Homeschooling in Maine has come a long way since Lea Verrill was a girl, when she would play with the neighborhood kids at the bus stop – then run and hide when the big yellow bus pulled up.
Today, the 36-year-old North Yarmouth mother of two laughs at the memory and the idea that homeschooling was so “weird” that she felt she needed to hide. She is now homeschooling her two daughters because of her own experience, her family’s Christian beliefs and a deep-seated conviction that no one does a better job educating children than their own parents.
“No one has a more vested interest in them than Steve and I,” she said, as her husband nodded in agreement. “(Public school teachers) don’t have the intensity and heart desire to invest in these children.”
The Verrills are part of a homeschool population that has more than doubled nationwide in recent years.
Last year, about 5,500 children, or 3 percent of Maine students, were home-schooled, slightly lower than the 3.4 percent national average.
In Maine, that’s a 36 percent increase over a decade earlier, while public school enrollment dropped 8 percent over the same period, according to state education data. In recent years, Maine started adding public charter schools, which enrolled 1,540 students last fall.
Nationally, homeschooling increased 55 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to the most recent federal data.
That spike, experts say, is tied to several factors, including ongoing interest from conservative Christians, technology that makes it easier to home-school, a drop in perceived stigma as states create regulations around homeschooling, and a growing distrust of “industrialized” education with bells and standardized tests and the Common Core.
Milton Gaither, a professor of education who wrote “Homeschool: An American History,” said he was initially surprised by the increase during the Obama years. But conservative Christians have always made up the bulk of homeschoolers – as many as three out of four families – and there is a connection between their support for social issues and homeschooling.
“There is evidently quite a backlash against what (President) Obama represents,” said Gaither, who teaches at Messiah College, a private Christian college in Pennsylvania. “There are a lot of people in America who feel they are losing their country.”
Secular homeschoolers, he said, were also a big part of the original homeschooling resurgence in the 1970s, and tended to be on the far-left end of the political spectrum. They rejected what they saw as a “factory model” for schools, and some advocated “unschooling,” or having children learn from life experiences, not textbooks.
That means learning about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly by watching the orange-and-black creatures in your backyard, not reading about them in a book, said Old Orchard Beach resident Wendy Brown, whose two teenage daughters are unschoolers.
“People who home-school are questioners. We’re always questioning what we’re being told – we want to know why. We’re not even rebels, it’s just curiosity,” said Brown.
Under the aegis of “homeschooling” is a variety of motivations and methods. Even within a single family, parents may teach each child using different curricula, depending on their abilities and interests. Some families home-school one child and send another to public school, or home-school a child who also takes some public school classes.
“Our philosophy is that life is learning, so our kids do a lot of things. They dance a lot. That’s part of our curriculum. They take music lessons, and spend time at the community theater. They volunteer at the soup kitchen and at the animal shelter. They’re learning about biology because they raise rabbits,” Brown said. “There are lessons there, maybe sociology lessons, that would be something they might touch on in school in a book, but my children experience it because they are there.”
‘THE DEMOGRAPHIC OF SUCCESS’
One persistent question about homeschooling is the quality of the education, compared to public schools.
Gaither said that while some studies show homeschoolers perform better on achievement tests than all other students, he said those gains disappear once demographic differences are removed.
Success in education, he says, is strongly tied to the educational background of the parents, and children from middle-class, two-parent homes generally score higher on tests overall no matter where the child goes to school. Most home-schooled students fall into that demographic.
“The demographic of homeschooling is already the demographic of success,” he said.
“That’s why homeschooling looks good on paper,” said Gaither, who reviews homeschool research on his blog, Homeschooling Research Notes. “They’re not doing better than their demographic equals. The differences are minor to none.”
It’s also impossible to generalize the homeschooling experience. Some people home-school because their child struggles academically, others because the child is academically gifted. There’s no way to know if a home-schooled student would have done better or worse academically or socially in a traditional school.
There is, however, an advantage for homeschoolers who go on to higher education, officials say: Home-schooled students tend to be self-directed and their experience may help them once they get to college, a time when new college students might struggle to handle their sudden independence.
“Colleges have figured this out. Homeschoolers tend to be the kind of student that is successful,” Gaither said.
