Our Kids Don’t Belong in School

More and more of Boston’s smartest families are opting out of the education system to homeschool their children. Is this the new model for creating elite kids?
homeschooling in boston

Claire Dickson was homeschooled her entire life, and is entering Harvard as a freshman this fall. / Photograph by Ken Richardson

When Milva McDonald sent her oldest daughter to Newton public school kindergarten in 1990, she was disturbed by what she saw. The kids were being tracked, even at that young age. And then there were the endless hours the small children spent sitting at their desks. It felt unnatural. In the real world, you wouldn’t be stuck in a room with people all the same ages with one person directing them, she thought.

During that single year her daughter was in the school system, McDonald saw enough to convince her that she could do better on her own. That would be no small feat: Newton’s public schools have long been rated as among the best in the state. (In our Greater Boston rankings this year, they’re 10th.) But she’d always worked part time—she’s now an online editor—and she was fortunate that she could maintain a flexible schedule. So she yanked her daughter out of school, and over the next two decades homeschooled all four of her children—including her youngest, Abigail Dickson, who’s now 16.

McDonald’s first homeschool rule was to throw out the book and let her children guide their learning, at their own pace. In lieu of a curriculum or published guides, McDonald improvised, taking advantage of the homeschooling village that had sprouted up around her. One mother ran a theater group, a dad ran a math group, and McDonald oversaw a creative-writing club. Their children took supplementary classes at the Harvard Extension School and Bunker Hill Community College. “I wanted them to be in charge of their own education and decide what they were interested in, and not have someone else telling them what to do and what they were good at,” she says.

And by any measure, it’s working. McDonald’s daughter Claire—the third of her four children to be homeschooled—will enter Harvard College as a freshman this fall.

 

Back in the ’90s, McDonald was considered a homeschooling pioneer; now she’s joined by a growing movement of parents who are abstaining from traditional schooling, not on religious grounds but because of another strong belief: that they can educate their kids better than the system can. Though far from mainstream (an estimated 2.2 million students are home-educated in the U.S.), secular homeschooling is trending up. Last year, 277 children were homeschooled in Boston, more than double the total from 2004; in Cambridge the number was 46. (In surrounding towns, the numbers are growing, too: During the 2013–2014 school year, Arlington had 55; Somerville, 36; Winthrop, 5; Brookline, 11; Natick, 36; Newton, 33; and Watertown, 24.)

There’s enough momentum that major cultural institutions—from the Franklin Park Zoo and the New England Aquarium to the Museum of Fine Arts and MIT’s Edgerton Center—now regularly offer classes for homeschoolers. Tellingly, even public school systems are becoming more accommodating. In Cambridge, for example, homeschoolers have the option to attend individual classes in the district’s schools. Some take math or science classes and participate in sports—last year, one homeschooler took music and piano lessons. Carolyn Turk, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning at Cambridge Public Schools, says she’s seeing more of this “hybrid” approach than in the past. “In Cambridge we look at homeschooling as a choice,” she says. “Cambridge is a city of choice.”

homeschooling in boston

Milva McDonald sits with her two younger daughters, Claire and Abigail. / Photograph by Ken Richardson

The Boston Public Schools, meanwhile, have begun to view homeschooling as one of the many laboratories in which it can explore new teaching methods. “These people are looking to do instructive, nontraditional education. It’s all different types of people from all incomes,” says Freddie Fuentes, the executive director of educational options for Boston Public Schools. Fuentes, who personally helps parents with academic plans, finds that many homeschooling parents want “very deep, expeditionary learning” for their children. “A lot of them are looking at innovative ways of learning,” he says. “We as a school system need to think about innovation and the cutting edge.”

In other words, homeschooling is arriving here in a very Boston-like way: It’s aspirational, intellectual, entrepreneurial, and innovative. But is it right for my son?

 

Growing up in New England, going to public schools, I always felt that I could chart my own path within the traditional system. In high school, I was empowered enough to propose other courses in lieu of chemistry and electives. I designed my own college major as well—spending hours convincing administrators to approve alternatives for academic requirements.

I hoped that when my son’s time came around, he would be able to shape his education as I once did. But when he turned three, I started wondering whether such unconventionality would be frowned upon in today’s high-pressure, test-focused system. I’d heard plenty of stories of late-night tutoring sessions with third graders, and children who were physically ill from the stresses of school. Acquaintances from Wellesley to Boston told me about homework in first grade. Lots of it. Lengthy projects that consumed hours of time, often started and completed by the parents. Kids caving under pressure to perform at specific levels in certain grades.

That was certainly true for Tracy Ventola, whose three-year-old fell apart every afternoon once she got home from preschool. “She’d unravel,” Ventola, 41, tells me from her Arlington home. “Crying, hitting, yelling. It was her relief. She just had to let it out.” Ventola, who had taught private school in Rhode Island, says that she and her husband struggled to unpack the cause of her daughter’s behavior. Maybe the preschool was too focused on teaching numbers and letters? Hoping that another year and a change in models would help, they moved her to a Waldorf school, known for its imaginative, play-based approach to early education. No such luck.

As before, Ventola found herself spending hours helping her daughter decompress from her school day. “School in general wasn’t a good fit for her. Even the kinder, gentler Waldorf approach was still too much stimulation for my sensitive child,” says Ventola, who now writes the homeschooling blog offkltr.com. With about 20 other youngsters and a whole lot of social expectations and pressures, she says, “She was overloaded emotionally, socially, and spiritually…. School was running our lives.”

Discouraged by stories like this, I sought a child-led, open environment where my son could learn by doing. But when I applied through the Cambridge public school lottery to a Montessori school and came up empty, I began to think about homeschooling more seriously. I don’t have a degree in education and lack teaching experience, save for one summer spent as a tennis instructor, and a winter giving ski lessons. But I’m pretty good at math. And Massachusetts makes it relatively easy to opt out: Families submit an application and curriculum plan to their districts—most towns expect annual plans. Was it ridiculous to consider taking on the responsibility of teaching my son?

Not knowing where to turn, I decided to seek out people like me—secular, educated, urbane—who’d chosen to take their kids’ educations into their own hands. That’s how I found myself at the Cambridge Public Library on a cold, rainy day last March to learn about homeschooling from the Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts (AHEM). I entered sheepishly at first, as if I were violating some basic, strongly held American tenet. In theory, I wanted my son to be a part of the public schools. I trust in the community, the great democratic ambition to educate all of our country’s children in a supportive, and free, learning environment.

But when you enter homeschooling territory, the first thing you’ll notice is how clearly, boldly, and unabashedly parents proclaim that traditional schooling is broken. “Here it is, 2015, and we don’t have recess in a lot of public schools, and we’re keeping them in schools longer every day,” says Patrick Farenga, a homeschooling advocate and president of HoltGWS, the company founded by John Holt, the father of homeschooling. “In a time that we customize jeans, we can’t imagine doing this with education?” he continues. “We’ve decided that in third grade a child should read, but school is not based on any biological evidence for how children learn.”

Some of the system’s harshest critics are trained teachers who’d quit their academic gigs, often out of frustration, to educate their brood. Megan McGrory Massaro left a seven-year stint as a middle school English teacher in Massachusetts schools, both public and private, to stay home when her first daughter was born. “You can’t allow your child to explore their own interests in the classroom…. It’s a broken system,” says the Pembroke resident. “We’ve lost sight of the goal here. Freedom and liberty and happiness? I feel like we’re sucking that out of our children.”