Cover Story: Home Is Where the Students Are

Bureaucracy, democracy and home schooling in Cincinnati

Dec 7, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Aline Kuhl, Bob Craig and their sons Grayson, 3, and Colin, 10.

I'm sitting in one of the many rooms of Bob Craig and Aline Kuhl's house in Delhi. Colin, age 10, is constructing geometry figures with his mom. I scan the instruction book, Critical Thinking from Spectrum Educational Supplies, which seems to teach geometry in a very hands-on fashion.

Grayson, 3, is with his dad at the table on my left and is going through the "wild man" stage of development. He throws a shell into the middle of the table. Bob gently says no, and when Grayson continues his caveman act, the two of them move to a more interesting activity in the piano room.

Colin will spend two to three hours a day on core studies: science, math, language arts and social studies. The rest of the day might involve ice skating lessons, piano lessons, reading group, art group or Tae Kwon Do.

One of the parents is chauffeur at this point.

"Our curriculum is pretty loose," Aline says.

"What's nice about that is if Colin gets into a subject in science, he can explore that. We don't have to move on to another subject after 50 minutes."

Colin speaks up brightly, "If I was in school, I'd have to do things at my grade level instead of things based on my intellect."

Grayson screams out a warrior cry from the piano room, apparently hunting wild boar.

The family has more reasons to home school.

"I plan for us to do a lot of traveling in five years," Bob says. "Colin will be 15 and Grayson 8, and home schooling will just make things easier."

Colin has no intention of doing anything but home schooling, "except for college."

"School was controlling our family and interfering with things we wanted to do," Aline points out. "If it wasn't excessive homework, it was vacation time."

Bob joins in, "Half of the six or seven hours in school each day are wasted jumping through hoops, which is why the same thing takes us three hours. Also, people always complain that they want more time with their families. This is the way to do it."

Despite all of the positives, Colin wishes there were more home schoolers in his neighborhood. While not feeling lonely — "not exactly" — most of his friends are at some distance, requiring a car trip to see them.

"The neighborhood kids were over here all the time during the summer," he says. "They liked using our pool, but as soon as regular school started, they didn't come back."

Colin says this with a clear sense of irony.

Bob, Aline, Colin and Grayson are illustrative of home schooling as well as issues facing home schoolers everywhere. And this movement is growing at an astounding rate.

In 1989, the Home Schooling Network of Greater Cincinnati (HSN) was formed with about six families; there are now more than 300. There are at least 1.7 million home schoolers in America, and the number is increasing at a rate of 15 percent per year, doubling the number of home schoolers in five years.

Actually, that number might triple or quadruple. For one thing, in four years we'll have the largest population of teen-agers since the baby boomers hit adolescence. Schools are already crowded, and current expansions are likely to rapidly become obsolete. In fact, some estimates calculate the home schooling population rate growth at 40 percent per year.

Dick and Debbie Westheimer and their five children, the oldest now in college, live in a beautiful house in the country. Dick speaks with me as we sit on the couch in an open area, with an authentic loom behind us, plenty of tables and a piano next to the kitchen. His 7-year-old has a cold and wants to stay in is father's lap.

All of the Westheimer children have been home schooled.

"I was part of the public school system for years," Dick says.

Asking Dick why he and Debbie started home schooling begins a three-hour interview. Part of his Ph.D. thesis addresses home schooling, and I find myself privy to a broad and deep set of insights about schooling in general.

"Home schooling fit with our lifestyle," Debbie says. "We take advantage of things like homeopathy as an alternative to regular medicine, for example. We participate in a food co-op. We always prefer to do things we can implement ourselves."

As to pros and cons, she says, "The biggest advantage is being free. The disadvantage is that I have less uninterrupted time to myself."

The Westheimers were one of several original families of the local home schooling network in 1990.

"At the time," Dick says, "the only networking groups we knew of were Christian-based and required a statement of faith to join. The essence of HSN is voluntary association."

The Westheimers began opening their home to other families on a bi-weekly basis, sending letters to these folks.

