CHARLES TOWN – Samantha Spitzer’s mobile phone has been buzzing more often lately.
A former public school music teacher and a longtime homeschooling mom in Charles Town, Spitzer has been busy voluntarily advising dozens of other families to successfully take the leap into the alternative education movement amid the school shutdowns and uncertainties during the coronavirus outbreak.
“I’m fielding phone calls, emails and messages daily from multiple people,” she said. “It is snowballing like crazy right now.”
Jefferson County public school officials reported this week that 1,221 children are officially enrolled in the county as homeschoolers, and 320 of them were registered for the alternative learning arrangement for the current school year.
As the opening day for public schools approaches, more and more families with growing doubts and concerns about the uncertainties created by the coronavirus outbreak have taken a look at homeschooling, Spitzer said. Some parents want to try homeschooling for the safety of their children and family, she said. Others hope homeschooling will allow their children to avoid any educational disruption that would come from possible school closures due to the ups and downs of the outbreak.
“Folks just, they want to know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen and they want to know it’s going to continue,” offered Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson, chair of the state Senate Education Committee.)
Rucker said a few parents planning on homeschooling for the first time have reached out to her as the new school year approached. She knows some grandparents who will be taking on homeschooling for their grandchildren so that both parents can work, she said.
Rucker said she knows some families are interested in pooling their resources to hire a teacher to lead private instruction for their children. Sometimes called micro-schools, those arrangements can offer a greater amount of options to parents who both work or have limited time or ability to devote to homeschooling.
“Some of these folks are planning on going back to public schooling at some point,” she said. “Some of them are saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about homeschooling for a while and this is kind of the push to do it.’”
Compounding their concerns, a lot of families aren’t happy with the online learning systems the public school is offering, and many families don’t have reliable internet access, Rucker said.
“I have heard from parents who told me that, unfortunately, their child had gotten absolutely no education after schools closed down” during the coronavirus outbreak and reverted to online learning, she said. “And they’re obviously not satisfied with that.”
Known within area homeschooling circles, Rucker has taught her five children at home for years, a decision she said started with meeting the needs of a special needs child.
“Homeschooling has been a gift for my family,” she said. “My children have great relationships with each other. … We know our strengths and our weaknesses — and we definitely know our weaknesses. But I have had the pleasure of being able to let each child bloom in whatever way God has made them to bloom.”
Spitzer, who worked as a public school music teacher in Berkeley County, has homeschooled her three daughters since 2005. Her family is a member of the board of the Jefferson County Christian Homeschool Co-op, a group of homeschool families that work together to share advice, resources and instruction at Covenant Church in Shepherdstown.
Homeschooling first flowered as a faith-based, family-centered movement in the 1980s that has been adopted by families of different backgrounds and with various educational goals. The coronavirus is a recent, if unexpected, reason more families are adopting the arrangement, the philosophy and the lifestyle.
This past spring and summer, Spitzer has been conducting several homeschooling workshops to help families launch into homeschooling and plant a firm footing into the alternative-education option.
Spitzer said families with all kinds of needs, situations and dynamics are trying homeschooling for the first time this year. Those include two-income households, single-parent families, grandparents watching grandchildren, families with special needs children as well as single-income households.
Many families are changing their plans, schedules and priorities to make homeschooling happen this year, if even just for the short term, Spitzer said. Some parents are quitting jobs to homeschool, she said. One parent has recently decided to earn a college degree online while working alongside her children. Another single parent can’t afford to quit her job but is planning to find the time while she isn’t working to homeschool her children.
“Fortunately, her son was older so he would be able to do a lot of independent work,” Spitzer said of the single parent. “She can be there for him in the evenings or whatever she needs to do.”
Flexible learning tailored to boosting the academic strengths and weaknesses and to the particular learning style of a child is one of the greatest advantages of homeschooling, Spitzer and Rucker said.
Families can make their children’s learning experience more expansive, richer, creative and personalized than a public school can, Spitzer said.
Deeply exploring a child’s special talent or interest is easier to do in a homeschool meeting than in a class with two dozen students.
“You do not have to tick off the same boxes that the public school does when it comes to teaching your kids,” she added.
For example, all kinds of science, literature, math, history and art can be developed for a child with an interest in a topic or a place, such as tigers or Australia, Spitzer said. A unit study can start with children reading all of the books he or she can find in the library about the topic. Then the child can create a poem, painting, song or essay about what they learned.
“I tell people all the time, if you love ancient Egypt, OK, study everything about ancient Egypt,” Spitzer said. “Go back in the backyard and build a pyramid. Have fun. Get that involved. Have a ball.”
Most families develop lessons with hands-on projects and experiences that are supplemented with a mix of reading and traditional classroom exercises, Spitzer said. Homeschooling is not about desk learning or sitting in front of a computer all day, she said.
“If you put in traditional homeschooling with virtual, with projects and hands-on things that you can do, that’s what most homeschoolers do,” she said. “It’s kind of funny that it’s called homeschool because real homeschoolers don’t ever really spend a lot of time at home.”
Families starting out now that want the academic and social support from a homeschooling co-op will likely have to form a new one rather than join an existing one, Spitzer said. At this point, most homeschooling co-ops have already filled up with members after completing their academic planning that began in the spring, she explained.
But getting a late start shouldn’t deter a family from homeschooling this year, Spitzer said. She said jumping into homeschooling is easy in West Virginia. Starting the process basically involves formally notifying the county Board of Education and then arranging for end-of-year academic testing for your children, she said.
Families can then begin their own homegrown academic programs from there, she said. The core subjects to cover are language arts, math, science and history. Everything else is rich fertilizer for young minds and souls.
There’s a trove of reputable and affordable curriculum guides available online, as well as a growing body of quality virtual learning programs, for families pursuing homeschooling, Spitzer said. “It’s very doable,” she said.
However, Rucker cautioned parents that in West Virginia any secondary year that a child is homeschooled has to be automatically repeated if the child becomes enrolled back into a public high school again, Rucker said.
However, homeschooled children returning to a public school in an earlier grade won’t face that requirement, she said.
Public schools can test a student transferring from another state to determine what academic grade level he or she should be placed, Rucker added. But a school district can’t test a homeschooled child to place him or her in an appropriate grade, she said.
“No other state that I know of does that,” Rucker said advocating to change that requirement. “That just seems crazy.”