When the family lived in California, Pam Haseltine would keep her children indoors until after the school bus went through the neighborhood. She was afraid the neighbors would report them as truants. Haseltine and her husband (a major in the Air Force) had decided to educate the children themselves, and the local school district contended that homeschooling violated the laws on compulsory education.
Today, Haseltine doesn't hide the fact that she homeschools her children. In fact, she has become volunteer director of Bolling Area Home Educators, an association of like-minded parents that is well-received on Bolling AFB, D.C. "This is the only base at which we've been stationed where we have a working relationship with the command," Haseltine said. "They allow us to meet on base and use base facilities without charge."
Angie Toppings, chief of Bolling's community programs, agrees with Haseltine's assessment.
"Bolling is a unique place for Air Force families," she said, "so we do things to meet their unique needs. ... About 1995, I became a liaison for the homeschoolers, and we really started working closely together. Now, we provide information packages to folks being assigned to this area, not promoting homeschooling any more than we would any other option but just making people aware that it is an option."
The BAHE began nine years ago when a homeschooling Navy couple circulated a flyer asking their neighbors if they would be interested in forming a support group. Some 35 people responded and, today, an estimated 100 Bolling families are homeschooling. The support group is open to all comers and includes members from other military installations and civilian communities in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Haseltine was a schoolteacher and had planned to put her children into the school where she was teaching. Then, she met a homeschooling couple. "We saw something in that family," she said. "There was a bonding between the parents and the children and among the siblings. We decided we wanted that for our children."
She went on, "We have homeschooled from the beginning. When we move, we check ahead to see if there is a support group on or near the base and try to get in right away. I was involved with one at Vandenberg [AFB, Calif.] that operated under the chapel program. Then, I helped form a group in our church in Illinois. So, when I came out here, I guess they saw me as a good possibility for a director."
BAHE is open to all families who homeschool, whatever the reasons. For the Haseltines, religion is an important issue. "We wanted our children to be raised in our religious beliefs," she said. "I felt I could teach them just as well as a public school, if not better, and they wouldn't be getting somebody else's values."
Some parents say they are worried about violence in public schools. Others question the quality of public education, but they can't afford private schooling.
For military families, there is an added incentive. "The military lifestyle involves moving every two to three years," Toppings said, "and moving from one school system to another to another can be very devastating on the children's social and learning development. So if you choose to homeschool, you're always in control of the curriculum and the environment."
Haseltine underscores this last point.
"As a public school teacher," she said, "I would have a class of 25 students and had to teach to the middle of the class. If I had a slow student and had time after class, I could work with him. If I had students who were faster, I had to give them busy work so they wouldn't become a behavior problem. I knew that many children were falling between the cracks. With homeschooling, if my child understands the concept, we don't have to drum it in 10 million times. Or, if he doesn't grasp it, we can slow down and try from different angles until he gets it."
Despite these attractions, homeschooling is a daunting prospect for many parents. Fortunately, say veteran home educators, there is a wealth of resource material available, much of it offered through the Internet.
"There are lots of homeschool helps out on the market today," said Haseltine. "Many schools, whether Christian or secular, are realizing that homeschooling is on the rise and they want to tap into that growing market."
Debbie Sanzone, another of Bolling's homeschooling Air Force parents, has a single source for her material. "I use Christian Liberty Academy, which is a private school," she said. "The books I get have been tested in their school. They send us tests that we send back in and we get a report card every quarter. But, sometimes I'll see an interesting book that I think my kids might like this for science or something, and we'll add that to the curriculum we have."
For parents who need more than they can order or download from the Internet, BAHE provides additional aids.
"We have a program called Mentoring Moms," said Haseltine, "where we match veteran homeschoolers with new ones by interest or children's ages. The mentor takes the newcomer under her wing at least through her first year."
Nor are homeschooling parents the only teachers their children see. Some parents take turns teaching each other's children, and there are occasional group-learning sessions. Sanzone's son recently took an intensive three-day class in writing. "That was under our group," said Haseltine, "and there are others run by other support groups in Virginia and Maryland."
Being at Bolling also gives homeschoolers some added advantages.
