News Column

Newtown Tragedy Boosts Interest in Home Schooling

Jan 14, 2013

Jim Shelton

As the awful details of the Sandy Hook slayings emerged last month, Angelique Henderson of Meriden had a guilty, fleeting thought amid the sadness.

Thank goodness I'm home schooling.

"I know it's horrible, but I remember saying that to myself," said Henderson, a former high school English teacher who recently began home schooling her 3-year-old daughter, Marielle. "We're all parents. I feel like everyone should come together at a time like that."

Yet it's a sentiment that home schooling experts say was echoed by thousands of other parents around the country who choose to educate their kids at home. For some, the tragedy reconfirmed at least a partial factor in wanting to home school in the first place.

"Bullying and emotional abuse and the threat of gun violence have always been a piece of the puzzle," said Diane Flynn Keith, founder of Homefires.com, a site devoted to home schooling.

Keith said that on the day of the Newtown shootings, home schooling message boards she visited were filled with parents expressing sorrow for the families of victims, but also thankful they didn't have to send their own children off to a school building.

In the weeks since, she's seen a sharp spike in the number of people coming to her home schooling seminars because of Newtown.

"I have one tomorrow here in the (San Francisco) Bay area, and I know at least a third of the people will be there because of what happened in Newtown," Keith said.

"I have a hard time thinking why a parent wouldn't want to know what alternatives are out there. This was a terrible tragedy. All the red flags go up for parents, and you think of all the ways you can avoid having your child in that situation."

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that nearly 2 million youngsters in the U.S. are home schooled. The numbers have risen steadily for decades, advocates say.

In Connecticut, state law requires home schooling parents to provide "equivalent instruction" to what their child would receive in a public school.

That instruction must cover reading, writing, spelling, English grammar, geography, arithmetic and U.S. history and citizenship, including federal, state and local government.

"People choose this so they can provide individualized, effective education," said Deborah Stevenson, executive director of National Home Education Legal Defense in Southbury. "They can tailor a curriculum to meet the needs of the child."

Stevenson said roughly 2 to 3 percent of Connecticut students are home schooled.

"It's clearly something that works for many people," she said. "There are tons of resources for parents to get curriculum materials and individualized textbooks."

She and several other representatives from Connecticut home schooling groups stressed that they have not seen an influx of new parents interested in home schooling since the mass shooting in Newtown. What's more, they said personal safety has not been a dominant issue for parents.

"I have not seen any change," said Barbara Dembin, membership director of Classical Kids, a home schooling network based in northern Fairfield County.

"There are a multitude of reasons why people choose this. Most often, it's a matter of a school not being able to provide the kind of education a parent is looking for," Dembin said.

"I wouldn't say security has ever been mentioned to me as a main reason."

But home schooling researcher Brian D. Ray, of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore., disagreed.

"Clearly, for at least the past 25 years, parents have been telling us safety is a significant issue for them," Ray said. "Schools are just not the safest place. We can provide a safer place."

According to Ray, home schoolers' safety concerns include guns, knives, brawls, bullying and peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol or have premarital sex. Some parents also worry about possible physical or emotional abuse from teachers.

School shootings in Newtown and elsewhere, Ray added, are having a "clear" impact on home schooling.

"Home schooling groups are being very cautious in what they say right now, to be respectful, because people are hurting," Ray said. "They don't want to be seen as politicizing this."

That's certainly true for Henderson and her daughter in Meriden.

The family had decided to home school long before the Newtown incident occurred, Henderson explained.

"Safety wasn't really the major issue," she said. "It was more determined by the atmosphere of schools. It had to do with the way systems just push kids through."

These days, little Marielle is working on the numeral 1, the word O-N-E and a story involving a big, red dog named Clifford. She also takes field trips to various museums with her mom and dad.

It's a huge commitment of time and energy. Henderson said any parent who attempts home schooling needs to understand what a big job it is.

"A lot of people think it's easy. It's not," she said. "You don't get any breaks, and the buck stops with you. You don't have anyone else to blame."

It's a far cry from her previous teaching environment at North Hollywood High School in California. At that school, fights would break out involving dozens of kids. In one instance, Henderson lost a student to gang violence.

"He was shot in the head," Henderson said. "That was very hard on me."



Source: (c)2013 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.