County Helps Families Do Their Homework : Schools: Unusual program offers encouragement, advice and supplies to parents who teach their children at home.


When Terri Gray began teaching her oldest daughter at home eight years ago, she was pretty much on her own--other than a little informal advice from a few nearby El Cajon home-school parents--to shop for textbooks, pace the curriculum and draw up a daily schedule.

Katrina White faced an equal challenge in choosing to educate her two oldest children at the family's Leucadia home after they reached school age about seven years ago. She filed an affidavit with the state Department of Educationan often ignored requirement under state law--saying that her home was a private school and hoped that local officials would ignore rather than harass her, as has occasionally happened to home-school operators nationwide.

But today, as the number of parents educating their children at home continues to increase throughout the county, the state and the nation, those in the San Diego area are getting a warm reception from local public school administrators.

In a county program replicated in only a few other places, officials here have decided to work with home-school operators rather than ostracize them. The Community Home Education Program provides textbooks, computer labs, on-call resource teachers, field trips and other help at three offices to make the task as rewarding as possible, for grade levels kindergarten through eighth.

So now, when Gray has questions about reading or math texts for her three children, assistance is just a phone call away, at the program's La Mesa office and from its resource teachers from the San Diego County Office of Education.

White trundles her four children to the computer lab at the San Marcos home education center whenever she thinks they might benefit from math or reading enrichment, or skills reviews.

Other parents meet with teachers or borrow globes, library books and resource guides from the Balboa Park office of the San Diego Unified School District, which offers home-school assistance in the metropolitan area in conjunction with the county. Countywide, the program has almost 750 children from all ethnic backgrounds and income levels, after starting with fewer than 25 students four years ago.

"It's a wonderful program, and it's improved year by year," said Gray, a veteran of teaching her children, now ages 14, 9, and 7, and a charter member of the county effort. "Before, it could take hours and hours to select books and draw up a curriculum on your own, especially with three children. Now, not only do you receive the books, but they even can tell you where you should be with them through the year."

"Basically, we've attempted to put an 'umbrella' over the home-schooling and provide quality curriculum and assistance to parents," said Chuck Lee, the county education office administrator who oversees the program. By enrolling parents through a written contract and thereby making students part of a public program, the county can receive state funds on a per-child basis, similar to the way it does in regular schools.

Teachers and administrators attribute the program's success to the motivation and commitment of parents to their children's education, elements that public school administrators often bemoan as lacking among parents in general. Annual testing of program students with standardized exams countywide shows that they do better than the overall public school population.

In addition to workshops, art enrichment, field trips and books, the program has a subtle public relations component as well, said Jim Davis, the program's "principal."

"Somewhere along the line, we believe that many of these children will re-enter the public school system," usually as they reach junior- or senior-high school age, Davis said. He believes the program makes the transition from home to public school easier, as well as promotes a positive view toward public education.

Whatever the reason for a parent to choose home school, antipathy toward public education has provided a common base.

Although home-school operators are often thought of as religious conservatives who dislike what they see as a lack of Christian-based values in public schools, only about 50% fall into that category, said Helen Hegener, editor and publisher of Home Education magazine in Tonasket, Wash.

"The other 50% have philosophical or other reasons," such as a dislike of peer pressure among students, drugs, violence and a general distrust of the ability of public schools to provide a powerful education, Hegener said.

"In any case, home-schoolers have proven they are not going to go away, they're not going to stop just because school districts don't approve or want to cooperate, so it's nice that some (districts) are willing to help instead of fight us."

"Home-schooling is on a roll right now because so many people are disgusted with the public school system," White of Leucadia said.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that at least half a million children are being taught at home, double the number in 1984.

State education officials compile statistics on the number of affidavits from individuals who say they operate private schools with four or fewer students and assume that most, if not all, are home-school parents. Such schools made up 47% of registered private schools statewide in 1988-89, up from 29% in 1983-84. But the 3,200 schools probably represent less than half of all home schools because at least that number fail to register, officials said.

The county maintains data on schools with seven or fewer students that have filed affidavits. For 1989, the number of schools totaled 146, with 332 students, or an average of 2.26 students per school, although local administrators also say that many fail to register.

The majority of home students are at kindergarten through third-grade level, both locally and nationally, although secondary-level numbers are rapidly growing.

Katrina White chose home schooling after she observed the pressure on her oldest daughter in preschool. She found the structure of the early elementary grades often overwhelming for children.

