Sue Phillips is tired.
She discovered how much work it took to home school her two children, Evan, 10, and Elizabeth, 7, in their Hamilton rambler--and how much she missed her career. When school starts tomorrow, the children will go back, and she'll be ready.
In February 1997, she and her husband, Lee, took their two children out of Loudoun County public schools to attend a private school in Leesburg because they were concerned about the way they were being taught to read and write--by whole words rather than phonics. But after struggling to pay $700 a month in tuition for both to attend Dominion Academy at Leesburg Baptist Church, the couple decided to teach their children at home beginning last fall.
Evan learned to love writing as much as he had disliked it in school, and Elizabeth is farther ahead now than Evan was at her age. But Sue Phillips, who previously had worked as a landscape architect, said she missed interacting with colleagues and the children missed their classmates--even though, like many other home-schooled children, they were involved in group sports and church.
In addition, Phillips said she is confident of her math and science skills but doesn't feel that her writing skills are strong enough to teach Evan the critical lessons he now needs.
"[Home schooling] benefited us. It was good," Phillips said. "But the commitment that I had to make was great. I felt led to do it. This year, I don't feel that way."
Evan, a shy boy who loves to play soccer and reads history novels feverishly, will enter the fifth grade, and Elizabeth, who prefers her nickname, Lizzi, will start the second grade tomorrow at Hamilton Elementary School.
Elizabeth becomes bashful about talk of returning to school.
"I kind of like it," she said, as she licked a lollipop a few days before the school year began. "My favorite subject is recess. I don't like math or handwriting."
Nevertheless, her mother reminded her how much she's improved her cursive handwriting and her arithmetic while being taught at home.
The learning was not limited to the children. Phillips read novels aloud with them about Spaniards coming to the New World and the War of 1812. "I even learned some stuff I didn't know," Phillips said.
Making pancakes in the morning wasn't just about cooking breakfast, but often turned into a lesson in measuring ingredients and following directions. Phillips's strict rule: no TV until after 3:30 p.m., the time they would usually get home from a day at public school. Most Fridays were dedicated as field trip days to visit history or space museums in Washington or visit friends.
And the benefits are ongoing, she said. "As a family, we get along better," Phillips said. "There's a family cohesiveness that comes with being together. We work together better."
Evan said he enjoyed being home schooled because he "could be home with his family, and the school day was shorter." But he said he is eager to see his "old buddies." His parents said they see a new self-confidence in Evan's writing after he got one-on-one attention from his mother.
"He was afraid of a blank piece of paper," Sue Phillips said. "He was intimidated by the process. I went step by step with him. We went from the basic elements of using descriptive words to writing a paragraph, and then we would work from there."
The children are ready for school, but now that Phillips doesn't have the sole responsibility of teaching them, she is a bit unsure of her future.
Last year, she was with them from early morning until Lee, 43, a planner for the Town of Leesburg, came home in the evening. Sue Phillips joked, "I can't even go to the grocery store without them."
She has done some moonlighting as a certified landscape architect for small private firms in the area, and she hopes to return to the working world--at least during school hours.
Her first lesson, she said, will be in using computers because designs that were once done by hand in her field are now done electronically. She plans to take classes at a community college to catch up.
Lee Phillips said his wife has earned the break, as he expressed gratitude and admiration for what she had undertaken. "We've seen our kids become more self-controlled and more of independent thinkers," he said.
CAPTION: Lee and Sue Phillips and children Evan and Elizabeth make the last splash of summer before school starts.
CAPTION: The Phillipses--Evan, mom Sue, Elizabeth and dad Lee--don rain gear at Paramount's Kings Dominion.