No school books, no competition for attention, in some cases, no tests? That's what it's like to be homeschooled.
More Vermont kids are staying home for school than ever before and that number is expected to grow. Homeschooling isn’t what it used to be.
The sound of smoothies being blended, not school bells, kicks of the school day in the Wood-Lewis home in Burlington. Mom, Valerie has been homeschooling 3 of her kids: 10-year-olds Maddie and Henry, and 7-year old Isaac, since the beginning.
“If it's a quieter day, they can decide: 'Do I want to get my obligations done and then I can relax or do I want to spread it throughout the day?" explained Valerie Wood-Lewis.
The Wood-Lewis family practices what the homeschooling community calls "unschooling.” That’s a child-led approach to learning at home, even though Valerie herself was a teacher for 15 years.
“They're getting a lot of unstructured time, it's not classes,” said Wood-Lewis. “I just feel like they're getting a lot of hard knowledge that I didn't have."
Where other families may choose to mirror a classroom at home, “unschoolers” use a child's inclination and individual talents to build their curriculum.
For Valerie's son, Isaac, that means using his favorite topic in the world, birds, to learn things like math and reading.
“I just need to step back and they are primed, evolutionarily-primed to learn. That's just what they do, they wake up and they learn. Almost none of this is me, the birding thing? I knew nothing about birds. The more you step back, the more they are able to step up,” said Valerie Wood-Lewis.
Even professional educators point out unschooling does not mean non-schooling. In fact, for a part of the day in the Wood-Lewis house, the kids still use workbooks.
Unschooling is a trend in Vermont that the Agency of Education says can work as long as it's done the right way.
“It's really a problem for people who can't be organized,” said Homeschool Consultant Karen Agnew with the VT
Agency of Education. “You need to be able to accomplish something. You need to be able to be learning whether you're unschooling or you're doing a traditional setting. There needs to be learning going on."
And in kitchens across the state, there's plenty of it.
While public school enrollment is on the decline, homeschooling has increased 40% since 2000. This academic year, 2,384 students are learning at home, making up 2.8% of the statewide student body.
That’s up from 1,701 14 years ago.
The Agency of Education's Andy Snyder oversees the state's home study unit. He says it’s not school consolidation or bullying that drives parents to keep their kids home, but rather, a need for flexibility.
“They're able to do things in study units and groups. They're able to travel together and be able to explore together,” said VT Agency of Education’s Andy Snyder. “The flexibility that home study provides and the opportunity to really pay attention to the needs, specific needs, of one's children is a great opportunity."
But what about the ever important social aspect?
Maddie Wood-Lewis joins other homeschooled kids every Thursday to explore the New Village Farm. It’s a way to learn outside a classroom while also being a kid with other kids.
Farm Educator Ross Doree sees a difference between kids who are homeschooled and those visiting public schools.
“The school kids are in a class together all the time so they sort of have this class mentality and class behavior where they work together as one,” said Ross Doree. “But these guys are all coming from different homes and just meet up once a week and so we get, in a good way, sort of a more chaotic, variable day where everyone has their own interests."
Homeschool critics may wonder: does this type of teaching add up to a good education?
Karen Agnew and Brynne Reed are Homeschool Education Consultants for the state, and oversee every homeschool family in Vermont. They perform assessments on the children's progress every year and consult with parents. It's mandatory until the child turns 16 but many times, continues afterwards.
“Our whole homeschooled statute is built on trust,” explained Brynne Reed, Education Consultant with VT Agency of Education. “If we see that maybe a child is struggling in an assessment, we might talk to a parent but that's really all that we can do."
Graduation rates are hard to calculate since homeschooled students do not really graduate.
“As the years go on, the parents have less and less involvement with the child's work, it's more like a resource person and by the time they're seniors, they're operating at a college level,” said Agnew.
The state does not keep track of homeschoolers SAT scores, or whether they attend college or enter the workforce. Eight current UVM students and 48 fall 2014 applicants are homeschooled.
Valerie Wood-Lewis says she'd like to keep the kids home through high school, but may take advantage of tougher classes and extracurricular activities in public school when the time comes. Until then, she's happy at home, with her favorite students.
“All of the kids are successful. They're well-rounded, they're learning, they're engaged, they're connected with their family,” said Valerie Wood-Lewis.
The Home School Legal Defense Association looked at state homeschooling laws across the country. Click on a state on the map to see an overview of that state's homeschooling laws.
Data from: Home School Legal Defense Association. Map key: Green = limited homeschooling regulations, Yellow = low regulations, Orange/Red = moderate regulations, Purple = high regulations.
Homeschooled families do still have to pay school taxes so their kids are entitled to two in school classes per semester.
Contrary to what some may believe, homeschooled families are not given stipends by the state. The families cover the entire homeschool budget.