"BAHE is a private organization," said Toppings, "but like the Scouts and some other groups, they have the approval of the base commander. The liaison they have with my office allows them to use base facilities such as the community center, the pool, and the bowling alley. ... This group is very well-organized and needs very little assistance except occasionally to make sure that people understand that they have the right to exist and that what they do is legal."
In addition, the base commander allows the group to put on one fund-raiser per year.
Bolling is unusual in its degree of support, but it is not the only base on which one finds active support groups. At Offutt AFB, Neb., for example, there are at least two. "There is a military support group," said Beverly Krueger, a homeschooling parent there, "and I belong to a much larger support group off base that also has many military families."
The Offuttarea parents use base facilities to substitute for some of the group activities their children miss by not attending public schools. "Several years ago," said Krueger, "our athletic program was able to begin using the base's youth center gym for volleyball and basketball programs. We hold our practices and most games at times when the general school-age population is in school, and we pay a yearly fee for the privilege."
No such accommodation is possible in the civilian community. Krueger said, "In Nebraska, homeschoolers are not allowed to participate on public or private school teams if those take part in the Nebraska athletic association."
In addition to homeschooling her own five children, Krueger operates a nonprofit Web site called Eclectic Homeschool Online. Like many such sites, this one stresses religion but offers a variety of other resources as well. Krueger's husband, Michael, an Air Force major, shares the management of the site.
Krueger says she has never had any problems about homeschooling at Offutt or at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, Ind., an Army post where they began homeschooling. But she said some bases could do a better job of telling newcomers about state regulations and local resources. Many, like Bolling, do provide information packages, but whether they go any further than that appears to vary widely from one installation to another.
In the continental United States, particularly, bases often seem not to consider it their function to become involved with the question. "There are probably many other bases that have families that homeschool their children," said Toppings. "We really have no way of identifying whether they are parts of groups. ... There is no requirement for families to let their leadership know what their private choice is for educating their children. ... It would be like monitoring what faith group you belong to or like monitoring what political party you have. It's really an individual family's private business."
The Department of Defense Education Activity, which monitors schools run by the military, recognizes homeschooling as an option but stops short of encouraging parents to choose it.
DoDEA notes that the agency is responsible for providing free appropriate public education to DoD dependents overseas who are command sponsored and to eligible dependents who reside on a military installation where there is a [stateside] dependent school. However, unless the sponsor enrolls a child in one of the government schools, DoDEA directives state that it has no duty to provide that child with an education.
Homeschoolers should check with their local commander to see if the host country's rules allow this option, DoDEA says. And, since the commander controls access to the installation, per DoDEA, "The installation commander may require attendance at our [a DoD Dependents Schools] schools, some alternative school approved by DoDDS, or some alternative program acceptable to the commander as a condition of continued command sponsorship."
Although this appears to suggest that homeschoolers may face loss of base privileges, DoDEA spokesperson Gwen Davis said, "We do not know of any commander who has questioned the homeschooling of any children. If the homeschool program is accredited, the grades will be accepted. If the program is not accredited, the DoD school will test the student to ensure that their grade placement is correct."
In fact, the agency offers some assistance to parents who decide to educate their children themselves. DoDEA does not provide homeschool materials; however, DoDEA schools will loan surplus textbooks to parents if those materials would be helpful to the homeschool program. Also, DoDEA has authorized the part-time enrollment of homeschooled students in its schools if that student would otherwise be eligible for space-required enrollment benefits. This lets homeschoolers make up courses they need for college or other reasons.
Overseas bases vary widely in their handling of homeschooling parents. Misawa AB, Japan, provides detailed guidelines to newcomers, including telling them that they must complete a "Release of Liability" and return it to the school liaison office along with a one-page description of the educational curriculum they plan to use. Sponsors also must provide their children's test results annually. Exams from a nationwide testing service are recommended, say the guidelines.
Misawa has a Home Educators Support Group, which circulates these local guidelines, lists activities, and posts newsletters. A similar group serves military families on Guam. Newcomers there are advised of local laws which require that homeschooled children "must be instructed in English in several branches of study required in the public schools for at least three hours per day for 170 days each calendar year."
Support groups are active at Ramstein AB, Germany, and in the Sembach and Kaiserslautern area of Germany. Another serves families at RAFs Mildenhall, Lakenheath, and Feltwell in Britain. There are similar groups in Iceland, Italy, and other areas with military populations.
