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Homeschooling, City-Style


“Children are naturally curious, but in school all they’re taught is to get the right answer, which is stifling,” says Rina Crane, who homeschools her daughter Mita, 7, in the Bronx.  

A Homeschooling Primer

It’s relatively easy to begin homeschooling in New York. Homeschoolers need only file paperwork with the Department of Education stating their intention to homeschool, outlining their curriculum goals, and promising to fulfill certain requirements that correspond to public schools. Parents do not have to be certified or credentialed (nor do any tutors they use) and don’t have to abide by any particular schedule.

Some homeschool families largely emulate a traditional school day: The parents make lesson plans; start and end at a specific time; use textbooks and workbooks; and give homework, tests, and report cards. “Some families use correspondence curriculum. They say, ‘We are at home for these hours.’ They ring the bell and use the blackboard,” says Spigel.

But in New York and other cities, where cultural offerings are so rich, many homeschooling families rely heavily on the city’s cultural institutions. The New York homeschool population has grown to such an extent, in fact, that many city institutions now offer classes (often at a deep discount) just for homeschoolers. The New-York Historical Society has a program in which homeschoolers learn American history through Broadway musicals and the artifacts in its collection; this fall, it’s teaching kids about the westward expansion through Oklahoma! and the works of the artists in the Hudson River School. At Robofun, on the Upper West Side, homeschool students work in pairs to learn architecture, computer programming, robotics, and engineering by building their own robots. One of the most popular programs among New York homeschooling families, and one that fulfills the city’s phys-ed requirement, is Wayfinders, a role-playing fantasy program in which kids run around Central Park in teams with large foam swords playing an epic version of capture the flag.

As children get older and their educational needs become more sophisticated, many homeschool parents reach out to the homeschool networks online and band together with other families to hire private tutors for specialty subjects—advanced science and math, foreign languages, dance. Other parents share their own expertise. Actor parents will help a bunch of kids stage a show; artist parents will teach a painting class; parents trained in classics will teach Latin. Sposito, a civil engineer, has recently started teaching physics to her son Jonah and one of his friends based on a curriculum called “Real Science-4-Kids.” The boys did a physics lab the morning of Maya’s gymnastics class. “We threw some balls, rolled marbles, and talked about inertia,” Sposito says.

At the far end of the homeschooling spectrum are the “unschoolers,” folks who have no set learning agenda. “ ‘Unschooling’ is learning without any sort of curriculum whatsoever,” says Amy Milstein, who runs the website UnschoolingNYC. “It’s learning through life.” Rather than follow any particular math curriculum, for example, unschoolers learn to multiply fractions when they double a recipe while they’re cooking dinner. They learn to add and subtract in their heads when they count their change at the store; they do percentages by calculating tips. In unschooling, there is no memorization of multiplication tables, no spelling tests, no grammar lessons. “I think what takes the fun out of learning is ‘You must do this. It’s a lesson. That’s the way it’s done,’ ” says Milstein. “It’s an unnatural thing that we’ve come to believe is natural. Of course, there will be gaps in their knowledge. But they’ll know how to find out what they need to know.”

Testing is the great equalizer between homeschoolers or unschoolers and children following the traditional route. Math and reading tests are required at regular intervals, beginning in fourth grade. Parents can choose from a list of accepted tests, or they can opt for the same citywide tests that all public-schoolers take (arrangements can be made for homeschoolers to test at a public school alongside their peers). Tests taken at home must be administered by a certified teacher or another qualified person agreed upon by the superintendent of your school district. Parents must file test results with their end-of-year assessment. Under the city’s regulations, children who score below the 33rd percentile of national norms or show no progress compared with a previous year’s test will have their homeschooling program placed on probation. If that happens, parents must submit a plan of remediation to be reviewed by the school district.

Does Homeschooling Work?

According to a 2011 report from the National Home Education Research Institute, which is, to be sure, a homeschooling advocacy group, homeschoolers typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on academic-achievement tests. In 2002, the College Board, which administers the SAT, says that homeschoolers averaged 72 points, or 7 percent, higher than the national average. In terms of college acceptance, admissions directors say homeschoolers are evaluated just as other kids are—on their academic achievement, test scores, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and so on (See “What the Harvard Admissions Director Thinks,” at left). Students coming from a homeschool graduated college within four years at a higher rate than their peers—66.7 percent compared with 57.5 percent—and earned higher grade-point averages, according to a study that compared students at a midwestern university from 2004 to 2009.

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