"Networking really took off at that point," Debbie says, adding that the networking eventually resulted in the HSN newsletter used by families today. The Westheimers now open their home for a sign language class on Fridays. Families throughout the network host groups in their homes or elsewhere.

Networking is a key to home schooling, whether a family is a member of a network or a private group. Some families are members of two or more groups: Christian, Catholic or one of the secular groups.

Most families use the group activities for a combination of learning and group interaction. There's also time at home for the schoolers, usually with a parent as instructor but sometimes with tutors and occasionally with mentors.

Many parents begin with an established, age-level curriculum. Numerous organizations — locally, regionally and nationally — that supply curricula can be found on the Internet. There are also Internet schools that provide curricula, textbooks and consultation. Then again, many families that start with a curriculum give it up as they gain confidence in their abilities, exploring more than the curriculum has to offer.

Dick's approach to home schooling takes a road closer to "unschooling," a term referring to the work of John Holt. An Ivy League-trained educator, Holt became increasingly disillusioned with the "institutionalization" of schooling, calling for a greater decentralization of schools and greater autonomy for teachers and parents.

He saw the lack of humanity displayed toward children, even in the "best" schools, and realized, as many parents have, that free individuals don't normally tolerate a government dictating that "on one hundred and eighty days of the year, for six or more hours a day, you had to be at a particular place, and there do whatever people told you to do. ... You would feel that this was a gross violation of your civil liberties."

Holt regretted that so few parents supported change within the school system, that overworked but well-meaning teachers inadvertently supported a "right answer" rather than a self-directed approach to learning, and concluded that the most humane way to educate a child was at home. He wrote his ideas in the book How Children Fail and established the magazine Growing Without Schooling.

"More people unschool than you would think," Dick says. "Regardless of any objections to the approach, the one thing I am convinced of is that kids learn when they're ready. I am confident that, in some things, readiness is the only ingredient necessary. Schools tend to make us learn that we have needs that are to be filled by institutions, thus teaching us to be dependent."

At about the same time as Holt, Raymond Moore, a U.S. Department of Education employee with an education degree from the University of Southern California, tested the idea that institutionalizing young children is a sound trend. Moore and his team consulted more than 100 developmental specialists and researchers to answer questions such as what's the best timing for school entrance.

Moore, along with wife Dorothy, concluded that problems such as dyslexia, hyperactivity and nearsightedness can be the result of prematurely taxing the child's nervous system with continuous academic tasks.

"This is not far-fetched," says Dr. David Muth, director of the Wolff Vision Center in Cincinnati. "Once we realize vision is a skill, we find that teaching kids how to learn is far more important than conveying information."

The Moores' books, Home Grown Kids and Home Spun Schools, are written from a Christian perspective but offer a message of home schooling balanced between study, chores, work and individual needs.

How Do They Do It?
Merridith Curry, 13, wants to be a professional ice skater.

"The main reason we home school," says her mother, Norma, "is that rink time after school hours is expensive. To use the cheaper public time, we have to home school."

Merridith skates for up to three hours a day. I watch her maneuver across the ice, at times cleverly avoiding regular school groups that spread out across the rink.

She's known for her focus and poise in most situations and informs me she'd like to participate in the 2002 Olympics but won't be the requisite 15, then gives me a concise history of how the sport's age limit was established.

Norma is like a bright light of information on numerous topics, including home schooling. Merridith's father, Garland, is African American, so I realize in talking with Norma that I haven't come across many minorities in the home schooling network.

"The main reason is low income," she immediately states. "The other reason is probably single-parent households, although a few single moms do home school."

There might be more minorities in the religious networks, Norma allows, and then she points out things about our city: "Since home schooling requires a lot of transportation and since there's no decent mass transit system here, parents who can't be chauffeurs are at a loss. Also, home schoolers volunteer to work for places like museums, nature centers and so on. I can say that this is the only city we've ever lived in where volunteers are turned away."

Dick Westheimer agrees.

"The deficiencies of home schooling relate to resources," he says. "The majority of what is needed — parent dedication, teachers, mentors and even group rates for outings — are sequestered under the umbrella of institutionalized schooling."

