Taty Sena of Park Slope only recently felt comfortable admitting that she home-schools her 6-year-old daughter. “I was a closeted home-schooler for a while,” she says. “I needed to fully justify it to myself before I was made to explain my decision to others.”
It hasn’t been an especially good p.r. year for home-schooling, thanks to high-profile arrests in California — like the Turpin family, who home-schooled (and shackled) their 13 children in Perris, and Ina Rogers and Jonathan Allen, who home-schooled their 10 children in a feces-covered home in Fairfield, a North Bay town near San Francisco. In both cases, the children were taken from their parents and put into protective custody. But there’s not much about Sena that adheres to the cultural clichés of home-schoolers; she has only one kid, she’s not especially religious and she’s not, like the home-schooling parents in the recent bestselling memoir “Educated,” a survivalist prepping for the end of the world.
In fact, she lives in an area “with one of the best public schools in the city, PS 321,” she says. “And the vice principal of that school is one of my best friends, who is a great defender of children and their right for a childhood, so that was not a concern at all.”
So why did Sena, the director of education for the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, decide to educate her only child at home?
Inspired in part by Sena’s own less-than-perfect public-school education and her experiences teaching kids who’ve lost their love of learning, she says she no longer has faith in an “unnatural system created during the industrialization era.”
Whitney Koski, who moved to New York from Memphis, Tenn., in 2015 when her youngest daughter, Eleanor, was cast in “Les Misérables” on Broadway, feels the same way. She started home-schooling her daughters, at ages 11 and 9, because she “didn’t want our girls being put in an environment where everyone had to learn the same way.”
Home schooling in the US has been legal in all 50 states since 1993, but it’s only recently seen a surge in popularity. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that home-schooled children have doubled over the last two decades, from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.8 million in recent years, or roughly one in every 33 kids. The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) claims it’s even higher, with 2.2 million US children currently getting home-schooled, and that number is rising between 5 and 15 percent on average every year.
In New York, which has about 3.3 million school-aged kids, 91,500 were home-schooled during the 2017-18 school year, up from 89,000 the previous year.
Religious fundamentalists once made up the majority of home-schoolers, but not anymore. The reasons parents are seeking nontraditional education options are now far more eclectic. Today, parents who opt for home schooling are concerned about everything from school shootings to bullying to academic standards.
They’re rejecting the one-size-fits-all model and according to a 2018 PDK/Gallup poll, 55 percent of adults think today’s kids are getting a far worse education than they had in their youth. (It’s the biggest drop since the poll started asking the question in 1973.)
But home schooling doesn’t come cheap. Katrina Maloney, who lives in New York and is married to a TV director, has been home schooling her 11-year-old daughter, Marriana, from the beginning, and she estimates the cost of a home education at roughly $10,000 a year. (The average cost for private elementary school in New York state, according to the Private School Review, is $12,214.) That includes expenses for books, field trips, museum memberships, transportation, online classes, home-schooling clubs and miscellaneous supplies, among other expenditures.
“Everything has to be paid for out of pocket,” says Maloney, a former director for early education turned full-time mom. “For families that can’t afford to have only one working parent, it can be a real sacrifice.”
Even more daunting is the lengthy process involved in registering for home-schooling status. In states like New Jersey and Connecticut, the only requirement is a letter of intent submitted to the local school board. But in New York, it’s a bit more complicated. In fact, Tj Schmidt, an attorney for the HSLDA, calls New York “absolutely the most over-regulated state for home schooling in the country.”
On top of a letter of intent, which is due annually, parents need to submit an Individualized Home Instruction Plan (their full education curriculum including syllabi, materials and textbooks) followed by four quarterly reports and a year-end assessment. Seven different documents in all, which are due again the following year. Every piece of paperwork needs to be delivered to the Central Office of Home Schooling in New York City, and Schmidt claims the office’s staff of three isn’t always able to keep up.
“There are around five to six thousand kids home-schooling in New York,” says Schmidt, who home-schools his children and was home-schooled by his parents in Vermont. “Each of them requires seven separate submissions. So now we’re up to 35,000 documents coming into that office every year.”
Even if a home-schooling parent manages to keep up with the paperwork, there’s still the matter of how they intend to educate their child. Some parents claim to let their child’s curiosity lead the way, while others try to go above and beyond the curriculum offered at public schools.