A University of St. Thomas review of students at a private, Catholic doctoral university in the Midwest from 2004 to 2009 bears this out. The study found the home-schooled students – 76 out of the 7,776 total freshmen – came in with slightly higher academic credentials, did better academically, and graduated from college at a slightly higher rate – 66.7 percent compared to 57.5 percent.
College-bound homeschoolers can opt to take assessment tests, such as the SAT, ACT or Accuplacer, but it usually isn’t necessary as colleges have increasingly accommodated nontraditional education backgrounds.
In the early years, colleges weren’t sure how to assess a home-schooled student’s ability, and required traditional assessment tests. Today, many schools do not require school-issued transcripts, and post special home-school instructions on their admissions Web page to spell out what is required, such as reviewing portfolio work or holding interviews with homeschool candidates.
RULES VARY BY STATE
State regulations vary widely on homeschooling. Some states don’t require parents to notify the state, while others require homeschoolers to have certified teachers.
Maine is in the middle of the road. Here, parents must notify the state and local school that they are home-schooling, and provide annual assessments of the student’s work through a standardized test or a review of work by a certified Maine teacher. They have the same number of school days as a traditional student, and learn specific subject areas, including English, math, science, fine arts, health and at least a year of Maine studies. Because there are no state-mandated standards of achievement, the state does not issue transcripts or diplomas for home-schooled students.
Eleven states don’t require parents to notify the state they are home-schooling, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which advocates for all states to have annual notification laws. Other organizations, such as the Home School Legal Defense Organization, advocate for the least restrictive regulations.
Maine also allows homeschoolers to get special education services at their local schools, enroll in certain classes or take part in extracurricular activities.
When charter schools in Maine opened in 2012, many expected homeschoolers to enroll in droves, particularly at virtual schools, which allow students to study from home.
Maine Connections Academy Principal Karl Francis said 19 percent of their inaugural class in fall 2014 were previously home-schooled, but that dropped to 11 percent in the second year. Gaither said that is a pattern nationwide, with new charters attracting homeschoolers at first, then leveling off in subsequent years.
A HISTORY OF HOMESCHOOLING
Homeschooling, a necessity in early America, started to reappear in the early 1970s as families started to reject the “factory model” of schools, which were starting to consolidate and become more secular after the 1962 Supreme Court ruling ending government-sponsored prayer in schools.
Homeschooling gained popularity in the early 1980s, as two ideological opposites converged: a leftist philosophy of rejecting organized education, and the growth of conservative Christianity, where families heard about homeschooling through religious media such as Dr. James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” show, and explored homeschool cooperatives networked through megachurches.
Gaither said homeschooling has thrived in religious communities because the ideology encourages women to be homemakers.
Homeschooling requires a full-time worker at home, and some studies have found that people who were home-schooled but not religious did not home-school as long, or were more ambiguous about why they were home-schooling. By comparison, Gaither said, religiously motivated home-schooling mothers described it as “the best time of their life” and were eager to be involved home-schooling their grandchildren.
“It’s a very different attitude,” Gaither said.
Homeschool co-ops can also make it easier for some families to choose the method. Many are organized by churches, but many non-religious homeschoolers are also using a co-op model, which can resemble traditional classrooms.
“The boundaries begin to blur very quickly,” Gaither said of the co-op model.
Another sign of homeschooling’s broad acceptance are the regular homeschool activities offered by libraries, farms, museums and other cultural institutions. Even in low-population Maine, there are multiple regional homeschooling co-ops and Listservs, more than a half-dozen Facebook sites and several Yahoo groups specific to Maine homeschooling families.
Last month, 800 people attended the 26th annual conference for Homeschoolers of Maine, a religious ministry founded by Kathy and Ed Green in 1990. Over three days, there were dozens of speakers and panels ranging from practical “Sage Advice from Homeschool Veterans” and tips on bulk cooking to religious-themed talks on “Escaping Common Core” and “Indoctrination on the College Campus.”
Kathy Green said homeschooling has become a “mainstream” option for families.
“For every family, there’s a different set of reasons to home-school,” Green said.
