American Schools October 2012

The Homeschool Diaries

In New York City, teaching your own kids can make the most practical sense.
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Roderick Mills

Homeschooling happened to me this way: The same winter I started teaching a graduate class one night a week, my family was compelled to move to a new apartment, 100 yards away from our old one and identical except for a 25 percent rent hike we couldn’t afford, so that our 5-year-old twin sons could enroll in a “gifted” program in the Manhattan school district where we’d lived since they were born—until the city decided to redraw the lines. As I wrote yet another e-mail to a city Department of Education supervisor, asking her again if she could please arrange for the department’s computer system to recognize our change of address, my wife’s interest in homeschooling began to make a lot of sense. After all, I was teaching graduate students at Columbia. Why shouldn’t I teach my own children, too? What if I took the time and energy I was putting into arranging our sons’ education and devoted it to actually educating them?

Our sons enrolled in the gifted program, and Lenora and I volunteered for the usual parent activities. But when another substantial rent increase prompted a move to Brooklyn (to a lovely, affordable neighborhood whose public-school principal had recently been arrested for assaulting a teacher), and a first-grade teacher in our boys’ program went on maternity leave and was replaced by a 23-year-old teaching assistant, and we faced the prospects of transporting them to Manhattan and back for five more years and begging for permission to enroll our youngest son despite our Brooklyn address, and the discounted tuition for three at a nearby Waldorf school came to $27,000—that’s when I became a homeschooler.

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We had considered our options: Lenora could go back to work in the shrinking field of newspapering, with her salary enabling us to move to a neighborhood with better schools; or she could work full-time on our children’s education, teaching them and organizing classes with other families, while we relied on my income as a book editor and part-time professor. She was eager for us to school our children ourselves, and persuasive about why we should do so. I had been raised on the cult, creed, and dogma of public school, and this felt like leaving the fold. But given our other choices, it was worth a try.

That first year, chatting with other homeschooling parents at soccer games, picnics, and after-church coffee hours, I found that our decision was far from unusual. Homeschooling has long been a philosophical choice for religious traditionalists and off-the-grid homesteaders, but for the parents we met—among them several actors, a jazz composer, a restaurateur, a TV chef, a Columbia University physical-plant supervisor, and a handful of college professors—it was a practical alternative to New York’s notoriously inadequate education system.

The city’s public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and perpetually in turnaround. District boundaries governing enrollment change from one year to the next, as do standards for admission to gifted programs and “citywide” schools, accept­ance to which is determined by children’s scores on tests whose educational relevance is questionable. Meanwhile, middle-­class parents are priced out of districts midway through their children’s education, as people a few rungs higher up the ladder move to neighborhoods with acclaimed public schools (the West Village, Park Slope) and put the half-million they would have spent on private schools toward the mortgage.

As for those private schools, if you’re qualified to teach in them, you probably can’t afford them. Collegiate School costs $39,400 a year; Saint Ann’s, long a school where Brooklyn writers and professors sent their kids, now sports a morning lineup of town cars delivering the offspring of Manhattan hedge-fund managers. Parochial schools have become the poor relations in Catholic dioceses, in many cases the limb a church must cut off to avoid being shut down altogether.

So we are making a different choice. Sure, we have philo­sophical reasons. Some of the parents in our circle are “unschoolers,” convinced that early education should follow a child’s interests and initiatives rather than shape them. Some of us aspire to offer something like a classical education: logic and rhetoric, mythology, Latin. Most of us are put off by the public schools’ emphasis on standardized tests and their scant attention to the visual arts, music, religion, and foreign languages.

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