(First published in the December 6, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Online curriculum and community support—like this program at the Edgar library—make it easier and more fulfilling
Librarian Deb Gauerke leads a homeschool group at the Edgar branch of the Marathon County Public Library. The library’s Homeschool Cooperative program provides learning activities and social time for homeschooling families. Other branches are considering similar programs.
For six-year-old Carmon Klingsmith, school begins not with a trip to the bus stop, backpack strapped around her shoulders. It begins in her grandparents’ home in Merrill, under the direction of her mother, Karen Klingsmith.
Why did Karen choose to homeschool her daughter? Because Karen, 25, remembers her own experience of being bullied, especially in middle school. She was called fat and other names; kids threw things at her. And not much was done by the adults at school to curb that bullying, Klingsmith says.
“For me, schooling was horrible,” Klingsmith says. “I don’t want that for my kids, I want them to enjoy school.”
So Carmon instead fires up the Chromebook and takes classes through Wisconsin Virtual Academy, or WIVA. The academy is an extension of public school. Lesson plans are laid out for each day, with a schedule Carmon can follow along, live, or review later on replay to complete her lessons.
The daily lessons cover a variety of disciplines, from language arts to math and social studies — nearly a dozen fields are covered. Karen, who doesn’t work because of a disability through an accident, happily takes on the job of guiding Carmon through her lessons.
More than 2 million students are homeschooled in the U.S., a number that has grown rapidly as options for homeschool families continue to grow.
Besides WIVA, there’s also Rural Virtual Academy, another Wisconsin-based program that Misty Poehnelt in Medford uses. RVA helps organize field trips and even pays the cost of internet access for families in rural areas, a big help considering the cost and challenge of getting decent connection in rural communities. But more importantly, these online programs provide a framework for to learn online from professional teachers.
Online curriculum is just part of the changing homeschool landscape. One Marathon County Public Library branch has started a homeschool cooperative, and the Center for the Visual Arts has offered art programs specifically for homeschoolers.
Wisconsin makes it easy — the state has some of the least restrictive laws in the country, not requiring curriculum review by a school district or a standardized test, for example.
Growth of homeschooling
Homeschooling is becoming more common in Wisconsin and throughout the United States. According to Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Research Education Institute, there were roughly 2.3 million home-educated students in the U.S. as of 2016 — up from roughly 2 million in 2010.
Many of homeschooled students in the U.S. are minorities — as many as 32% are non-white, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. An estimated 3.4 million adults in the U.S. have been homeschooled at least one year; Ray says that means around 5.7 million people in the U.S. either are or have been homeschooled.
Is it working? Ray argues it is. Home-educated students tend to score 15-30 percentile points higher than their school-educated counterparts on standardized achievement tests, Ray argues, and a 2015 study of African American homeschool students show they tended to score 23-42 percentile points higher than their school-educated counterparts.
In Wisconsin, roughly 20,000 children were being homeschooled in 2017-2018 — about 2% of all children, and about 500 more than in 2010, according to statistics compiled from the U.S. Department of Education. Estimates for the 2018-2019 school year added another 600 to that number.
Exact numbers of technically “homeschooled” students are becoming fuzzy, however, because of the proliferation of online programs officially associated with school districts. For example, the Wausau School District currently reports 158 homeschooled students, but an additional 65 are enrolled full-time at home through the district’s online Wausau Area Virtual Education (WAVE) program. And those 65 are more than double the 30 full-time WAVE students last school year.
Getting out of the house
About three years ago, Edgar librarian Deb Gauerke started seeing more and more homeschooling families coming through that Marathon County Public Library branch. And as she spoke with them, she realized there was a need for a cooperative space where homeschool families could gather. After getting five families to commit to making use of it, Gauerke founded the Homeschool Cooperative at the library branch.
Now, about eight to 16 homeschool kids gather every Tuesday afternoon to the Edgar library. Gauerke designs hands-on activities for everyone to participate in. The group is for children preschool to third grade, Gauerke says.
For example, one week the children participated in a programming exercise, in which they developed a series of instructions that the other children would follow to get out of a maze. Many of the projects center on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), such as work with Dash and Dot robots or drone technology.
