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No kid is an island: Homeschool co-ops give social opportunities to children who learn at home

Olive Ward’s busy life includes trips with friends to New York City's Museum of Natural History and other nearby cultural landmarks. The 8-year-old Manhattanite plays violin in a small orchestra and makes craft projects with a weekly art group. The lecture series she attends recently featured Nobel laureate Eric Kendel. And Olive's family goes on educational trips with other families — like one to Cape Cod, where she joined other kids in touring a potato chip factory.

This is how homeschooling looks for the sociable, urban Ward family — a lively blend of group activities offset by quiet hours in which Olive is taught at home by her mother, Bea Ward. Her dad, Ryan Ward, is a scientist who helps out by supervising science experiments for groups of homeschooled kids.

Banding together with other homeschooling families for learning activities — creating co-ops — as the Ward family does, offers the chance to trade ideas, create social opportunities for their children and take advantage of parents' subject area specialties, said Peter Kamakawiwoole, an attorney for the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, a national advocacy organization for the homeschooling community.

Homeschool co-ops, which are as varied as the homeschooling community itself, are increasing in number, said Michelle Van Loon, a long-time homeschooling participant and observer who blogs for Christianity Today. Perhaps that’s simply a reflection of the growing number of families who choose to school their children at home, she added.

Coming together

About 2 million U.S. children are schooled at home — around 3 percent of the nation's K-12 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The number of children schooled at home increased by 74 percent between 1999 and 2007, the latest figures available. A 2007 survey showed that for 36 percent of homeschooling families, a desire to provide religious or moral instruction was their main reason for homeschooling. Concerns about learning environment was most important for 21 percent of those surveyed, and 17 percent said they were dissatisfied with local schools.

The homeschooling movement took hold in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said Kamakawiwoole. In 1983, when the Homeschool Legal Defense Association was founded, homeschooling was illegal in as many as 30 states. Now, each U.S. state has a law or court holding that acknowledges the legality of homeschooling. The movement had roots among religious conservatives who disliked the secular nature of the U.S. public school system, and also among academicians such as Raymond and Dorothy Moore, whose book "Better Late than Early" held that formal, institutionalized education was damaging for young children.

Concerns about the academic viability of homeschooling have faded as a generation of homeschooled children have performed strongly on standardized tests. But worries about whether children schooled at home have adequate opportunities to socialize remain, Kamakawiwoole said.

For many families, co-ops are a way to address that concern. A homeschool co-op can be as simple as a casual group of families who meet occasionally for field trips, art or music classes, with activities changing as needs evolve. The activities Olive Ward attends are typical of these.

Co-ops can be highly structured, though. Some are aligned with religious groups and require families to sign belief statements and attendance pledges, for instance. Some require each participating parent to teach one academic subject to the whole group on a strict schedule. And some assess dues that pay for extracurricular activities such as lecture series and trips. As with most homeschooling decisions, the choice is up to the parent.

“Co-ops are an opportunity for children to have regular interactions with people of their own age,” Kamakawiwoole said. “Families find that attractive. Everyone pitching in and playing to the best of their strengths and abilities makes for fun and dynamic learning.”

Using co-ops to supplement learning is fine from a legal standpoint, but care should be taken to ensure that co-ops don’t supplant a parents' responsibility for directing their children's educations, Kamakawiwoole said, noting that homeschooling laws and regulations vary widely from state to state.

In some states, such as Hawaii, parents must certify that certain numbers of days and hours were devoted to teaching. And in some states, including New York, North Dakota and Pennsylvania, children must take standardized tests.

Other states, including Utah and Michigan, have very loose homeschooling requirements, asking little more than an affidavit from parents saying they will educate their children, Kamakawiwoole said.

Throughout the U.S., though, the chief responsibility for homeschooling belongs to the parent (or grandparent) and can’t be sloughed off to the neighborhood co-op.

“Co-ops are a great opportunity, but parents must still complete their requirements,” he said. “You can’t allow the co-op to become a substitute or take the place of the parental responsibility for homeschooling.”

Co-op variety

The Wards have been involved in co-ops since Olive was pre-school age. Like many families, they've floated in and out of various groups and have sometimes belonged to more than one. Homeschooling parents interviewed for this story said co-op involvement was fluid and depended on interests of each child in the family, scheduling issues and changing needs. Sharing educational duties might work well for a while, then become overwhelming. One child might like a sports group; another may prefer art and music groups.