His statement is backed up by the statistics: The average home schooled child uses about $500 a year in resources (books, transportation, materials), while the average public school child uses between $5,000 and $6,000.

Such a discrepancy in the cost of education probably leads some educators to claim that home schooling deprives children of an adequate education. Various legal efforts — which have failed to date — attempted to require parents to have a teacher's certificate before home schooling their children.

Most states have legalized home schooling. In Ohio, a family must notify its school district's superintendent of the intent to home school, provide a sample curriculum with an information form and demonstrate progress in one of several ways.

General objections to home schooling, however, more often focus on socialization. In reality, home schoolers, regardless of demographic group or state, on average score from the 60th to 80th percentile on standardized tests. Studies repeatedly show that home schoolers are socialized as well as their public school peers and that the home schoolers demonstrate less behavioral problems. Colleges, including Harvard and Yale, have begun to see these kids as highly desirable applicants.

Besides providing user-friendly academics, better socialization and a desire to convey a religious framework to their children, parents home school for other reasons, including the fear of violence in schools.

"I don't want my son to be shot," says one mother of homeschooled children.

These fears, like fears about legal harassment from government agencies, aren't completely without foundation. Although violent crime among youth in general has decreased over the last 15 years, Norma Curry is quick to point out that, at the same time, "violence has increased in the public schools."

Dick Westheimer disagrees.

"In reality, it's more a perception of increase because of situations like Columbine," he says. "The problem is more with the see-through backpack programs and other efforts that show our distrust of children. Such programs not only convey this distrust but tend to teach our kids that media panic is true."

Even if the increase is small, there is violence in our schools. Disturbingly, initial studies appear to indicate that school violence is due to alienation, possibly created by the schools themselves.

Suburban Kids Talk About Violence

Seventh grader and new home schooler: "They say that violent video games are making us violent, but they're wrong and don't even know it."

His eighth grade best friend, who's in public school: "Yeah, they don't even know what their talking about: It's not the games. Those are a good thing."

Seventh grader (almost in tears): "They just don't see what they do to us. They're the ones causing kids to be violent, and if it weren't for the games there would be a lot more kids being violent in school."

Eighth grader: "You're exactly right. You know, most teachers are not bad people. Some are just mean and not good at teaching. But I think the main problem is that they never get to know us."

Freedom, Democracy and the Right Learning
As school systems continue a "right answer," tougher standards approach, home schooling likely will see child development and academic development emerge as the motivation, rather than standards. Norma Curry provides the gist of a typical home schooling method: "Any interest the child expresses can turn into a learning experience."

Porcelain dolls were one of Merridith Curry's interests, her mom says, so the family formed a group that collected the dolls and studied extensively about the Victorian period of history. Such a project can also become an exercise in dressmaking — albeit on a doll-sized scale — as well as a study of clothing design, cultural practice and so on.

This method is similar to a constructionist approach to teaching arising from the work of John Dewey at the turn of the 20th Century. Dewey felt that, when ready, children construct new knowledge based on what they already know and what they're relating to. Self direction and group learning become very important. So do projects like the Victorian dolls.

Alfie Kohn, a current educator and prominent dissident voice when it comes to our national "tougher standards movement," acknowledges Dewey's importance, but bases his recommendations on state-of-the-art education research.

In his book The Schools Our Children Deserve, Kohn compiles a list of just what constitutes an anti-learning environment: grades and attached privileges; societies or clubs based on grades; standardized tests, especially when scores are published; academic contests; frequent student evaluations, especially if public; rewards from gold stars to scholarships; segregation of students based on performance or perceived ability; the current criteria for and beliefs about college requirements; and valuing right answers over real thinking.

Kohn, in a telephone interview, says he has a problem with home schooling since, for a democracy, isolating individual families in their education would be a bad thing. After I described networking and the state of our schools and then asked him if he'd home school, his answer was that, if he had the luxury of the time, yes.

More and more parents, in fact, are questioning just what current school methods have to do with democracy.

