Why I Homeschool (Part 2): The ‘No Choice’ Choice

The twins at a classroom at Village Home Education Resource Center when they were around 7 years old.

When I decided to become a parent, I had thought I would do it more or less like my mother did. She was a career woman, my sister and I went to a home-based babysitter who became like a grandmother to us, and my mom worked full time. We went to public school and in upper elementary, we were the proverbial “latch key kids” of the 80s, watching ourselves for the 1-2 hours before and after school. My parents went to work, I went to school. My school was my responsibility and besides going to parent teacher conferences and the occasional school event, my parents stayed out of my education.

When I was trying to conceive, I worked full time as a research associate at a university. My pay was decent and I lived in a nice 3 bedroom apartment with my long-time companion/partner. We had family down the street. No, there wouldn’t be a ton of money, but enough, and enough stability to raise a child. I figured I would take my 12 weeks maternity leave, have found a good childcare setting and go back to work. I knew the first few years of having a toddler in childcare all day long would be the hardest. But eventually, my child would go to the neighborhood public school, then go to maybe an after school program or come home to a house that likely wouldn’t even be empty, just like I had done.

Then life intervened.

The first thing that thwarted my plans was twins. I was having twins. Even though I had taken all the precautions in working with my doctors to try to conceive to avoid a multiple birth, it happened anyway. When I checked on childcare for infant (12 week old) twins, the costs were astronomical. I would be paying up to $2400 per month for childcare. I pretty much might as well just stay home, it would in some ways be cheaper.

Then, at 33 weeks into the pregnancy, I lost my vision. I had a retinal detachment. In all my preparations about seeing whether it was safe for me to become pregnant because of my Alpert’s syndrome, no one indicated that I would risk losing vision. No one had ever heard of this happening. So, I laid awake during an eye surgery that would need follow up surgeries, and I contemplated how I couldn’t even use my computer anymore. It had been too long since I had blindness training and I didn’t even have the right software on my computer. I knew I could adjust to losing more vision, but I also knew it was going to take months, along with having two babies to take care of. I didn’t know how I was going to keep my job, so I had to quit. Luckily, I was still doing attendant care work part-time, which I knew I could do again eventually, much easier than going back to a full-time job…at least for now.

Then my twins were born a bit prematurely at 34 weeks and I could see that even if I would have been ready to go back to work 12 weeks postpartum, they would not be ready. They couldn’t eat properly yet, they were only 5 pounds, they were tiny and they needed significant help getting enough calories down in the first 3 months or so. My local kinder care was not going to take them anyway until they put more weight on and ate without needing so much support.

So, in the early days of my first time foray into parenting, my life was very regimented and involved pretty scheduled round the clock care for the twins. When your kids don’t seek out food and fall asleep after seconds of attempting to suck and you are feeding them drops like a mama bird to her chicks, there is no “feed on demand.” You feed on a strict 2.5 hour schedule, with sleep in-between. My life was slowly wake them up, change them, feed them, let them sleep…repeat, repeat, repeat. And that is all I did. In the minutes I had here and there between feedings, I slept, worked on my own adjusting to blindness stuff, and ate. Work, even attendant work, went out the window.

But as the kids got a little older and heavier and started to eat better and stay awake more, I started having “school.” It was just playtime, but since the schedule was still pretty regimented and I was so bored, it became a bit of a ritual. I would have them do tummy-time, I’d sing songs to them, I’d do some range of motion things with them, I’d give them little Montessori-like tasks to do like having them reach for things or find something under a blanket. It was built into the schedule along with feeding and naps. I didn’t consider it homeschooling at the time, but when I look back, that is when I started homeschooling, just like all parents do.

I was eventually able to go back to part time in-home caregiving work, taking my kids with me. But I was also starting to look at preschools. I still could not afford a regular daycare-preschool. But I looked into a parent coop preschool where you pay but also do volunteer hours. It was a good program, but the volunteer hours were about 8 hours a week, which most people did when their kids were in the school. Because I had twins, they required that I do 16 hours a week, and I had no one to watch my kids during the extra hours I would have to do outside of the time they were in class. It wasn’t going to work out.