Bea Ward's decision to not to send Olive to public kindergarten came after discovering that the family’s Washington Heights apartment building was within school boundaries for an elementary school designated as “failing,” and slated for eventual closure. School zoning lines changed later, placing the Ward family’s home within boundaries of well-respected public school. By then the Wards were sold on homeschooling, though, and they now plan to teach their 3-year-old daughter at home, too.

“New York City is the best place in the world to homeschool,” Bea Ward said. “When we were studying Egypt, we saw the Temple of Dandur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Museum of Natural History is an endless resource for us.”

Olive is especially fond of the museum’s Discovery Room, where she and her friends enjoy gazing through telescopes and into microscopes. She can’t decide whether she like co-op activities or learning at home with her mother best.

“I like them equally, I guess,” Olive said. “I really like going places with other kids and playing with friends. When there are kids there that I don’t know, I can make friends really easily.”

For Kristen Chevrier, whose five children have been schooled in her Highland, Utah, home, there have been many co-ops over the years. One was highly structured and required her to teach a subject area for the group two days a week, as well as provide schooling for her own children on the other three weekdays.

“It was stressful, and I think there were things in my own homeschooling that suffered,” she said.

Less formal co-ops were more successful, she said. Taking teaching turns with other parents one day per week worked well, and allowed children to benefit from the educational specialties of other parents. Chevrier loved teaching an all-encompassing theater class, in which children wrote plays, built and decorated sets, learned about costuming and stage makeup, then produced their plays.

“Being in a group gives kids a great opportunity to get to know other kids,” she said, and added that some educational activities simply work better in groups.

Networks abound

Beyond local co-ops, other networks exist to help homeschooling families find each other and learn about what’s going on in their area’s homeschooling world. State-wide umbrella organizations typically sponsor online lists of smaller networks, organized by geographical areas or homeschooling philosophies.

Donna Keeble, of Dyer, Ind., is the moderator for one such group. The Illiana Homeschool Society draws participants from the greater Chicago area in Illinois and Indiana and prides itself in “promoting socialization and education for all families.” Other entries on a list of Indiana homeschool resources advertise book groups, play groups, mom’s night out, groups for German language speakers only, classical education groups and Bible-based groups requiring members to sign a belief statement.

Keeble tried formal co-ops, but likes the flexibility of the Yahoo group. Through it, homeschoolers find others in their area to form co-ops with and plan group outings. By using the list, families can join to get group discounts on tickets to museums, plays and concerts. At the events, their children see old friends and meet new ones.

It was important to Keeble for her list to be all-inclusive. A Jewish atheist surrounded by evangelical Christians, she’s not comfortable with everything the faith-based groups plan and recognizes that some parents in her area might not wish to participate in everything her children do. The informality and flexibility of the list allows families to pick and choose.

Some activities planned through the list are educational; many are purely social. A weekly roller-skating night that requires a minimum of 40 kids has been running continuously for more than a decade. A recent bead-making activity in a public library’s social room drew an enthusiastic group of 30.

For the past two years, Keeble’s daughter, now 18, organized a homeschool prom through the Yahoo group. Public school kids were allowed to attend, too, if they were friends of the homeschool participants. Teenagers in formal dress enjoyed the usual prom trappings, which were assembled in a rented hall — decorations, a DJ, a photographer — and refreshments, of course.

Striking balance

Van Loon once wrote in her blog for Christianity Today that human nature sometimes causes homeschool groups to turn into the rigid kinds of organizations that many homeschoolers sought to avoid by removing their children from public or private schools. Despite challenges, the groups are worthwhile, she wrote.

“Parents were never meant to shoulder the entire responsibility of this mandate alone, nor are they supposed to allow a peer group to do their thinking and obeying for them,” she wrote. “Homeschooling families will thrive if they work together, not maroon themselves on separate islands.”

Perfection isn’t possible, though, she added.

“It’s not the party line that you will hear at homeschool conventions, but homeschooling won’t exempt you from mean girls or cliquey groups of moms,” she said. “That kind of stuff can be kind of hard. All the peer pressure rules still apply.”

The nice thing about most homeschool co-ops, though, is their flexible nature. If a situation isn’t working out, it’s usually easy to withdraw and look elsewhere for the situation a child needs.

“Every family has different dynamics,” Chevrier said. “One of the great benefits of homeschooling is that I can address the need of each child, instead of putting them all through the same kind of program.”