Parents Experience Middle School Open Houses

The open houses, say three suburban dads about their children's middle schools, were very disappointing. They had to face six or seven teachers who all had the same presentation: two lines about the state-enforced curriculum, then a lot of talk about how the kids would be disciplined if they didn't meet expectations, then more talk about how the mission of the school is to form our children's character. The fathers think their kids already have a lot of character. In fact, the kids seem insulted by at least half of their teachers. They feel they have no rights.

The wife of one of these fathers said that teaching itself, and the kids themselves, weren't viewed in a positive light.

Effect of Environment
The Internet forward to Kohn's book, Beyond Discipline (, indicates that these parents' concerns are valid and warns against character based education: "Just as memorizing someone else's right answers fails to promote students' intellectual development, so does complying with someone else's behavioral expectations fail to help students develop socially or morally. Kohn contrasts the idea of discipline, in which things are done to students to control how they act, with an approach in which we work with students to create caring communities where decisions are made together."

"In terms of legal history," says David Homer, Ohio public defender, appellate counsel and legal scholar, "we've gone from protecting children from being treated like chattel — being abused in the labor market, for example — to treating them as if they deserve to be punished. And, in fact, except for minor privacy rights that can be easily bypassed by administrations, exactly what civil liberties they have is in a current state of confusion."

Added to simply treating and teaching kids the wrong way is the generally atrocious state of school environments per se. Overcrowding is rampant, and construction can't keep up with student populations. Old buildings abound that aren't likely to be replaced or completely rehabilitated anytime soon. Designs aren't educationally friendly, leading to problems like sick buildings.

"Poor school environments can adversely affect childrens' health and education," says Mat Klein, president of Indoor Air Quality Solutions. "The sum of these effects can be one of the worse outcomes of the current educational environments."

As always, Dick Westheimer's thinking helps to clarify such a situation: "To the extent that home schooling prevents us from functioning as a community, it fails, but that failure is certainly no worse than the assault on community going on in institutional schools."

When I point out that some home school families seem to have a survivalist mentality, he says, "Sometimes, it seems that way to me too."

On the other hand, the majority of non-religious home schoolers have been seen politically as being part of the libertarian left. In terms of numbers, the top groups of home schoolers by profession are accountant or engineer (17.3 percent); professor, doctor or lawyer (16.9 percent); and small business owners (10.7 percent). According to the same survey, 87.7 percent of home-schooling moms list their occupation as "homemaker."

But in a movement expanding at such an enormous rate, consisting of many people who aren't naturally inclined to respond to surveys, any classification of its participants can almost instantly become inaccurate. Various organizations are tracking such fluid data.

There Is a Future
There now are a handful of HSN "graduates," those who have turned 18, in Cincinnati. It appears that most will be going on to college.

Lauren Wales is 19 and currently works for The Alexander Technique of Cincinnati.

"Right now, I want to work," Lauren says, "since I don't have a specific goal in mind for college. I think you should have a goal to get the most out of college. Of my group of graduates, six of us, three are in college. Of the other three, there's me, then one guy who's 21 and teaching computers at the university. He was always a wiz at computers. My other friend is taking college credits, but not for a degree yet."

Lauren feels she has socialized well but differently from her mainstream peers. She sees her regular school college friends having big "epiphanies" in terms of their thinking, which for her are already routine.

"I started home schooling as a release from the pain public school was causing me," she says, "but I continued because I liked it."

Does Lauren feel she missed anything not going to a regular school? "Probably," she says, "but I'm not sure it's an experience I would want to have."

Through home schooling and things like a camp for home schoolers in Oregon, Lauren has friends from all over North America. Peer group experience doesn't appear to be an issue.

"I think I have closer relationships with my friends than a lot of people my age, and I don't have any false friends," she says. "We don't set up barriers. We feel we have a choice in where we fit."

Indeed, studies show that adults who were home schooled are well adjusted on a variety of measurements. One survey showed that none of the adults were unemployed and none were on welfare. Ninety-four percent said home education prepared them to be independent persons, and 79 percent said it helped them interact with people from different levels of society.

