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Home schooling rising in north country, but debate continues

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HERMON — It’s 9:30 a.m. on a school day, but Elias P. Nelson and his younger brother, Josiah R., aren’t sitting in a classroom surrounded by kids their own age.

The two brothers, ages 7 and 5, are at their Trout Lake Road home with their mother, Rebecca L. Pickens, and younger brother, Walden J., 2.

As home-schooled children, this is where they will learn how to read, write, solve math problems, complete art projects and more. Instead of boarding a yellow school bus each day, they crawl out of bed, head downstairs and begin their school day.

The Nelson boys are among nearly 800 children in St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis counties who are home-schooled, a number that’s grown slightly over the past decade in the three-county region.

On this cold winter day as the wind whips outside their rural farmhouse, the boys sit on matching red beanbag chairs as their mom introduces a unit she’s prepared on Japanese culture.

They identify where Japan is on a colorful world map that hangs on a dining room wall. Later in the week they’ll make a Japanese craft, read books and watch a video about the Asian country. They’ll also listen to Japanese music and learn how to make sushi.

Ms. Pickens and her husband operate Minds Eye Farm & Herbary, where they grow medicinal and culinary herbs and raise sheep, chickens and a goat. They didn’t plan to home-school, but when their oldest child showed a passion for learning at age 3, they started teaching at home and stayed on that path.

“I have a lot more freedom to do fun things and be creative,” Elias noted as he pondered a reporter’s question. “There’s less time you have to spend sitting.”

He said he’s looking forward to learning about different types of mushrooms from a book he borrowed from the library.

“I hope to do a study,” he said. “I’m interested in them, and I’ve seen hundreds growing in the wild.”



NUMBERS RISING; REASONS VARY

While home-schooling numbers are rising locally and nationally, there still is controversy regarding the practice’s benefits and drawbacks.

Some parents decide to home-school because they want to combine religious and moral instruction with academics. Others are dissatisfied with the academic instruction or environment at their public or private school. The ability to provide one-on-one customized instruction with a flexible schedule motivates others.

Studies showing that home-schooled students on average outperform non-home-schoolers on standardized tests support their decision. One such study is a 2009 report of 12,000 home-schooled students from all 50 states conducted by the Homeschool Legal Defense Association.

Critics, however, argue that home-schooled children have a narrower horizon of experiences than students in a traditional classroom and may be less equipped to cope with the wider world. In schools, children must learn to tolerate people from all walks of life, whereas home schooling might shield children from diversity and provide less chance for socialization.

Parents who home-school counter that their children are socialized through sports, music and art classes, gatherings with other home-school families, and church and other extracurriculars.

Although the pros and cons have been widely debated, the New York State Association of School Psychologists hasn’t established a position for or against home schooling in respect to the social and emotional functioning of home-schoolers.

Mary Kay Hafer, a retired school psychologist from Potsdam, said research on psychological and social outcomes for home-schooled students suggest they tend to fare no differently in these areas than their traditional peers. Mrs. Hafer represents the three-county region in the state association.

“Home-schoolers are often very involved with community-service activities, which can provide them with meaningful social interaction with peers and adults,” she said. “Home schooling is a very personal decision that is most successful when parents take into account their individual child’s needs, in addition to the commitment and level of opportunity they are able to provide to support each child.”



PULLED FROM SCHOOL

Roughly 20 years ago, Mark K. Reardon and his wife, Patsy, both of West Stockholm, started home schooling after one of their sons was diagnosed with dyslexia. They objected to a decision by Potsdam Central School District officials to place him in remedial classes because the Reardons knew he was strong in other academic areas.

“Public schools are too quick to label kids who may learn in a different way,” Mr. Reardon said. “All of our kids have attended college and done well. It worked out well for us.”

Some families withdraw their children from public or private school because they aren’t satisfied with teaching methods and the demands the state has imposed on how students are evaluated.

