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Adding School to Home Study Bolsters Both

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Home schoolers and the public schools they long derided have been forging new alliances that provide bonuses for both.

Parents who teach their offspring at home can increasingly pick and choose what they want from their public schools, whether membership in the band or a weekday field trip. Schools get the state funding they otherwise would have lost, without having to find another pupil a seat in already brimming classrooms.

Thus, a San Clemente kindergartner sounds out words from a brightly illustrated primer at his kitchen table, then heads off to his local public school for music lessons. Irvine siblings absorb basic lessons at home, but take their standardized tests at school, as well as participate in the campus science fair and spelling bee.

“It’s a movement that is becoming more and more mainstream,” said Sheree Denee, principal of the Orange County Home Education Program, a charter school run by the county Department of Education and designed to help 1,500 home-schooled students. “Public school support is attempting to become the mainstay or the accepted way of home schooling.”

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There are at least 30,000 home-schooled children in California. That figure does not include thousands more students in the 25 or so home-study charter schools statewide and those whose parents have not notified authorities of their existence.

About 2,000 of those home-schooled students are in Orange County, and the numbers are growing, leading more schools to offer them educational goodies.

Irvine Unified and the county Department of Education launched their home-education programs about 10 years ago. This past summer, the county program gained charter status, creating a more centralized program and enabling it to serve more students. Capistrano Unified also piloted a program this fall. And a handful of other districts are piggybacking on these programs.

“Some kids spend 80%, 50% or as little as 10% of their day at their local school,” said Capistrano Unified Supt. James Fleming. “We see it as a way to reach out to an ever-changing constituency.”

One Laguna Niguel mother sends her sixth-grade son to a Capistrano school for three-fourths of the study day.

The 12-year-old attends school for physical education, science, band and almost every subject--except language arts and social studies. Because the boy struggles in those two subjects, his mother said she wants to work closely with him on those.

“History he disdains and I find it quite fascinating, so I want to impart that to him,” said the mother, who asked that her name not be published because of the stigma she feels is attached to home schoolers.

Teachers who work with home schoolers said many families join the state-funded programs because they like the academic support and social activities that encourage the students to become involved.

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“We plan workshops daily and field trips monthly for our families,” said Peggy Frick, director of Irvine Unified’s home-study program. “There are plenty of opportunities for these children to socialize with their peers.”

In turn, public schools receive the same amount of money as if the students attended public school full time--in Capistrano’s case, that’s $3,850 a year for each pupil. And for crowded districts like Capistrano, allowing children to home school saves space. “This year we have 28 students in our program,” Fleming said. “That’s a classroom somewhere.”

Home schooling took flight in the late 1960s. Two schools of thought forged the movement: Progressives and hippies wanted to educate their kids in an unconventional, carefree environment; religious fundamentalists sought to teach their children the word of God and insulate their young from society’s ills.

Although their motives differed, both camps rejected public schools and blamed them for their children’s lack of learning. They wanted to divorce themselves from fad teaching trends, parents said.

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Public educators argued in turn that home schoolers wrongfully maligned public schools because of philosophical and religious differences. Teachers and administrators also contended that home-taught children would grow dependent on their parents and would not be properly educated.

But now all that is changing.

More than 13,300 California students last year were home instructed through a public school program, a figure that has more than doubled since 1993, according to the latest data from the state Department of Education.

Some home-teaching purists still strongly oppose any alliance with public schools. They characterize public school involvement as government control in a “private family matter.” And, they add, public schools are capitalizing on home-schooling families by earning state money.

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“I think this is motivated by financial reasons and that concerns me,” said Michael Smith, vice president of the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Assn. “We protect and stand for the right of private home schoolers to exist separate from the public school establishment.”

And some who home teach for religious reasons discourage public programs, contending that such instruction subjects children to contradictory teachings, such as evolution and creationism.

“To a Christian who believes the Bible is central to our teachings, [making use of public programs] compromises our mission,” said Susan Beatty, co-founder and spokeswoman for the Christian Home Education Assn. “I’m teaching from my worldview, and everything must be based on Christian scripture.”

Public educators point out, though, that parents are not obligated to go through state-support programs. Instead, families can sign up with a private school or independent home-schooling network. And if a family chooses to work through a public program, they are free to add religious teachings as long as the district’s academic requirements are met.

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The latter is the choice many parents such as San Clemente mom Brenda Katsandris have made.

Katsandris said her chief purpose for home teaching is to make sure she plays an integral part in 7-year-old son Kyle’s development. Being outside a classroom also gives her lots of flexibility.

Each day, mom and son meet at the kitchen table and begin with a brief prayer. Then big, colorful books of limericks and songs are pulled out for reading lessons. Homemade math activities cap the three hours of one-on-one instruction.

Working with the Capistrano Unified program yields Katsandris textbooks, teacher guides and a curriculum outline that helps her gauge Kyle’s progress. Even more, he attends music lessons at his nearby school every Friday.

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“This way, I’m able to tailor fit his learning,” Katsandris said. “I don’t have a problem with public schools, I just want to be involved in his education.”

Conversely, Laguna Niguel parent Sharon Kohout-Lawrence said she home teaches her daughter because both the public and private school systems have been disappointing. At a private school, her daughter Rachel, 13, faced unbearable peer pressures. In a public school, the girl grew bored of the rudimentary academic programs, her mother said.

When Rachel reached fifth grade, Kohout-Lawrence quit her job as a teacher--in both private and public schools for 20 years--and dedicated her time to her daughter’s upbringing. Through the county’s home-education program, Rachel goes on ice skating events with other students and attends an advanced literature course that lets her read books by Emily Bronte, John Steinbeck, Jack London and others.

“For home schooling to succeed, you have to invest a lot of time and energy into it,” Kohout-Lawrence said. “The child has to be comfortable with it. It’s not for everybody.”

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Irvine students Paul and Sylvia Zaich said they wouldn’t have anything other than home tutoring. That’s good news to their neighbors, many of whom are eagerly awaiting seats for their children at the nearby public school, considered one of the best in the district.

While that school is lauded for its strong technology and academic programs, class sizes of 30 then were a major turnoff, said mom Anna Zaich.

“Our kids have missed the whole class-size-reduction scenario,” she said of Paul, 12, now in sixth grade, and Sylvia, 10, in fifth grade. “We figured one to one is better than 30 to 1.”

So the Zaichs linked up with Irvine Unified’s home-study program. Sylvia attends weekly workshops on writing and science. She and Paul take monthly field trips organized by the district. And annually, they take district-administered standardized tests and enter the Irvine science fair and spelling bee.

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While the Irvine home-teaching program has worked well, Zaich says she’s open to sending her children to public schools, particularly when they reach high school and need to prepare for college.

“Right now, the kids have the best of both worlds,” she said.


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