What Are the Answers?
Sue Duncan and her family were also part of the origin of HSN. Sue displays the typical energy and intellect of home-schooling parents and is nothing short of inspiring.

"I tell people to look at where they are," she says. "If public school wasn't the way it is, you might not be benefiting from home schooling now."

We spoke of the adjustment period which many parents go through.

"We tend to be influenced by the twin gods of peace and panic," Sue says. "I tell people to look at what they're doing: When you are running smoothly, perhaps turned inward, and are at peace, see what you're doing. When looking outward, perhaps comparing yourself to others inappropriately, perhaps panicking, simply look at what you're doing."

Sue's daughter, Lindsay, 18, has been taking college courses since age 14. She has accumulated a bank of credits that will now count toward her degree at Indiana University.

"Lindsay is a writer," Sue says. "She decided to learn calculus because she wanted to write a scene in which a character jumps off of a castle battlement and turns into a bird. She wanted to be able to see the (mathematical) reality of whether the transformation could happen or not."

Success stories abound for home schoolers who might have been "learning disabled" in regular schools. Tricia and Bob Lachman, music teacher and artist, are home schooling three children. Their 12-year-old began reading at age 10, accelerated her ability on her own and now reads three books a week in addition to school work. Bob plainly told her that, in public schools, she would have been labeled.

Research indicates a normal learning-to-read age of up to age 10. Alas, we don't view that range as normal in our schools, thus requiring more special education and often some form of "disability" classification. Many parents are also beginning to suspect the schools' input on illnesses such as Attention Deficit Disorder.

A Parent Dreams of Home School

David Homer, an attorney whose children attend regular schools: "Bureaucracies appear to be pushing many away from the schools. But the system was based on noble ideas: Educate all in an optimal way, providing equal opportunity. Kids socialize and learn to deal with the system, good or bad. It's just sad that we spend enormous resources on prisons and underground missile systems, when for a fraction of that cost schools could be like Disneyland.

"Despite the failures, many of us have no choice or meaningful input. We are already working more than school allows. Getting kids out of our hair for a few hours a day is a relief. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who can home school is a saint."

Beyond Institutions
Occasionally, a home schooler demands to start school, seeking mainstream preparation for college, for example. Some parents, like Charlie Meyers, director of Phoenix Hypnotherapy, find the daily classroom peer group advantageous.

"The networking groups are not the same as sitting with the same kids every day," he says. "On the other hand, if the schools were doing things right, we wouldn't even have to talk about home schooling."

"Some home school kids are in and out of regular school, depending on what they find at the beginning of each year," says Bob Craig.

Many home school parents I spoke with aren't against schools per se. Rather, they're against the compulsory attendance requirements of a situation that's not beneficial to every child.

Some mainstream teachers provide excellent classroom teaching despite the burdens of state influence and bad environments. Some creative teachers leave. Some become depressed. Some proceed in a negative way.

K-12 education still might provide opportunity enhancement for vast numbers of American children, but advocacy for children's rights and their freedom in learning isn't readily visible.

What does the future hold? More home schoolers and more questions.

Why do We The People allow behaviorist-type token systems — grades, rewards and "meaningful consequences" — in so many public and private schools? Such a system once was more suited to halfway houses for the socially disabled. Why are the positive approaches to young people being relegated to alternatives? How will we reverse destructive political trends in our schools?

As schools, more and more, try to attract home schoolers back with part-time programs, what will be the result? Perhaps a new, distinctive form of education?

"If that's the case," says Sue Duncan, "I'm for it. But I'm against any institution that tries to teach us dependency, that we can't learn or that we need 'experts' to teach our kids."

With Home Schooling, You Can Relax

A new home schooler, age 13: "Teachers are the ones with all of the power. They do something bad (like scream at you), yet if you do that you will get into trouble. It's even more impossible to go to school when you have a headache from the construction. And when the day is over, school follows you home in the form of homework.

"I like home schooling. There's time, it's not stressful and I don't dread the next day. When I'm at school, it's 'get this done, then get that done, you have 10 minutes.' When home schooling, you can relax because you are not worried...." ©