Maegan K. Bos, a math professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, and her husband, Brian C. Ladd, a computer science professor at SUNY Potsdam, home-school despite full-time jobs. They took their son, Nicholas J. Bos-Ladd, out of Canton’s J.M. McKenney Middle School two years ago after he finished fifth grade. The 12-year-old now is taught at home four days a week; one day a week he attends Little River Community School, an alternative school in Canton.

“Mostly, we were happy with the results of public school as far as he went,” Ms. Bos said. “But then he complained about being bored in class. There was a lot of waiting-around time, waiting for others to finish their work. When he was bored, he’d stop paying attention or talk in class and get in trouble.”

Ms. Bos also said she was unhappy with grading policies that forced students to show all their math work or lose points on their assignments and tests.

“Bottom line, I want him to be evaluated by what he is doing and how well he is doing it, not by a cookie-cutter set of rules,” she said.

McKenney Principal Viola M. Schmid-Doyle said the “extended-response” questions on the state math tests require students to show the steps they used to reach their answers.

“They have to demonstrate that they understand the concepts really well,” she said. “They have to show an understanding of mathematical thinking.”



MORE RESOURCES AVAILABLE

Advances in technology have made home schooling easier than in prior generations. A multitude of resources, courses and curriculums are available online and through educational catalogs. Facebook and other social media help home-school families share ideas and connect for social activities. A north country home-schooling group meets twice a month and connects through newsletters, field trips and their website: www.northcountryhomeschooling.org.

The chance to help her boys explore their own interests motivates Ms. Pickens to continue home schooling. While Elias is passionate about math and science, Josiah, who goes by “Jo Jo,” is artistic and spends much of his time drawing.

“It’s so much about letting the child guide you,” Ms. Pickens said. “Our philosophy is really that school is going on all the time.”

Some children who are home-schooled during their elementary years transfer into public school when they reach high school age because academic courses become more difficult and they want to meet more teenagers.

Bethany M. Rutherford, 23, Ogdensburg, had to convince her parents to let her attend Ogdensburg Free Academy. She was eager to make more friends and thought she needed better instruction for her math and science courses.

“I felt like I only had a couple of friends from church,” she said. “I was at the age where I wanted to meet more people.”

She enrolled at OFA as a 10th-grader and graduated with honors in 2008. She continued her education at SUNY Potsdam and now works as a graphic designer in Canton.

The transition to public school was challenging, but Ms. Rutherford says she’s confident it was the right choice.

“It was really hard at first; I found it overwhelming,” she said. “After the first few months I started fitting in socially. By the time I was a senior, I wasn’t that weird home-school girl.”

Although the number of home-schooled students in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties has increased from 789 to 794 over the past decade, the percentage of the total student population has remained at about 2. In New York state, the figure is 3.9 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Nationwide, it’s 3.4 percent, representing approximately 1.8 million students, up from 1.1 million a decade ago.

The figures started climbing in the United States a few years ago when the economy declined, partly because some families couldn’t afford to send their children to private school and turned to home-schooling, according to www.a2zhomeschooling.com, a website that tracks home-schooling trends. Other families may have decided to home-school when a parent lost his or her job and could stay home.

In St. Lawrence County, where Potsdam Central has experienced the largest increase in home schooling in the county over the past decade — going from 48 to 93 students — Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said roughly a third of those students attend Christian Fellowship Center in Madrid, which offers enrichment classes one day a week to about 100 home-schooled students from the north country.

Each Friday, students in kindergarten through grade 12 gather for classes in art, music, literature, biblical studies, history, gym and lunch. The center technically isn’t a school, although it plays a role in both instruction and socialization.

Most home-schooled children in Mr. Brady’s district start at a young age.

“It is more rare to have a student attend public school and then transfer to a home-schooled model,” he said. “Most parents involved with home schooling have a specific educational philosophy for their children, so they tend to home-school from the very beginning of their child’s education.”

Although some families teach at home because their children are unhappy at public or private school or aren’t doing well there academically, Kelly N. Burnham, a certified teacher from Canton, said she was satisfied with the education her two oldest children (now 22 and 20) received at Canton’s Banford Elementary School before they were home-schooled. She said she particularly liked the flexible schedule the method provided.

