When North Carolina Lt. Governor Dan Forest and his wife Alice began homeschooling 17 years ago, they never imagined its appeal would endure. “We were going to do it for one year,” says Alice Forest.
Homeschooling was counter-intuitive: the Forests had attended public schools and assumed their children would too. As kindergarten loomed, however, assumptions shifted. The local public school was in the throes of academic struggles. Area private schools weren’t a good fit; tuition was unsustainable. Homeschooling, a road less traveled in the late 1990s, seemed suddenly viable. “We had just met a number of different families, all at the same time, that homeschooled, and we were intrigued by it. So we started considering it as we looked at our options,” says Alice Forest.
What began as “a leap of faith,” says Lt. Governor Forest, grew into a rich, customized learning experience with literary immersion as its centerpiece. “That was our goal from the beginning: teach our kids to love to read. If they love to read, the world is wide open,” he says.
Two children have graduated from the Forests’ homeschool. Their oldest just earned a diploma from UNC-Chapel Hill; a daughter is a sophomore at NC State. Their two youngest, a high school junior and a fifth grade “bonus baby,” says Alice Forest also are schooled at home.
As veteran homeschoolers, how do they explain growth in the number of families choosing to homeschool? “When it comes to reasons why people homeschool, I think there are thousands of them,” says Lt. Governor Forest. But, he says, popularity cultivates the perception of possibility: “The growth in the movement itself has sparked more growth.” Alice Forest adds, “There’s a volume now of people who are doing it, so you see your neighbor homeschooling…and you think, ‘Maybe I could do that.’”
Why? A focus group
To understand, in-depth, why some families choose to homeschool, EdNC convened a discussion group of eight Triangle-area homeschooling mothers. Seasoned homeschoolers and new, they represented a range of backgrounds, and a total of 23 children―19 of them boys. In most families, all children were homeschooled, but in some, children attended a combination of home, private, or public schools. Several common themes emerged.
Beth Herbert, a 21-year homeschooling veteran, has observed widespread change since her early years teaching her five children, four of whom are grown. In 1996, Herbert founded Lighthouse Christian Homeschool Association in Wake Forest with 20 families; Lighthouse now serves almost 350 families. Much new growth in the homeschooling population that Herbert sees stems from concerns about school culture for teens. “More than half of the new homeschoolers coming in for the first time [to Lighthouse] are pulling kids in middle school and high school. A lot of it has to do with the school environment,” she says. “There’s a lot of pressure on kids socially to conform or fit into a certain niche or group,” Herbert adds.
For Ann Fisher, a mother of three boys, school culture played a key role in the decision to homeschool four years ago. Her oldest, now at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, began homeschooling in 7th grade. A highly motivated student, he was bored in public school, but also distressed by what he saw and heard on the bus. “After a couple of weeks,” says Fisher, “he begged me to buy him an iPod.” He said, ‘You would not believe what the other kids are playing on the bus.’”
Career preparation and academics
Anne Dillon, a mother of three boys, has homeschooled for three-and-a-half years, largely due to a belief that schools aren’t preparing students for workplace success. Dillon says she and her husband, a former high school teacher, “decided to take a step back and say, ‘If we don’t assume that the government and the Department of Education know what the best education is for our kids, what would we think it was?’”
Research led her to homeschooling; Dillon’s oldest son works concurrently with a personalized learning consultant. A board member of Chapel Hill Homeschoolers, a secular support group serving 150 families, Dillon says, “Our issue is just not believing that the public or private school system offers the best education for our kids.”
Several years ago Talisha Cabral and her husband, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, relocated from Florida to North Carolina―specifically for the schools. Their boys attended private Montessori school, later transitioning to public school. Cabral says her boys “figured out very quickly, ‘Why would I want to do well on this test and get into [the academically gifted program] if you’re just going to give me more work instead of different work?’” Now, in their second year of homeschooling, Cabral says, “The boys absolutely love it. We do more work in less time.”
“School is life; life is school”
Sara Hawkes, a mother of two girls, says, “Homeschooling is all I’ve ever done.” She draws her educational ethos from a friend, a longtime homeschooler, who says: “School is life; life is school.” For Herbert, faith, flexibility, and the “idea that we could stay together as a family” shaped the choice to homeschool.
What about the kids? Several parents said children had lobbied them to homeschool. Some siblings wanted in, too: Fisher, whose youngest attended a charter school while his brothers homeschooled, says he asked, “If it’s so great, why can’t I do it, too?” He is home now. Hawkes’ older daughter told her recently, “I hear people asking you all the time how long we’re going to do this and you tell them you don’t know. I would like you to know that I think we have a good arrangement and there’s no reason to change it.”
In the end, families grow and reasons shift, say the Forests. But the importance of empowering parents with educational options remains. “I’m always clear to say homeschooling is not for everybody,” says Lt. Governor Forest. “We’re big proponents of choice for parents. Let parents and students be able to choose that path.”