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Homeschooling Gets Out of the House

Sandy Coleman (Globe Staff)

Reprinted from The Boston Globe, January 20, 1997

Necessity has made them mothers and fathers of invention. They are the parents who choose to educate their children at home, their own way, for reasons varying from wanting to instill religious values to wanting the freedom to follow the child's interests. Their philosophical approaches to teaching the estimated 8,000 children home schooled in Massachusetts run the gamut.

But they also recognize that both parents and children run the risk of becoming isolated. So in recent years they have invented a network of activities, supportive groups and get-togethers that has become so expansive that it rivals what the best schools have to offer.

The scope of the network is an indication that what began as a small, controversial movement of pioneers has blossomed into a thriving force.

The network, stretching throughout New England with a heavy concentration in the Boston area, includes a theater group that meets in Cambridge; odyssey of the mind, a problem-solving group in Marlborough; a play group for young children that meets at the Arnold Arboretum; a campfire group for boys and girls that meets at the Museum of Science; a chess club; a math study group and a history club.

Home schoolers have also organized science fairs and craft shows and held music recitals. Monthly, many meet at the Cambridge Public Library to discuss new books, review reference materials or hear presentations on various topics.

And since 1993, homeschooling parents and children have been dancing up a storm at the Longfellow School in Cambridge. Marie Carey launched folk dances after she noticed that fathers were left out of many of the activities that take place during the day. On 30 Mondays out of the year, 40 to 80 homeschoolers and the general public show up for dances in donated space, which is just steps from Carey's Cambridge home. Afterward, they walk to her house for a cozy potluck dinner.

"There's been so much going on in the homeschool group," said Phoebe Wells, who organized the science fair last year. "Two years ago was the first time we needed to really choose what we wanted to do because there was so much to do."

Wells, a former nurse, is the mother of two homeschooled boys, 9-year-old Eoin Gaj and 4-year-old Daire Gaj.

Taking The Stage
This year, Eoin and Daire are in a play directed by homeschooling mother Sheila Leavitt, who created the Puddlejump Players theater troupe with her children. The troupe started out four years ago with a production presented at a block party on the dead-end street of Leavings Newton home. This year, the play will be staged at a rented theater in Concord.

Eoin also participates in a literary study group that Maureen Carey's 11-year-old daughter, Aidin, and two friends started. On a recent chilly morning, the group sat around Carey's dining room table reading "Pride and Prejudice" out loud and discussing it as they waited for a snack of homemade bread to finish baking. Carey, a former school teacher, and Wells also participated as Daire stretched out playing with Legos on the living room floor.

"At times, it does work like one large family," said Wells, referring to the network.

Wells, who helps with fund-raising for the theater group, is a key member of the Home Club, a Boston-area social group for homeschoolers that is about 10 years old. The fact that no one is really in charge of the club reflects the independent spirit of home schoolers.

The Home Club has a phone chain (used, for example, to drum up enough people to get a group discount for "The Nutcracker" ballet); and a directory of home schoolers that is cross-referenced by hometown, children's ages and the first names of parents in case someone meets a parent and only remembers a first name.

The Home Club, which is too informal for anything remotely similar to monthly meetings, also produces a newsletter that is edited by a different family each month. Included are children's drawings, family biographies and event calendars. Mailed to about 120 families, the newsletter is an invitation to connect.

There is a similar group in Arlington called Homeschooling Together that draws Boston area families. Members of the two groups often wind up at the same gatherings.

The groups do more than eliminate potential isolation. Experienced home schoolers hold the hands of nervous first-timers, who may feel as if they are leaping into an abyss by answering their questions, offering advice and discussing philosophies.

"New home schoolers need support when they're getting started," said Leavitt, who is home schooling four children. "They ask the same questions about socialization, how may hours to do math, what to do when children get to high school age and college."

Turning To Each Other
And when friends, relatives and peers of their children voice disapproval (one mother reportedly was told by her best friend that she would ruin her 3-year-old daughter's life by not sending her to preschool), homeschoolers have each other to rely on for support and understanding.

"Homeschoolers have done a a remarkable job in finding resources locally and nationally," said Patrick Farenga, a homeschooling parent and president of Holt Associates, a Cambridge-based clearinghouse and support organization with a national reputation.

Homeschooling is legal in every state. In Massachusetts, regulations vary by school district, Farenga estimates there are as many as 60,000 homeschool children in New England.

Since 1977 Holt Associates has published the magazine "Growing Without Schooling", which connects homeschoolers nationwide. The magazine lists 18 local groups that are part of the homeschooling network. They are scattered from Boston and Natick to Plymouth, Wakefield and Boxborough.

Pamela Bronder-Giroux, who started an Odyssey of the Mind group, knows the value of the network. It helped her recruit members.

"When school is the focus of life, the building draws you. But homeschooling doesn't have one place. Homeschoolers are committed people, but the logistics for trying to get together are harder," said Bronder-Giroux of Malden.

Take the Puddlejump Players, for example.
One recent morning for two hours, Leavitt was sitting on the floor in her denim dress with her legs crossed and her blue clogs kicked off. She was in full work mode as she held the attention of 30 children at the Central Square branch of the Cambridge Public Library.

In a lively exchange, Leavitt discussed the complicated plot of "Laughing Gas' to be presented this spring. More than 40 children will be in the play. Last year's play had about 50.

"This theater group couldn't have happened the way it has without this network in place," said Leavitt, noting how quickly word spread when she started the group that relies on parents for everything from costumes to stage management.

A pathologist who quit her job to homeschool her four children, Leavitt says that she has met most of her best friends through the homeschooling network.

"I don't know where I would find such a community if I were not in this one," she said.

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