2 percent and 8 percent, “it may be the fastest growing form of education in the U.S.,” states the organization.

Denise Mudge, a Cumberland resident who helps run Franklin Farm, is wrapping up homeschooling her second son, Mitchell, who plans to join his older brother, Kyle, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Mudge said she believes homeschooling has become more accessible than ever, particularly as more people learn how doable it is. People are learning that it’s “not as scary as it sounds” and they “can actually do this,” she said.

“It’s empowering to parents to know that they actually have a say in their child’s education,” she said.

Stacey Gorbachev, a Pawtucket mother who oversees city programming for one of the state’s two largest homeschool organizations, ENRICHri, which meets at the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket two days each week, said she’s a product of public schools, graduating from Shea High School, and “loved the majority of my school experience.”

But once she had a child entering kindergarten, her entire vision of school changed, said Gorbachev. With private schools off the table, and 100 or more young people on a waiting list for a charter school, a friend told her six years ago to reach out to leaders of ENRICHri. Representatives from the group came to her home to explain homeschooling, and her eyes were opened to the opportunities. Gorbachev said her family is taking homeschooling year by year, but said so far this new “lifestyle” is working.

Homeschooling is becoming more mainstream as people become less afraid of the idea, added Gorbachev. She said she meets homeschool families everywhere.

“Everyone has their own reason for homeschooling,” she said.

“Homeschool 101” seminars are regularly offered at local libraries, and families are showing up to learn that there’s another school choice, said Gorbachev.

Changing face of homeschooling

Laura Wilber, a homeschool mom from Foster, said she finds it interesting how the face of homeschooling has changed, saying she’s meeting more “secular homeschoolers” and working moms who home-school.

Gail Parmentier, a homeschool mom of 7th-grade twins from Cumberland, and a member of RIGHT, or the Rhode Island Guild of Home Teachers, told The Valley Breeze she thinks there are many reasons why people choose to home school. For her and her husband, Bill, it was a combination of their faith beliefs, not wanting their daughters to experience the bullying they’d suffered through in school, and the chance to give their children the individualized attention they wouldn’t receive in public school.

“We chose to homeschool for a myriad of reasons,” she said, adding that there are seemingly more resources and support for homeschool families than ever before.

ENRICHri, the secular homeschool organization, and RIGHT, the state’s Christian-based group, often work together on various efforts, said Parmentier. Those who want to learn more can simply visit their Facebook pages and ask questions.

Homeschooling, said Bill Parmentier, allows their children to participate in all sorts of activities for a more well-rounded education, including helping him with his photography, volunteering at the Cumberland Public Library, starting a pet-sitting business of their own, or working on their sport of competitive jump-roping. When their daughters have taken standardized testing, they’ve shown to be above grade level, he said.

Parmentier said there’s been a breakdown of sorts in public schools, and despite many positives in education, some parents are simply tired of dealing with the bullying from other students or fighting to keep an individualized education plan (IEP) in place.

On the oft-repeated question about socialization, the Parmentiers said their children are getting some of the healthiest social interaction possible every day, meeting and talking with people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s understandable that children of one age are put together every day for class in public school, said Bill, but who says that’s the healthiest form of socialization?

Rachel and Emily Parmentier said they love homeschooling not only for the flexibility in their schedules, but also because it allows them to pursue their individual interests.

Gail Parmentier said her family moved to Cumberland in part because they were previously in a Rhode Island district that tried to demand far more documentation than required by law. She emphasized that Cumberland has been a joy to work with, welcoming her daughter Rachel into the school band and inviting her daughters to participate in classes or extracurricular activities as they choose.

The Parmentiers and others credited the work of the homeschool trailblazers of three decades ago, as well as the work of the Home School Legal Defense Association, for laying the groundwork to make homeschooling easier today.

They and homeschool families from across the area participate in numerous co-ops, giving them the chance to take classes they might not have a lot of experience in and alleviating the education burden somewhat.

Cumberland Supt. Bob Mitchell said he’s not exactly sure why there’s been such a significant increase in Cumberland over the past 15 years, but provided articles listing social, academic, family and religious reasons. Cumberland’s numbers have remained fairly consistent for the past six years, he noted, with 63 homeschooled students in town back in 2012-2013.

Requirements

According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, parents who wish to homeschool need no special certificate or qualifications, only an ability to provide “thorough and efficient” instruction. They must notify their home districts and receive school board approval before they begin home instruction. Parents must simply present a plan to the school board that they will teach the required subjects, and should come to an agreement with schools on how a child’s progress will be evaluated.

Home educators may copy the school curriculum, use correspondence courses, or design their own curriculum. State law doesn’t require that science be part of that curriculum, but parents must teach reading, writing, geography, math, history of the United States and Rhode Island, principles of American government, health and physical education.

Children are required to have 180 days of education in a year, and the parents are asked to keep attendance records.

