This summer, the online parenting forums for some D.C. neighborhoods lighted up with queries about a topic normally considered the domain of suburban and rural parents. In Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Brookland and along U Street, parents are contemplating educating their children at home.
A sample from the back-and-forth on the Brookland Kids forum:
“If we don’t have any viable options for 1st grade, I need to consider home schooling.”
“Hi all I was wondering if anyone home-schools their kids . . . I wanted to get your thought on pacing guides and package curriculum.”
“We have been toying with the idea of home schooling.”
It’s an interest that comes from necessity. For years, parents in these sections of the District assumed they could raise their children in their beloved neighborhoods but not have to rely on their local schools, most of which they considered substandard. They went elsewhere for public education, usually to the west of Rock Creek Park, where the affluent neighborhoods were home to high-achieving, under-enrolled schools.
It had been an established routine for decades. In the spring, these families would enter the D.C. public schools’ out-of-boundary lottery, apply to Janney, Lafayette or Murch elementary schools in upper Northwest and wait to find out which one they would be driving to in the fall.
No more. Like most of the best-regarded schools in the city, those Ward 3 schools are now bursting with in-boundary students. Out-of-boundary has come to mean out-of-luck.
“A lot more families are excited to take advantage of their local school options,” said Abigail Smith, director of D.C. schools’ Office of Transformation Management, who has been examining the out-of-boundary process. “That means that, at a certain point, [out-of-boundary] kids are going to have a harder time getting into those schools.”
For the 2011-12 school year, D.C. schools fielded more applications than ever for their out-of-boundary lottery. At the same time, there were far fewer out-of-boundary spots at the most coveted schools. Only one available out-of-boundary kindergarten spot could be found at Janney. Lafayette and Murch had none.
At the same time, there was an overflow of interest in select charter schools. At the popular Northwest charter school Latin American Bilingual Montessori, known as LAMB, 525 families applied for 60 spots.
School officials point to a number of reasons why parents are suddenly clambering for certain schools: an increasing faith in school reform; the perception of school choice; and an economic downturn that makes public education more appealing than pricey private schools.
The speed at which this has occurred, in just the past two or three years, has severely limited options for many D.C. parents, especially those in neighborhoods where the perception of the schools is worse than the perception of the residential amenities.
Faced with the choice of the neighborhood school, a private or parochial school or a move to the suburbs, some of these parents are choosing to educate their children themselves.
“It’s such a resource-rich city. If there’s anywhere you can home-school and get so much out of it, it’s here,” said Farrar Williams, a Columbia Heights mother who home-schools her twin 7-year-old sons.
Williams has been on the forefront of the current trend. She was one of the first to join the D.C. Area Preschool Homeschoolers, a group formed five years ago to host play groups and field trips. Now that membership has grown unwieldy: At about 80 families, it’s become too large for regular outings.
The D.C. Area Elementary Age Homeschoolers, which was formed two years ago for older kids, has 50 members, Williams said, with a new member joining every month or so.
Until about 10 years ago, home schooling was still largely a rural and suburban phenomenon, said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. In the past decade, urban dwellers have turned to it as an educational option.
“The thought that it’s just right-wing Bible thumpers with 12 children, or left-wing hippie goat herders who’ve moved to the country to live in their Birkenstocks, has been around a long time, but it’s far from reality,” Ray said.
Home schooling is still a minuscule part of the overall school population in the D.C. area and nationally. A little more than 2 million of the nation’s students are home-schooled, Ray said. He estimates that 2,200 to 2,900 are home-schooled in the District. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees home schooling in the District, has officially registered only about 10 percent of that number. But many home-schoolers operate under the radar.
Ray thinks that, as in other cities, the number of families in the District choosing to home-school has been rising at a rate of 2 to 8 percent annually. That doesn’t count the spike in interest. “I think what is going on is that home-schooling is becoming a mainstream choice for a lot of people,” he said.
One of them is Rebecca Hansen, who has coordinated a home-school preschool co-op in her Brookland neighborhood. “We’re really happy here, and we plan to stay,” she said.
That plan, however, does not include having her two sons, ages 4 and 2, attend the local school, Burroughs Education Campus, where the percentage of students meeting reading and math standards is under 50 percent, according to the school profile.
She first tried the traditional route of the D.C. schools’ lottery and charter schools. Her older son was wait-listed at the six city pre-K programs in the lottery. “It’s not like I was applying to only the best. I chose schools that would have worked for our family, that were diverse and safe and close enough to get to.”
The charters, at first, were even harder to get into. Her son was 380th on the waiting list at LAMB, she said.
She planned to keep home-schooling him. Then, she got word that he won a spot in the Chinese immersion Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, where he started school Tuesday. She is still considering home-schooling her younger son because Yu Ying is so difficult to get into that siblings are not guaranteed a spot.
Alison Dowling isn’t waiting to be rejected by the lottery. Although her son is not yet 2, she’s already started organizing a home-schooling network around her Foggy Bottom home. The do-it-yourself approach, she said, started to make sense “when we’re faced with the choice between a $20,000-a-year preschool or the public school.”
Dowling’s local school is Francis-Stevens Education Campus, a school that is considered an up-and-comer. It’s one of several elementary campuses on which school officials have focused attention and support in recent years. Smith said the long-term D.C. goal is to improve all the schools, “but obviously we’re not there yet.” So the short-term goal is to concentrate efforts every year on a collection of schools, including Francis-Stevens, so that the pool of most-desired schools grows.
For Dowling, however, the local option is not desirable enough. Instead, she and her husband are plotting out the alternatives.
Between her background in chemistry and Asian studies, and her husband, a chef with a degree in economics, she looks forward to sharing their knowledge with their child. At the same time, Dowling doesn’t intend to home-school for the rest of her son’s academic career. She hopes that the e-mail list she’s compiling of other families considering the home option will serve as both a network and a resource and also, maybe, a springboard to form a new co-op or charter school.
Williams had long hoped to home-school her children and embraces the ability to find new teaching opportunities. She spends her weekday mornings hunched with her twin boys at the dining room table.
Formal instruction lasts a couple of hours. Otherwise, the “schooling” tends to be free-form, with experiences taking precedence.
Their day takes on a certain rhythm: a few hours of phonics or spelling; an outing, perhaps a trip to a museum or a park; afternoon downtime; piano lessons or a reading session. She and the boys often meet up with other home-schoolers for group teaching sessions or field trips. Last year, she coordinated a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” among a group of home-schooled students.
Ray estimates that 70 percent of home-schooling families have children in kindergarten through eighth grade. Parents sometimes want their children to have a more standardized education as they approach college years, while others, Ray said, “realize it’s hard work.”
Not that hard, however, Williams said. The former middle and high school teacher said one of the comments she gets most often from parents is, “ ‘Oh, I could never do that.’ Or, ‘Oh, you’ve been a teacher so you know how to do it.’ ”
Neither is true, she said. “Maybe being a teacher gave me the confidence to do this. But I never taught a child to read before. Anyone who wants to do this can.”
DC Area Preschool Homeschoolers
DC Area Elementary Homeschoolers
DC Home Educators Association
Maryland Home Education Association
Home Education Association of Virginia
National Home Education Research Institute