The library’s Homeschool Cooperative program provides more than just an activity center for the children. Parents are able to meet as well, discuss various homeschool curricula and programs, talk about strategies and on a more social level, meet other homeschool parents.
“Last year a family came in that had just moved to Wausau,” Gauerke says. “They had one child and didn’t know anyone here. They came here and made good friends.”
The family since moved to Tomahawk, Gauerke says, but are still regulars at the Tuesday cooperative.
Some teachers from virtual academy programs come to the co-op at various intervals as well, Gauerke says. And though many of the families are from Edgar, some from even Stevens Point make the drive up.
Although there are no definite plans, Gauerke says other library branches are considering their own homeschool co-ops. Libraries are a good place for the cooperative, Gauerke says. “They can actually feel comfortable coming to the library,” Gauerke says. “It’s a program just for them to enjoy.”
One of those parents at the Edgar library on a Tuesday afternoon is Krystle Guerrero Schmitt. The 35-year-old mother of four in Edgar hadn’t really considered homeschooling because she assumed her options were limited in a rural community. But as she met more homeschool moms, she started learning about the variety of programs, which turned out to be plentiful— in fact, choosing her options was a bit overwhelming Guerrero Schmitt says.
Guerrero Schmitt chose to go with Rural Virtual Academy. Like WIVA, RVA is free for homeschooling parents because it’s considered a public school.
Poehnelt, who homeschools in Medford with RVA, says her children also are able to participate in extra-curricular activities through their local school and even sports until 9th grade. RVA organize free field trips — more than 100 per year, according to its website.
The virtual school is open to anyone but has special partnerships with several school districts in central and northern Wisconsin, including Medford, Marshfield, Antigo and Mosinee. According to its annual report, RVA’s enrollment this school year was a 50% increase over the previous year, and has been growing in all of its 13 years. The school graduated 48 seniors its last full school year. The school’s 2017-2018 enrollment was 803 students, about half associated with a partner school district and half from other areas of the state.
Family options, community support
Karen Klingsmith says she was bullied at school, and that’s a reason she chooses to homeschool her daughter, Carmon — to protect her from that experience.
A big part of Guerrero Schmitt’s decision to homeschool her children was because of her family’s lifestyle. Guerrero Schmitt’s husband, Francisco, is from Chile and they visit that country twice a year. Homeschooling offers the flexibility for them to travel, and Guerrero Schmitt jokes that they essentially have a built-in language program, since her husband’s family speaks only Spanish.
They have four children: son Domenic, 7; daughters Gabriela, 5, and Simona, 2; and newborn Josefina. They’re all getting a bilingual and travel education as well as the ability to learn online anywhere. So far Domenic and Gabriela are enrolled in RVA and the others will as they reach school age.
Of course, there are challenges to homeschooling. Handling four young children as two of them do school work can get crazy sometimes, Guerrero Schmitt says. But having the kids together is a huge benefit educationally for the younger ones. Five-year-old Gabriela was present and listening during Domenic’s lessons, and Guerrero Schmitt is surprised at how much she retains from that. And as Domenic becomes more independent, mom has more time to focus on the other children.
Socialization has always been a concern for homeschoolers. But according to Guerrero Schmitt and other parents at the Tuesday cooperative in Edgar—where children are playing a coding board game and later writing in their journals—one big benefit of the homeschooling co-op is that the students are exposed to and interact with children of other ages, so they learn how to act accordingly. That cross-age interaction isn’t as intense in a traditional school setting, where children are separated by age, they say.
Indeed, around the small table in the Edgar library, younger children play the coding game together as Gauerke leads the session. Multiple age groups play together, cooperate toward the game’s goals and laugh happily as the game progresses.
In Merrill, Klingsmith was happy to learn about the Edgar cooperative. She’d like to find more social activities for Carmon to participate in.
Carmon is excited that I am coming to interview them, Klingsmith tells me. Once I’m inside the house, she’s shy but enthusiastically gives me a high five when asked, and another as I leave. She watches proudly as her mother shows me her artwork, and points out her work area.
They both have reason to be proud. Carmon has earned an “A” on all her classes so far.