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said he believes parents are educating their children at home for many reasons, and the department has no issue with that as long as the children are still being educated. He said he doesn’t believe that the numbers will ever put a serious dent in school enrollments, as charter or private schools do, because not enough people feel they have what it takes to homeschool, or believe public or private education can do a better job of it.

Homeschoolers account for about 1 percent of the estimated 142,000 students in the state’s public schools.

Pawtucket School Supt. Patti DiCenso said local school officials simply want to make sure there’s a plan in place to formalize learning. They accept whatever plan of education parents provide, and “don’t debate it.”

Part of the reason for the increase in Pawtucket, she said, could be that prior to 2011 the number of homeschooled students wasn’t “systemically documented as it is now,” but she said there’s certainly been significant growth.

DiCenso said access to technology has likely increased the popularity of homeschooling. Students “can study around the world online now,” she said. Social media sites are helping parents network in ways that were never possible previously, and partnerships with the district and organizations such as the Pawtucket Boys & Girls Club are giving them the chance to fine-tune their offerings in new ways.

In Pawtucket, Attleboro-based drama club A Work in Progress has partnered with Tolman High School in an ongoing relationship, DiCenso noted. In exchange for use of the auditorium there, students and parents have completed extensive upgrades to the theater.

Pawtucket School Committee Chairman Jay Charbonneau said he believes it’s the parents’ choice how they want to educate their children, and he doesn’t think it’s necessary for the school board to interfere unless a clear deficiency is brought to officials’ attention.

Homeschooled students are afforded access to all kinds of activities, from public school athletics to after-school activities, said Charbonneau. He said he certainly wishes students would choose Pawtucket’s public schools, particularly with the improvements that have been made in recent years, but he understands why families might want to do education differently.

Gorbachev said she and other organizers in Pawtucket needed fewer than 20 students to make programming at the Pawtucket Boys & Girls Club feasible, and nearly 100 students are now gathering there on Tuesdays. The club is “picture perfect” for activities on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which include swim instruction, gym, computer research, Pokemon club, and fort building, among many others, all run by volunteers.

One year at a time

Mudge said she and her husband Rob started out in homeschooling saying they would take it year by year. Their sons had gone to Community School, and though they had no real complaints about the school, they realized that homeschooling provided a better chance to improve their children’s weaknesses in a non-traditional setting. Cumberland schools have been very welcoming to homeschooled students during her time teaching her children, said Mudge, who frequently sees homeschoolers at Franklin Farm.

Mudge, too, said that social media has played a huge role in the increasing popularity of homeschooling, and many colleges and organizations, such as MIT or the Boston Aquarium, are making programs for homeschoolers more convenient than ever. An outside class on oceanography is an “incredible out-of-the-box” experience that you just can’t get in school and helps parents personalize their children’s education, she said.

Kyle Mudge is studying biomedical and mechanical engineering at WPI. Mitchell Mudge plans to study mechanical engineering and fire protection engineering at the school.

Mudge said she hears of few problems arising when someone wants to homeschool. Issues do sometimes come up when someone new joins a school board and doesn’t understand the laws on homeschooling, she said. A lawmaker will occasionally propose a bill she considers to be an overreach, like one last year to require that all homeschoolers be tested each year.

The Cumberland mother said she thinks the state should do more to help homeschool families, including allowing home-educated students to participate in PrepareRI, a job readiness program allowing high school students to take two college courses for free.

Mudge said she, too, finds the issue of socialization is emphasized too much by those outside homeschooling circles.

“There can be too much socialization,” she said, pointing out that her sons participated in sports, band, choir, AP classes and other activities with the schools.

With homeschooling, Mudge said there is more “real world socialization.” Contrary to what some people visualize, she said, this isn’t just a family sitting around the kitchen table for the day.

Comments

I’m starting to question the sensibility of public schools. The cost to taxpayers, inability to provide adequate security, and bullying issues make me wonder if home schooling or charter schools is a better approach to education.

On average hs kids score better than ps kids. Charter schools are taxpayer funded but not as much public union over reach. Compulsory education is very American but also very anti freedom. But at least with hs it gives freedom and control back to the parents. Also note that a public school student could cost between $12000-20000 per year to educate whereas a hs student can cost $100-$3000. We did it at approx $1000 a year. Also public schools generally ask for (and keep getting) more$ yet student performance has gone down over the decades. Too bad education wasn’t voluntary and each parent had to pay tuition. Then parents would value education and be more proactive with what their children are learning.

Yes sir, you are right. Homeschooling, charter schools and private schools are a far better choice.

I heartily agree with your comment on how home schooled students have just as much socializing as public schooled kids. Being home schooled myself, one of the questions people always ask is "how do you have any friends if you stay home all day?" -and frankly, it can get very annoying. Thank you for addressing this prominent issue.

I thank you for you spreading awareness about homeschoolers, hopefully clearing up many misconceptions public schoolers and their parents have about homeschoolers.

I most certainly agree with all you have stated and applaud you attempting to open the eyes to a community larger than others assume it is. There are indeed plenty of benefits to homeschooling and its truly amazing that you have taken the time to highlight the majority of them.