The Des Moines Public School System was one of the first in the United States to offer a cooperative home-school experience for parents who choose to teach their children at home. Our Home Instruction Program, which began in 1984 with 15 students, now serves 310 students from 165 families, out of a total district enrollment of some 30,000 students. This is in line with the U.S. Department of Education's estimate that about 1 percent of the school-aged population is home-schooled. Home-school groups estimate the figure as high as 4-5 percent.
Not so long ago, the concept of public school-supported home schooling would have been considered an oxymoron. Some states and districts tolerated home-schoolers. Some let them borrow books or take a class or two at a public school. Many offered no assistance at all. Numerous school districts did everything in their power to discourage home-schoolers. By supporting these families, our school district benefits in two ways: We increase our enrollment, and, more important, we reassure ourselves that these students are making adequate educational progress.
When parents enroll their child in our Home Instruction Program, they have several choices to make: the curriculum they will follow, the type of assistance they would like from teachers, a method of evaluation, and whether their child will attend the neighborhood school part-time (dual enrollment). The teacher will meet with the family once every two weeks, either at home or at an alternative location, if the parents prefer. Our district assigns eight full-time teachers and one full-time coordinator to the program, each teacher working with a maximum of 20 families or 40 students. The only fee we charge is the $7.50 textbook rental fee that all district students pay.
Legally, families may home-school their children without district assistance. But we believe that the visiting teachers are critical in making the concept work. They offer support, counseling, and suggestions at every step of the process. Offer is the key word: they do not force their views on parents. It is the parents who control their child's education. They are responsible for planning the curriculum as well as teaching their child. They are free to incorporate their own values and philosophies.
More Than Religion
If school officials are to accept home-schoolers, they first need to understand what motivates parents to choose this educational alternative. The stereotype is that most families home-school for religious reasons. Religion, however, is only one of many reasons, others being issues of trust, educational quality, and special needs.
Home schooling does allow families to incorporate their personal religious beliefs and values into all areas of the curriculum. Handwriting practice can incorporate scriptures, and reading can revolve around the Bible. We have had an increasing number of Jehovah's Witness families. Home schooling gives them the extra time in their day to do the service work that their religion requires.
Trust is the key reason for many families. Parents do not trust schools to keep their children safe in a society that they see becoming increasingly violent and unhealthy. They worry that schools will teach conflicting values. They don't trust the schools to give their children the individual time and attention necessary to assure learning of basic skills. Often parents say they don't blame the schools, and they believe the teachers are doing their best. Most realize that the schools' hands are tied in many ways: The classes are too large; too much of the teacher's time is spent on discipline; the class moves ahead whether all students have mastered skills or not; instruction meets the needs of the average student while the needs of exceptional learners go unmet. Coincidentally, these are the same complaints that educators have about school systems.
Parents of special education students want to give their children an opportunity to learn at their own level without being labeled or embarrassed by comparisons to other students their age. Parents who work with such a child learn firsthand about their child's limitations, and many times they quit blaming the schools for not teaching them. Our teachers work with these parents to assure that the instruction meets the needs of the student as identified in the student's last Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Home schooling can give gifted students additional time to explore their academic interests and talents. For example, ballet dancers, actors, and musicians have participated in advanced training classes in their own fields during the day and home-schooled at night.
Some of the most satisfied home-school families have been those whose children suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Most school officials agree that it is difficult to meet these youngsters' needs in a classroom. At home, parents can plan shorter instructional periods to match shorter attention spans. They can assess the child's mastery of concepts with appropriate assignments. The students learn without the constant reminders to sit still or pay attention that can lower their self-esteem.
Home-school families' opinions of the public education system represent both ends of a continuum. Some believe that schools push students into formal learning at too young an age. They don't want to "teach" their child to read until age 8. This does not mean that they do not provide a rich learning environment for their children—in fact, they surround them with resources and engage them in activities that enable them to learn through interaction with their environment. Other parents don't believe their children have benefited from the trend toward whole language and developmentally appropriate strategies.
Parents usually find that they can teach in fewer hours than the students would be enrolled in school each day. Some families teach in the evenings and weekends to accommodate their work schedules. Some teach four days a week, but work into the summer months.
Support, Not Control
When parents enroll in the Home Instruction Program, we develop a nine-month educational plan that outlines the course of studies, the time to be spent in each subject, and the texts and publishers they may use. While this plan may be modified at any time, it becomes a road map that both parents and teachers can use to track progress throughout the year. If parents choose to use the Des Moines school curriculum, we give them the same textbooks and teacher's guides that students use in the classrooms. Parents are free to omit any material that they feel conflicts with their beliefs or values.
Teachers schedule their visits in advance and never arrive unannounced. The teacher will ask the family what types of services they would like during these visits. Some families want direct instruction in the basic skills, which allows teachers to model good instructional presentations. Families whose children are already strong in the basic skills might request that the teacher help provide an enriched education by assisting with art or music appreciation activities. Others want teachers to reinforce students by reviewing their work and giving them feedback. Many families just need someone to listen and offer advice and encouragement.
In addition to regularly scheduled visits, program teachers plan a variety of group activities—gym times, drama groups, field trips, and outside recreation—to give students opportunities to work with and socialize with their peers. Older students have dissected frogs, gone skiing, and built electric lamps together. Parents often request such traditional school activities as having yearbook pictures taken. For families without home computers, we offer to arrange sessions on school computers to expose the children to technology.
Many students in our dual-enrollment program take music or band lessons at their neighborhood school. Some attend classes in their favorite subject for one or two hours a day. They may also participate in extracurricular activities and play on sports teams.
To help home-schoolers meet our district educational requirements and comply with state law, we offer a choice of three evaluation methods: (1) the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, which is administered each April and results in a standardized test score; (2) the teacher's assessment of progress based on a portfolio that the student compiles throughout the year in each subject; or (3) the most popular choice, the teacher's verification of progress through a combination of methods—informal evaluations, direct instruction, reviews of work, reports, and projects.
In the third—and most subjective—approach, the teacher observes firsthand what instruction has taken place during the regularly scheduled visits. The students love to share art projects, science experiments, math papers, bulletin boards they have created, or food they made from the country they just studied. The students derive positive reinforcement, and the parents get immediate feedback from the teacher.
Occasionally students do not make adequate progress at home. In those cases, the teachers work with the families to determine what to change in the educational plan. When a home-school situation is not working, the parents are usually the first to voice concerns. Teachers make certain that these parents know that they have access to all options that are open to students in regular classes and that special services or classes, evaluations, and staffing can be arranged. Students can attend special education classes at their neighborhood schools part-time.
A Learning Experience
We do not recommend that parents home-school as a way to solve problems. For the majority of families, in fact, home schooling is not a workable situation. It requires major lifestyle changes that many families are not able or willing to make. Nevertheless, school administrators in our district have learned that the Home Instruction Program can accommodate many problems in a way that assures that the students' educational needs are being met.
Inevitably it is difficult at times to refrain from trying to make each home school into a mini-public school. But teachers recognize that this is a learning experience for parents as well as for children, so they encourage parents to try new methods. The most important requirements for teachers in this program are flexibility and tolerance of different values. The growth of the program is proof that the concept has worked for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders.
Leslie Dahm is Coordinator, Home Instruction, Des Moines Schools Home Instruction Program, Samuelson School, 3929 Bel-Aire Rd., Des Moines, IA 50310.