But someone told me about Village Home Education Resource Center (VH), and this was where my real cognizant homeschool adventure really began. I had just heard that I could go to a sort of “mommy and me” preschool program there once or twice a week, and there were community duty hours required, but it was more on the order of 5 hours a term, and they did not make me do twice as much because I had twins. So that is where we started, at Terry Jordan’s “Little Villagers” class. And this is where I met the homeschool moms and started my second “college education” in education.

My son will tell you there are two kinds of homeschoolers, the religious ones and the hippies. (I would classify them into three main categories, the religious, the hippies, and the public school exiles, but more on that later.) He would say the VH parents are in the hippy category. And I would agree. In Portland, most of the homeschoolers are pretty left leaning. Village Home was a manifestation of the type of homeschooling family you found here on the “left coast.” But when I had conversations with the founder of Village Home, she told me how when she started homeschooling several years prior, it was the extremes on both ends, but the range was getting filled in the middle. And she saw the need for a community that catered to a middle ground. Village Home is a learning community for homeschooling families that provides classes that kids can pick from each term. It is more like a community college but for K12. There were some floofy, woo, flowers-and-herbs for breakfast flowy dress moms there for sure. But it was pretty mainstream. Very few families were that far out there to either end. For me as a nondriver who wanted my kids to have community and classes I couldn’t easily teach all in one place, it was a great discovery. More than the parents, though, I enjoyed the kids. These kids were mature, eager to learn, sociable, polite, respectable, creative, dedicated kids. Oh, THESE are homeschoolers? THIS is what homeschooling can produce? I had to find out more.

Lots of books were recommended to me. And so I started reading and researching. I did have the ideas of homeschooling kids that you hear quite often by those who have not given it too much thought. They won’t keep up with their peers, they will be weird and uneducated. They won’t have any friends and won’t have any social skills. It is some mom sitting at the kitchen table with her kids all day, teaching them that the earth is flat and that Jesus rode on the backs of a stegosaurus. I had all those preconceived notions that you still hear today. But look at these homeschooled kids! They aren’t any of those things.

I read John Taylor Gatto (Dumbing Us Down) and John Holt (Unschooling) and Susan Wise Bauer (The Well-Trained Mind) and Grace Llewelyn (The Teenage Liberation Handbook) and Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards) and Jonathon Kozol (Savage Inequalities) and many other homeschool books. I researched websites that talked of the studies that have been done on homeschool outcomes. I found that on average, homeschool kids–no matter what race, socioeconomic level, parent level of education, or gender–got two grade levels higher than public school kids on standardized tests. They also did better on adaptive behavior scales. They also were not only becoming more and more accepted at colleges and universities, but they were sought after due to their ability to be self determined and manage their own learning so much better than many public school kids. Aside from very expensive private school students who were largely all white and upper middle class or upper class, homeschooled kids achieved the greatest outcomes. It was the poor man’s private school option.

What I learned about homeschoolers also dovetailed right in to everything I had experienced in my Teacher’s College training. Especially in special ed. Homeschool was the very epitome of low student:teacher ratio and individualized education. Curriculum and instruction could be tailor made to each student’s zone of proximal development. Kids can have more buy-in to what they are learning because of such customization and if something doesn’t work, you can just instantly try a different approach. The freedom of this can have amazing results. There is no “catching up” or “getting behind” because the speed can be whatever you want, and can change pace as needed. There is no wasted time, there is little boredom, there is the whole world as a classroom.

