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Learning begins and stays at home

Andrew Marks

This article appeared in Crain's New York Business, July 20, 2008

Number of home-schoolers in the city rising, despite stigma, regulations

A difficult year at a private school for her 5-year-old and overcrowding at a nearby public school in Washington Heights had left Anya Mateo gloomy about educational options for her two children. After seeing a show by a group of home-schooled children in Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan this May, she decided to teach her kids herself.

"The performance was phenomenal," Ms. Mateo says. "My kids were watching them tell stories and improvise." She has joined the New York City Home Educators Alliance and is convinced that "this is the best way to educate my kids in New York City."

More families are making that choice in the city, where 2,800 children were home-schooled during the 2006-07 academic year, compared with 1,600 in 2001-02, according to the New York City Department of Education.

The increase is being fueled partly by the escalating price of private schools and some middle-class families' dissatisfaction with public schools, says Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who specializes in home-schooling issues.

"Spending $30,000 per child per year is not an option even for many professional families, and you see more people looking for an alternative," Mr. Huerta says.

"A lot of people here do it for convenience rather than religious beliefs, which is the main reason you find it nationally," he says.

Better scores

Studies show that, compared with traditionally educated students, the nation's 2 million home-schooled score 15 to 30 percentage points higher on standardized elementary school tests and about half that on their SATs, according to Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute.

Mr. Ray attributes the performance to one-on-one attention-the hallmark of home schooling.

Its association with the religious right and headlines about child abuse continue to stigmatize the practice, however, and many doubt the quality of instruction.

"The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience," says a spokeswoman for the group, which is based in Washington.

Regulations governing the practice vary widely.

California, which has more home-schoolers than any other state, mandates only that parents submit affidavits of their intention to teach children at home. Some states don't even ask for that much.

On the other side of the regulation spectrum: New York, which many experts say is the most difficult state for home-schoolers. Parents must undergo lesson plan reviews and quarterly evaluation reports, and children take annual standardized tests beginning in the fourth grade.

"New York is one of the most regulated and meddlesome states for home schooling," Mr. Ray says.

The regulations might explain why just 1.8% of kids K-12 in New York state are home-schooled, compared with the national average of 2%, according to the Census Bureau.

More bureaucracy

City home-schoolers contend that they must deal with an extra layer of bureaucracy, particularly when it comes to ancillary services.

It took Nancy D'Antonio, who has been teaching her daughter at their Upper West Side home for eight years, several years to get services from the city DOE for her daughter, who has a learning disability.

Lilian Garelick, director of mandated responsibilities for the DOE's Office of School and Youth Development, wouldn't address complaints about cumbersome regulation. Instead, a spokeswoman issued a statement that the agency is merely following state guidelines. Additionally, it reads, "as a result of the centralization of the home schooling office, administrative procedures have been streamlined and consolidated."

Despite the problems, Ms. D'Antonio recommends home schooling. "The benefits outweigh the challenges," she says.

In fact, the city has a number of unique advantages, experts say.

"Home schooling is all about empowering and encouraging children to develop and pursue their intellectual interests, and there's no better place to do that than in New York," says Chandra Nicol, executive director of Clonlara School in Ann Arbor, Mich., which develops individualized curricula.

"In the city, you have so many resources and the opportunity to take advantage of that richness," Ms. Nicol says. "When your kids find something they're interested in, you don't have to just stay an hour and then get back on the bus."

Justine Henning, a former private school teacher who now tutors home-schooled children, notes that most cultural institutions here-including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Natural History Museum -offer educational programs based on their exhibits.

"You could home-school in the Met alone," Ms. Henin says.