“They were very relaxed and felt encouraged to explore their own interests,” Mrs. Burnham said.

She also acknowledged that while home schooling worked well for her family, it might not be the best option for all households.

For starters, there’s the time commitment. Next, a parent or guardian might have to give up an outside income. Other families may be deterred by the paperwork required by the New York State Education Department, including filing quarterly reports that track their child’s progress.

REQUIREMENTS

To be classified as home-schooled, families must register with their home district, which is responsible for monitoring lesson plans and reviewing quarterly academic reports submitted by parents.

Parents or guardians also are required to prepare an individual home instruction plan for each child, but they aren’t obligated to follow the new Common Core curriculum (see chart, below) being implemented in public schools across the country. Families also are exempt from administering the state assessments required in public schools.

Those who continue through high school aren’t typically awarded a diploma from their home school but receive documentation certifying they’ve completed their curriculum.

Students who attend alternative schools, such as Little River, aren’t counted as home-schooled even if they attend an alternative school only one day a week and spend the rest of their weekdays at home.

Little River, the only alternative school in St. Lawrence County, has 34 students in kindergarten through grade 12. Students who spend part of their week at home are classified as Little River “satellite” students.

Thomas R. Burns, superintendent of the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said he isn’t aware of parents pulling their children from public school because they’re upset about new Common Core requirements and state tests.

As the BOCES superintendent, Mr. Burns oversees the 17 public-school districts in St. Lawrence County and Harrisville Central School District in Lewis County.

Although he’s hesitant to give a strong opinion on home schooling, he said downsides can include the wide variation of home-schooling plans and types of diagnostic tests used to assess progress.

Mr. Burns said he also has concerns about vendor-based curriculum products because they vary widely in terms of their quality, content and alignment with both the former state standards and the newer Common Core standards.

“In my own experience, I have also seen frequent discrepancies between parent-assigned term grades and results on standardized and diagnostic tests and assessments. Other superintendents may have seen different trends,” he said.

He acknowledged his view favoring public education may be biased.

“As someone who has spent their entire career in public education, and in my current role, I obviously have a great commitment and dedication to public education, both the history and the promise for the public education moving forward,” he said in an email. “That being said, I can’t really comment on whether home schooling is a viable alternative. That is for parents to decide.”

HOME SCHOOLING IN THE NORTH COUNTRY
County| Public-school students**| Home-schooled| Total students| Home-schooled%
Tri-county* (2004-05)| 39,455| 789| 40,244| 1.96
Tri-county (2013-14)| 39,082| 794| 39,876| 1.99

St.Lawrence (’04-05)| 16,761| 392| 17,153| 2.29
St.Lawrence (’13-14)| 15,80| 380| 16,184| 2.35

Jefferson (’04-05)| 18,145| 255| 18,400| 1.39
Jefferson (’13-14)| 19,120| 301| 19,421| 1.55

Lewis (’04-05)| 4,549| 142| 4,691| 3.03
Lewis (’13-14)| 4,158| 113| 4,271| 2.65

* Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence. ** Kindergarten through grade 12

Source: New York State Education Department

Note: In New York state, 3.9 percent of students are home-schooled, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Nationwide, the figure is 3.4 percent.

COMMON CORE AT A GLANCE
• Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is a national effort launched in 2009 to develop common academic standards for all 50 states in English Language Arts and mathematics for grades 3-8. So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted Common Core.
• One of the primary goals is “to develop a common core of standards that are internationally benchmarked, aligned with work and post-secondary education expectations and inclusive of the higher order skills that students need,” according to the New York State Education Department.
• Common Core learning standards were adopted by the New York State Board of Regents in 2011 to replace the former New York state standards in English Language Arts, literacy and math.
• In New York, state assessments based on the Common Core standards were implemented in the 2012-13 school year for grades 3-8.
• Common Core assessments have faced criticism from educators and parents who argue that students are being tested on material they haven’t been taught. Some educators also believe they have lost some control in deciding how and what they will teach.
Sources: New York State Education Department and interviews with local educators
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