It all looked good to me, but I did not make my final decision until the day we went to the “kindergarten round up” at their local school. When I dropped them off in the kindergarten classroom, I saw that there were 54 kids in one room with 2 teachers. The room was partitioned by some little toy kitchens and bookshelves meant to be two classrooms, but in essence, it was 54 five year olds in one room with two adults. The parents went off to a meeting in the library. I thought they might talk about the programs they had or what the kids would learn, but almost the entire thing was about how to drive your car to drop off and pick up your child. This seemed to be the biggest deal and the biggest concern. They talked a bit about bussing, but nothing was said about the fact (that I noticed on the way there) that the school was surrounded by streets with no sidewalks and some busy roads with no traffic lights. Kids weren’t really safe to walk to this school. I snuck out a few minutes early and went back to the kindergarten room where my kids were. It seemed they had them making a necklace on a string of fruit loops. My kids were doing ok, but I could tell the noise level was getting to Aaron. There were kids there that were just bouncing off the walls. It was loud. My kids were done with their necklaces, and they wanted to go out to the playground right outside the classroom. I asked the teacher if that would be ok. And she said that she needed them to sit quietly at their table until the rest of the class were done. I told them to follow her directions, and I understood why she needed to do this. If my kids went outside, the bouncy kids would see that and create more chaos. I felt like the teachers, with 54 very young and new-to-them children, were barely keeping it together. I watched my kids sit at the desk, not unhappily, but just kind of….wasting their time. And I thought…I can do better than this. By far. So I asked them, “Do you want to go to kindergarten here or do you want to continue going to village home and work on learning to read and do math at home?” And they said they wanted to stay home. They both thought the room had too many kids and was too loud. And so we were officially homeschoolers.

There are lots of ways to homeschool, but almost no homeschooling parent replicates the 6 hour school day of public school. There is no need to as the class management piece is not there. In a college class, I was told once that elementary students get an average of 46 minutes of instruction a day. The rest is procedural. (It might be more now that recess and lunch have been shortened and eliminated.) So, it was always obvious to me that school is 10% formal learning and 90% babysitting. When my kids were young, we aimed for an hour of formal school a day, sometimes split up into two sessions. It always included reading and math, and then social studies, science and art, PE etc. were much more ad hoc. Sometimes they weren’t done, and sometimes they took the whole day when the kids got really into something. But we tended to do our 30 minutes each of both reading and math and then one or two other things. We went on LOTS of field trips, and lots of group activities and outside time. The world really was their classroom. It was a lot of fun most days.

I started noticing a few things that would have gotten my kids labeled in school. As a trained special ed teacher, I have a bit of an eye for such things, but I also noticed that at home, they were almost irrelevant. Tiny adjustments took care of most of these things. I could tell early on that Naim, were he in school, would likely get identified as having a reading disability and possibly a working memory/executive function disability. Aaron possibly would have been identified as ADHD or autistic (which they would have labeled “high functioning” autism). There were a couple of minor things that were ‘a little off’ about my precious twinnies. Maybe it was due to the prematurity, maybe it was genetic. Naim seemed to be a lot like my dad, who had some the same learning disabilities. Aaron’s bio dad and bio siblings seemed to have a touch of neurodiversity running through them. But as homeschoolers, it really didn’t matter. We had the time and space to work things out for the most part.

Dyslexia is a print disability, just like blindness. As a blind parent, I dealt with Naim’s dyslexia by teaching him to use blind people strategies. I taught him VoiceOver on the computer. I hooked him up with Bookshare, I made it so he could read his math story problems outloud and see if he understood them. I also taught him to read. I tried the Orton Gillingham method, but it confused him more. He just needed lots of phonics repetition. Enough so that information passed from his working memory to his long term memory. He also struggled to copy things in handwriting. So, I taught him to type, and saved the copy work for things like math. Naim never really got behind in anything except maybe reading, if you really care that your kid reads at 6 instead of 12.

Aaron’s issues were a bit harder to define and not something that I fully realized until years later. Aaron has never had any trouble academically. Aaron starting identifying as female when she was 15, but seemed to be a typical boy as a child. She excelled at building and following printed directions, had an excellent sense of direction, learned to read without me really even working that hard with her, and had good hand-eye coordination and and eye for artistic and aesthetic things. She could also be incredibly destructive. She would tear apart stuff just to see how it works. She got a knife and stabbed my couch just to see what was in it. She would deconstruct the toaster in 3 minutes. It was hard to turn away from her very long. I started locking stuff up in a cupboard with a padlock. At three, she disassembled the entire locking mechanism to get into the cupboard. There was never enough places “up high” or “locked away” for Aaron. At the time, I didn’t see it as neurodiversity, just high energy and creativity. Although frustrating at times, we dealt with it as it came.