A FAITH-BASED DECISION
The Verrills, who live on family land in North Yarmouth, say they always planned to home-school their children for religious reasons, but their decision took on more importance when their daughters Clara and Emma were diagnosed on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
“I had to force myself out of my own paradigm. Every kid is different and the beauty of homeschooling is that it is so fluid,” said Lea, who was home-schooled and then graduated from New England Bible College in South Portland.
She works particularly closely with 12-year-old Clara, who is high-energy and bounces quickly from one topic to another. Lea walks her through a math problem and a few minutes later, Clara is ready for a break. She gets up to play with the dog before lying down on the couch for some video game time.
Emma, she says, has been reading at a high school level since she was 7 years old, but her math skills are at grade level.
“You have to ask, how is the kid learning? I think that’s where traditional school settings fall short,” Lea said. “I can tailor it to my kids’ learning styles. One is hands on, one needs to hear it. One needs to read it, then work it out with her own hands.”
Lea says homeschooling also gives her the opportunity to teach life skills to her daughters.
“I’m a professional pastry chef and a seamstress. I can teach them those skills,” Lea said. They discuss politics and current events, sleep according to their natural body clock and spend time roaming outdoors.
“Why do we home-school? I look at it as raising healthy, responsible, caring adults.”
REJECTING COMMON CORE
Brian and Beth Templeton started home-schooling their children Keegan and Aine in New York before moving to Maine in 2006, prompted by Common Core, a national education initiative that details standards for what students should know in English and mathematics.
“Suddenly my third-grader son was coming home with three hours of homework a night and there were tears,” said Brian, 52, an emergency room nurse. “Then I started to question everything.”
Beth, who was volunteering in Aine’s kindergarten class at the time, said she saw the pressure on kids even at that age.
“There was a marked change in the atmosphere. It was a pressure cooker,” she said. “They would often miss recess! It was so unhappy.”
Now living in Old Orchard Beach, the Templetons both work and split homeschooling duties, with Beth working with them in the mornings and Brian in the afternoons. They use textbooks, a Google calendar and a huge wall calendar to track lessons in a more structured approach than unschooling, but don’t keep a rigid schedule.
“I call it DIY education,” Beth said, describing the co-op classes, music lessons and the subscription science projects mailed to their house monthly. They read a lot, learned cursive, study Latin and play music with their father, a musician.
They don’t watch the clock, said Brian.
“We will follow the subject until it is time to stop,” he said. That means continuing to read to them through a meal, or listening to audiobooks while driving.
“I facilitate their education. I don’t want to be tied to any particular style. Freedom is very important to me,” Beth said. At traditional schools, “they just weren’t getting enough information and enough freedom.”
UNSCHOOLING: EVERYTHING IS LEARNING
Wendy Brown, a certified teacher who unschools her children in Old Orchard Beach, does portfolio reviews and is active in the local homeschooling community. For her, the key to raising her children has been freedom and trust.
“It comes up in the unschooling community; we debate it. Our children’s lives are their own, and it’s our job to give them as many experiences as we can,” said Brown. She and her husband blog and write books about their life on a small, quarter-acre lot that she calls “our suburban nanofarm” online. The Browns are committed to a sustainable lifestyle, and homeschooling fits neatly into that philosophy.
“We’re all learning in a cooperative environment,” Brown said.
Her two older daughters have graduated and she is still homeschooling Etain, 15, and Tehya, 13.
Etain says she talks to her friends about traditional school, but she doesn’t feel she’s missing anything by not being there.
“I’m learning what they’re learning, just at my own pace,” she said, bent over a drawing of an anime-like wolf character she created called “Space Face.” She plans to turn it into a costume for an upcoming comic con in Portland.
She doesn’t even think of her day-to-day activities as “school.”
“It’s kind of just like living,” she said. After some drawing, Etain goes out to feed the chickens before they all head out to a violin lesson. As she shows off her room, she slips behind the drum kit to rattle off a few combinations, her black fedora tilted off to the side of her head.
Her favorite subjects these days are mythology and World War II history, but her heart is in dancing and drawing.
“I would like to go to art school, because I’ve found it’s my passion,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get a degree in dance.”
Her mother said a varied day, and eclectic interests, speak to the value of unschooling.
“I think my kids get a really well-rounded education,” Brown said.
“I always say it’s about trust,” Wendy said. “Trusting them and trusting in the process. Just trust in the process.”