"So my husband and I decided we had the facilities to teach our children at home, and we just started. . . . I basically want my children to be honest, decent people with the love of learning, and I will not have that destroyed.

"Pressure on a child is a shame, is undue stress. . . . I go with my children's ability, and I insert information and pressure them a little bit to see where they stand on different subjects, and, if required, present things in a different way."

Terri Gray enrolled her oldest daughter in a Christian elementary school for kindergarten and first grade but found that, because the girl was taking more time than usual to complete her work, "her self-esteem started to go down and she was being made to feel dumb. . . . We didn't like that, so we asked ourselves about the alternatives. The first couple of years were the hardest, but I quickly found that I really enjoy teaching, especially reading."

Judi Denlinger of Alpine took her daughter out of third grade last year because the child was spending four hours a day in gymnastics practice and had little time to spend with her parents or on homework. Her older son remains in public school.

"I am finding that I enjoy being with her, and so far everything has been working out fine, although we are taking this a year at a time. I find we don't have to spend time worrying about discipline problems that are a part of public school."

Denlinger said she "could not have possibly done this on my own," without the county program.

"Everyone in this program is so positive, and I am comfortable knowing that there is always someone I can turn to. . . . The only time I've felt really lost was on how to help on a story for a writing contest. So the (resource teacher) said to bring (my daughter) in, and they worked it out fine. . . . There are no drawbacks so far."

Mary Robleto of Poway said that, "while I feel I am pretty good across the board in subject areas" for her daughter, there were times that she felt the need to ask questions. "The teachers stand back," she said, "they don't tell you to do this or that. They are almost like a mother watching, who understands that you have this big task but who will make sure that you will not fail."

Comparing her first efforts to teach her oldest daughters, before the program began, to now, White said, "It's much easier by far today, mainly because you have curriculum guidelines, and you know what to get out of children at a certain age."

Whitney Cramer, a city schools resource teacher, said home schooling is "every teacher's dream," because it combines customized education with close parental attention. A colleague, Lynn Baumann, pointed to "the marvelous motivation of the parent with the child." Some city schools are trying to learn from the program how to involve parents in more substantive ways, she said.

"We plot out a course of study here, the core, but the parents can supplement it any way they want," Baumann said. "The parents use the same social studies and science books as in the regular public schools, but they might use only part of the book, or add books, depending on how they are meeting the goals and objectives" for the particular grade.

"You watch when these children go to the zoo, the mother knows the child is interested in certain animals so she will devise curriculum or quizzes. . . . It's not an assignment per se, but it's certainly learning."

The most difficult task for resource teachers is figuring out when the parent or student needs help, Cramer said. The program contract calls for a minimum of three conferences a year, but informal sessions occur far more frequently during visits to the education office for field trips, activities or computer time.

"We want to be supportive, but we don't want to frustrate the parent," Cramer said, adding that resource teachers must remind themselves that the parent is the primary teacher. "We find that the parents do keep developing more and more confidence," she said.

Some Fear Program

Although the county program has grown rapidly, many home-school parents refuse to participate, mainly because they fear harassment or legal action from school districts. Although California is much less proscriptive of private schools than most other states, there have been efforts to tighten regulations and eliminate the affidavit route.

"Some (parents) simply fear a change in the political climate" might eliminate home schools, and, if they were program participants, their names might be on some sort of list, said Gray, who never filed an affidavit before joining the program.

"Those who know about us and want us are with us," Baumann said.

The program now ends after eighth grade, largely because of the difficulty in computing home-school course work into credits for college, and in part because specialized science and other subjects are not easily taught at home.

County resource teacher Suzan Clausen said that one of her former home-school students, now in 10th grade, attends classes for the gifted and earns almost straight A's.

Many parents continue to contact resource teachers after their children return to public school, Baumann said. They are encouraged to work as closely with the school as they did with the program.

"But we don't lecture parents on sending their kids back to public school," Baumann said.

Indeed, Hegener, editor of Home Education magazine, said that no more than 25% of home-school children go back to public school.

Gray's oldest daughter will begin ninth grade next year, and Gray is considering a Christian high school as well as an independent study contract with a private school, under which the school closely supervises the curriculum while the student works primarily at home.

White's oldest daughter also is nearing high school age. "Whether or not the county program gets extended into high school doesn't matter to me, since most high schools have independent study," she said.

"The reason I would keep (my children) out of high school is that they would not have to face the violence, the drugs and everything else in the schools that do not make for a really healthy environment to learn in."

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