When the kids were to enter fourth grade, I decided they needed to go to public school. They were doing ok, but I wasn’t. Looking back, I think I was just burnt out. My husband had lost his job that year and we started a new company that was slowly ramping up, but not creating a lot of income yet. I was homeschooling, working 2 part time jobs, plus work on the company to try to make ends meet. I needed for something to give, so I decided that the twins could go to school. In May of that year, I walked in to our local public school, the same one I’d visited before, and signed them up to start in the fall.

The administrators there talked to me about my kids and what their educational experiences had been up to that time. They were very concerned that my kids had never been in the classroom before. They thought they wouldn’t know how to line up, to come when the whistle blows, to be quiet in their seats. There was a lot of not at all veiled prejudice about their homeschool status. I said they had been in classrooms. At VH, at the science museum, and church Sunday school, at Saturday academy and zoo camp. They knew how to line up, follow directions, etc. MY concern was about Naim. Naim was grade level in everything but reading. He used VoiceOver for science and social studies. He used the computer for some his written work. I did not want him to not be able to keep up in stuff because he was a slow reader. It wasn’t so much about “keeping up” per se, I just didn’t want him to get the idea that he was stupid when he wasn’t. I asked what could be done, could we do an IEP? I expected the process to start, but they said that he would need to be there at least a year and show that he was failing before they could start an IEP. I thought that was ridiculous. I had already had Naim tested and also he had done the state required standardized tests for homeschoolers. It wasn’t like data wasn’t available. But they said they needed to take A YEAR for him to fail before they would make a move for an IEP. I asked if he could be informally accommodated or could we do a 504 plan? They said there would be 36 kids in his class, there was no means to informally accommodate him. The thought of all the kids reading in science and my kid just sitting there bored as I had done so much of my schooling because I couldn’t see was not something I wanted to waste year of his life on. I walked out knowing that I could not justify putting Naim in public school.

But I left Aaron in, and in the one semester Aaron was in public school, she became unrecognizable as the joyful kid I had at home. I was called constantly to the school, not because she was causing a disruption, not because she was hitting a kid or being mean to the teacher, but because she was “doing her own thing.” I get that some of this was probably a period of adjustment to public school and a classroom with 37 students. I thought it could have worked itself out. But the teacher was calling me constantly. Aaron developed this level of anxiety and was sliding under the desk and just zoning out. She had been at VH, at camps and other classes, and we had been able to work things out for her, but here, they just called me and wanted me to what???? I didn’t really know. I could tell her to listen to the teacher, try her best, hang in and it would get easier, but they quit on her. They would just call me and have me come there and then tell me that they didn’t like her handwriting (an admitted teaching weakness of mine since I am blind. I had them do most things on the computer so I could read it. With my younger child, I have now developed other methods to having him practice handwriting that I can’t see. But Aaron and Naim probably had less than average experience with handwriting.) I don’t have an problem admitting that I was not a perfect teacher and that my kids might have gaps. But the teacher would just tell me, I don’t like her handwriting. ….OK. What would you like me to do about this? Can you not work with her a little more on it? Aren’t you the teacher? I am willing to help, sure, but offer me something specific to do then? Same with math. Aaron has never had difficulty with math. Ever. But all of the sudden, she didn’t get the math. And there was no book that I could get off Learning Ally or anything, it was just worksheets I couldn’t see. So I couldn’t easily help her in math. I lost all control over having an accessible curriculum. I felt like, ok, you aren’t going to teach her, you just want me to teach her at home. Which is really HOMESCHOOLING, and what I was doing anyway. I didn’t blame the teacher entirely, I just thought she had too many kids. But she called me constantly and offered me nothing, just that I should work with Aaron at home. Ok, putting Aaron in school was turning out to be much more work than homeschooling, and it was less effective, and she was very unhappy. But since her grades were ok, she was doing good or average in everything, they said she couldn’t get evaluated for any services. I was on my own. I felt like the teachers and staff gave up on her for problems that I thought were relatively minor and could have been solved, but by the end, they practically told me that they weren’t going to do anything, and I had to get my kid out from under the table on a daily basis.

(It was Naim that had the final straw with it and told me we should take Aaron out of public school. We went one day to have lunch with Aaron and watch a little recorder recital her music class was doing. They gave us 7 minutes to eat. And halfway through, they made us gather all of our stuff up and switch tables so they could wash the table we were on. They apparently did this every day. Naim, who highly prioritizes eating, was APPALLED!!! Barely 7 minutes for lunch and maybe 5-10 for recess and you had to MOVE TABLES? This was sacrilege to Naim.)