Sanzone recalls that, when her family was at an Army post in Stuttgart, Germany, she had been told that DoDEA would not be friendly to homeschoolers. That was not her experience, however. "The school there was very receptive in letting homeschoolers come in to take classes. They were not core classes but band, art, computer training, and the German culture class."
The Air Force does not have a headquarters counterpart to Toppings's office at Bolling. However, without endorsing homeschooling as such, USAF does provide some information on the subject through a Web site called Air Force Crossroads (www.afcrossroads.com). The site's section on education recently added information about homeschooling, including links to teaching resources, legal advice, and support groups. Crossroads is careful to note, however, that its listing such groups does not constitute official endorsement.
Governments save money on homeschoolers, but the savings are not passed along to the parents to offset costs of teaching materials, books, and other necessities. "We spend anywhere from $100 to $700 per year per child," said Haseltine. "I realize that's probably less than half of what most private schools would charge, but if we want them to go somewhere, we drive them ourselves. It's all out of our pockets."
Some homeschooling proponents argue that parents should receive financial help from local school districts and, in the case of military families, from impact aid funding. Others, including Haseltine, see problems with this approach. "It's a touchy point," she said. "Sure, it would be nice to be funded, but, unfortunately, most of the time when you get federal aid, along with the money comes the federal government saying what you can and cannot teach. And the main reason we become homeschoolers in the first place is so we can make those choices ourselves."
Other homeschoolers share the concern that federal interest will lead to greater control of the program.
President Clinton recently gave his conditional support to homeschooling, but he also raised some warning flags. In May, he said, "I think that states should explicitly acknowledge the option of homeschooling, because it's going to be done anyway. It is done in every state of the country and therefore the best thing to do is to get the homeschoolers organized."
He added, however, that homeschooled children should be required to meet academic standards or face the likelihood of being put in more conventional schools.
His remarks drew fire from a number of homeschool organizations. "I think we are pretty organized," said Michael Farris, president and founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association. "It would seem to me that the last person we would want to be organized by is the government."
As for needing to meet academic standards, Farris said that a 1998 study by Lawrence M. Rudner of the University of Maryland showed that students who are educated at home have consistently scored above the national average in standardized tests.
Many US colleges apparently agree. They not only accept homeschooled students but seem eager to have them. Haseltine said, "I'm getting calls all the time from colleges begging to advertise in our newsletter or to come and speak to our group. They realize the study skills of homeschoolers are far above most public school children and that's what they want. That's not just Christian colleges. It's public universities and state colleges, too."
Several homeschooling Web sites furnish long lists of colleges and universities that accept homeschooled students. The list includes many state universities and the Air Force Academy. The academy's Web site indicates homeschooled students can be as competitive for appointment as any other student.
The Air Force was slow to accept homeschoolers for enlistment as airmen. It placed them in the same category as GED holders and persons with no high school equivalency and accepted only 1 percent of all enlistees from this category.
In late 1998, however, USAF exempted homeschooled students from the 1 percent cap on a trial basis. The change, said the Air Force, "is part of an Air Force program to permit increased opportunities for homeschoolers to enlist and to determine if their attrition from basic military training is equivalent to traditional high school diploma graduates."
Whatever problems may face them, the homeschoolers seem to agree that their approach is gaining acceptance and will profit from the explosive growth of the Internet and other technologies. Toppings agrees. "I don't like to predict," she said, "but, as you read the national media and listen to TV, I think it would be safe to conclude that our nation feels that educational programs and services are in need of repair and are looking for options, ... everything from homeschools to private schools to charter schools to corporations sponsoring for-profit schools."
Sanzone added, "My husband is finishing his degree through distance learning so he says he homeschools, too. There is more access to everything, including college courses by correspondence. I think more people will be involved with homeschooling and you won't be considered a weirdo if you do it."
At Offutt, Krueger said, "I think the homeschool genie is out of the bottle and putting it back in will be impossible. More and more people are saying, 'These are our kids, not the government's kids. When did the government begin caring more for my kids than I do?' Education policy has drifted too far into turning out good little consumer-producers, ignoring the unique individuality of each child. The goal should be to see each child develop his unique gifts."
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