“People envision home-school parents sitting at their kitchen table, teaching this lonely child,” says Maloney. “There is a tiny bit of being at home, but a lot of it is running from place to place.”
On top of traditional subjects, like math, history and science — Maloney’s daughter Marriana started studying chemistry last year, when she turned 10 — she’s also learning fiddle, rock climbing, kayaking, fencing, gymnastics, dance, pottery, sculpting and Spanish, as well as regular gatherings with several book clubs and volunteering with seniors.
Sometimes the days are so busy with learning field trips that her daughter doesn’t get a chance to do homework until the subway ride home at 10 p.m. “But,” Maloney adds, “I am not an overachieving parent at all.”
When talking to a home-schooling parent, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety that they have a need to prove their child is getting a multifaceted education, coupled with the fear that they’re not doing enough.
“It is difficult to be your child’s everything,” says Jennifer. “To be responsible for so much and be able to outsource so little. To know that if your child fails in a subject, it’s on you. You did it. You failed him.”
Proving that a home-schooled child gets a passing grade isn’t as easy as a parent believing that they did, at least not in New York. For Koski, she files quarterly reports for both of her daughters to the district superintendent, in which she documents not just how many hours they’ve studied and a full description of each subject studied, but also “a grade or narrative evolution of their progress,” says Koski.
There are standardized tests that need to be taken, every other year between grades 4 and 8 and then annually from grades 9 to 12, either administered at a public school or at home by a “New York state certified teacher,” according to official regulations.
Despite all of these safety checks, there are still questions about whether home-schooled kids are getting a complete education. Brian Ray, the co-founder and president of the National Home Education Research Institute, claims that students who get educated at home “typically score 15 to 30 percentile points higher than public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Stanford Achievement Test.”
But Marla Sole, an assistant professor of mathematics at Guttman Community College in Midtown, says that home-schooled children often fall short in math. “Decades of research has repeatedly found that home-schooled children underperform in mathematics,” she says. “It is possible that even the most highly motivated home-schooling parents struggle to explain concepts from mathematics courses such as calculus that they themselves never studied or perhaps have forgotten.”
Doris, who declined to share her real name or New York neighborhood because she fears negative reactions from home-schooling friends, has mixed feelings about being her daughter’s teacher. “There is an enormous burden of parental guilt involved,” she says. Those misgivings and anxieties are big topics of conversation when home-schooling parents talk privately, she says, but they always put on a “home schooling is the best” face for the public.
Although Doris’ daughter got into college, despite some “underwhelming ACT and SAT scores,” Doris still struggles with whether she made the right decision. Could her daughter have gotten into a better school, and is she fully prepared for the academic challenges ahead? “Perhaps I’d feel differently if my home-schooler had been writing code since birth or building a homemade raft in anticipation of retracing some hero’s journey.”
The biggest criticism of home schooling is that it fails to teach socialization. Stanford University professor Rob Reich argued in a frequently cited study from 2005 that home schooling was just “parental despotism over children” that would turn kids into “civically disabled adults.” But home-schooling families, who often form communities in which their kids can interact, insist their children have the same social opportunities as public school kids.
“We have a prom and a yearbook,” says Maloney. “We have a science fair, field day, photo day, book fairs, picnics, parties, roller skating and weekly recess.”
Laurie Spigel, who lives in The Bronx and runs the website Home School NYC, started home schooling in 1994 when the community “was just a handful of families,” she says. “We met once a week in Central Park for soccer, and there were meetings once a month.” But today, local home-school groups like NYCHEA “have hundreds of families as members,” Spigel says. “We have three home-schooling learning centers, all in Manhattan. There are cooperatives, groups of families that meet once or twice a week. The Internet has changed the ability to connect, communicate and share information.”
Almost 25 years later after she started home schooling, Spigel hasn’t lost her enthusiasm for the movement. Her home-schooled sons have both gone to college, one at NYU Film School and the other at the College of the Atlantic in Maine. Spigel credits their academic success with the limitless possibilities of being educated at home.
“Imagine if you could learn whatever you wanted,” she says, “in any type of environment you choose, with the teacher or group of your dreams. What would that look like? That’s what I see happening today in the home-schooling community in New York. It’s not just learning outside of the school system. It’s true educational freedom.”