I was pissed off. Because it felt like I no longer had a choice to homeschool my kids, I HAD to homeschool my kids. And furthermore, the school was pretty much counting on me to homeschool my kids since I had already done it so they weren’t going to work with my kids on the few minor things they needed to work on. When I was in teacher training with special ed kids with complex disabilities, people said my students were just too disabled to gain benefit from the regular classroom. But my kids were getting As and Bs and they didn’t have significant disabilities and behavior problems and there STILL was no benefit to public school for them. My kids are not perfect but compared to the variety of kids that end up in public school, they were easy. They always showed up, they never mouthed off, they followed directions and were relatively quiet, they did most of their work, they had pretty good grades, but because my kid slid under the desk when she didn’t understand something and my other kid had the pretty much easiest learning disability there is, they weren’t going to do anything to make it work for them. Why? because the fourth grade teacher is one adult with 37 very different and needy kids. And she was under tremendous pressure to do things a certain way, get testing done, and get kids from point A to B in a certain time frame by the school. As a broken clock is right twice a day, so will there be a handful of kids that public school does well for. All the others just fall though the cracks of this assembly line education. As I had said before, if it doesn’t work and isn’t good for the most disabled kids, its probably not really that great for the rest of the kids either.

My compromise for my overworked situation and having to pull out a couple of kids from public school was that I put them in a (public) hybrid online/inperson program. And they did a version of this for the next 3 years. They attended the in person classes once or twice a week, and took some of the online classes. It worked ok, but here is where I found the third group of homeschoolers, the public school exiles. Most again, were really nice kids that might have had some minor issues in public school but they were blown so out of proportion or their needs weren’t being met so here they were. Even though these teachers were in the same district as the neighborhood public school, and they had a whole small school of mostly public school exiles, they did a better job being flexible and actually teaching these kids. The ratios were much lower, and the rules were a LOT more flexible. The kids were only required to do what they signed up for and could do it in a bunch of different ways. For me and the kids, the hybrid online school was not as fun as what we used to do, but it wasn’t bad, and it left me more time to work. It goes to show that public school does not HAVE to be this way just because it is public school.

So, that was when homeschooling became concrete for me and we became a homeschooling family. Homeschooling is a lifestyle choice that affects the whole family, and it is hard to parse it out as “just” about education. but that is how I got there and how I learned that public school made us become homeschoolers (pushed us to practically against my will) more than we chose to be homeschoolers on our own. Oh, it was both, I suppose. But I don’t regret it, and it has mostly been a great decision for my family.

Currently, Naim and Aaron are enrolled in Baker Early College, which facilitates high school kids to attend their local community college and earn credits for both high school and college. They are 11th graders and are looking at colleges to transfer to in the next year or two.

Aaron’s neurodiversity became more apparent as she got older, and she struggled with her gender identity for a while until coming out as female a couple of years ago. Trans issues are not something I feel like I am an expert on, but my goal has always been for her to feel safe and loved in our home and community so she can grow into whoever she wants to be. She has some autistic traits, like being sensitive to loud noises and visuals, taking things very literally and being very exacting in what she does, which can mean that she struggles with anxiety. But she has made huge progress and had the time to just “be” (with a little help from the pandemic.) She has a B average at school, loves art and history, and is a bit of an academic She has executed projects like starting an online streaming collaborative and building Minecraft servers. She is currently in a program where her and a group of other students are building an airplane. She has a dry wit and is the family baker, where she is always pushing us to try new, exotic desserts.

Naim, also a junior in the dual enrollment program, is very proud of his 3.96 GPA. He has a 504 plan, which he didn’t need to fail for a year to get, and still uses print disability accommodations in a lot of his work. He is an admitted policy wonk. He has interned in the county Democratic Party office, a tax accountant office and the local city government. He holds an officer position for a. youth led advisory group to the city council and works at a fast food restaurant. He loves improv and can always make us laugh. He has participated in mock trial and model United Nations through VH.

They both, along with my 12 year old who I still homeschool, still attend classes at Village Home.