Home Advantage

Christian McMahel, with his red fire hat, practices matching

It may have been easy for Tina McMahel to drop her sons off at
school and let another teacher help them learn to count and read,
sing and explore science, but the former preschool instructor
thought she could do better.
It may have been easy for Tina McMahel to drop her sons off at school and let another teacher help them learn to count and read, sing and explore science, but the former preschool instructor thought she could do better.

Instead, she’d send them to a very exclusive private school with a solid religious background and the best of teachers. The enrollment was just of two per class, and best of all, it was close, located right at the kitchen table.

Across the United States, some 1.1 million children in kindergarten through 12th grade are taught at home, according to 2003 statistics compiled by the National

Centers for Education Statistics. The number represents a small but growing segment of the population that chooses to eschew traditional public school education in favor of a flexible system taught by parents or through an extensive network of co-ops, tutors, community colleges and other groups.

The stigma of home schooling has also given way, at least in the eyes of college administrators.

Once reserved as an option for children who had medical problems precluding them from normal school interaction or those temporarily displaced or disabled, home schooling is now attracting a wide range of students, who perform better on standardized tests when compared to their public school counterparts and often are more disciplined than their peers, according to a variety of university Web sites specifically posted to attract homeschoolers.

Most notable has been the jump in the number of families registering as homeschooled from 1999 to 2003. In the four-year period it grew by 250,000, according to the NCES.

“You get to focus one-on-one with your child,” said McMahel, a Gilroy resident, “so it takes a lot less time to get through a lesson with one. That way we don’t have to spend six hours on work, we can focus on special talents and gifts.”

The elimination of lag time in lessons due to the absence of large class sizes and varying rates of comprehension also helps home-schooled children to progress faster than many of their public school peers, said Sandi Zappa, mother of two homeschooled daughters.

“When you’re sitting there in class and you get it, and you want to start on your workbook, but the teacher is still going for the kids who don’t understand, it gets frustrating,” said Zappa. “And if you don’t get it, but the teacher wants to move on it can be a problem. When you’re homeschooling your child, if they get it, you go on. If they don’t, you see it right away.”

Zappa’s older daughter, Michelle, finished her high school career when most kids are celebrating the end of their sophomore year, but she didn’t move on.

Instead, the 17-year-old who has already won early acceptance to Biola University in Southern California, has been enjoying her teen social life and its accompanying rights of passage, attending high school for the fun of it.

Danielle, her 12-year-old sister, is educated through a co-op of homeschool moms, including Zappa working as the geography teacher, a professor at Gavilan who teaches English to the co-op and a former engineer who handles upper math courses.

The community atmosphere of her co-op is what keeps Zappa interested as she watches children of all ages play together at the group’s weekly park days.

“I think that the whole advantage of home schooling is exactly the socialization issue,” said Zappa. “Who ever decided that the best way to socialize your child was in a group of children their exact same age?”

It’s a sentiment Laura Dzek shares. As the homeschool facilitator for Morgan Hill Unified School District, it’s her job to ensure that any family who wishes to homeschool children can have access to appropriate textbooks and guidance.

Though families are only required to inform the state of their homeschool status, those who choose to go through a local program receive some additional help, like weekly parent meetings with a certified teacher that will help them decide how to approach problems and will make sure children are being instructed in a way that meets state standards.

“Parents who do it completely without guidance are one of the most frustrating aspects of home school for me,” said Dzek, “parents who dive right in with no support system, whether it’s through an online support community or a co-op or any of the local city programs. I think the isolation for the parents is probably the most difficult, not for the child.”

The isolation of home schooling forced Athena Driscoll to grow up quickly, to deal with high school’s more difficult subjects on her own and to test potential friends, but she said she wouldn’t trade her days as a home-schooled student for the average education. Hers may have been difficult at times, but she believes the process forged her self-reliant attitude and sharpened her independent streak.

Driscoll decided to pursue home schooling when she was a freshman because she feared the social reputation of Live Oak High School.

She also wanted some quiet time, to learn study skills and reflect on her life, as she had just been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

After a year of seclusion focusing solely on home tutelage, she was ready to announce her “return to public life,” enrolling at Gavilan College, where she would finish much of the work toward her high school diploma.

In some ways the college was just as frustrating as being homeschooled for the teen. Most of her peers at age 15 were 19 or 20.

“I had one of three reactions to my age,” said Driscoll, a 20-year-old who now works at Caffee Kaffee Vin in Morgan Hill and is currently taking a break from her school studies to focus on other interests.

“One, I was jail bait so guys didn’t want to talk to me. Two, if I was 15 and going to college I must be really smart and willing to do your homework. Or three, I was just an outcast, and they wouldn’t give me the time of day.”

Driscoll doesn’t feel like she missed much. She went to a few dances at Gilroy High with a former beau, and she got to skip the issue of teenage angst, she said. Best of all, when she’s ready, college will be waiting to sweep her into the frenzy of activity she avoided as a teen.

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