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?
Similarly, after six years spent teaching second grade in Quincy Public Schools, Deanna Skow says, “I felt my love for teaching dying. I felt a little soul-crushed by all of the testing. I watched children lose interest in learning.” She and her husband, a philosophy professor at MIT, opted to skip traditional school altogether for their two children, ages two and five. Ironically, Skow initially set her home up like a preschool, with lessons to learn numbers and letters. “I got so much pushback from him,” she says of her older son. She’s since adjusted her style. “When I did relax, I could see him take the reins,” she recalls. “It’s hard for me to turn off the teacher completely.”
She then states the constant refrain among homeschoolers: “I want my children’s education to be meaningful and engaging and for them to have the gift of time to study and explore their true passions…. This is not the type of learning environment that is offered in public schools.”
I reached out to Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, to see what she thinks of these critiques, but she was unavailable to comment for this story. However, Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, sniffed, “It’s a subject that never comes up in my world.” When asked what he thinks of parents taking their children out of public schools because they think the system isn’t working, Stutman says, “My opinion is that there is a social cost to homeschooling. I have no comment or opinion as to whether parents who homeschool are qualified.”
Qualifications are one thing, it’s true. And educating children at home requires tremendous time and resources as well. In fact, many homeschooling families make major sacrifices to educate their kids. One partner may give up a full-time job to be with the children—the loss of income can mean going without vacation, or selling one of the cars. Regardless, they firmly believe they’re making an invaluable impact on their children’s lives.
And that’s what makes me panic a little. How could anyone think that she or he alone has what it takes to get a child from toddler to college-ready?
Robert Holzbach, 43, has complete confidence that he can handle the workload required to educate his four daughters. “I thought whatever a teacher can do with 30 kids, I can do with four,” he says. Holzbach had been working 80-hour weeks as a financial adviser before his oldest child was born. Even before his wife, a full-time technical architect for Partners HealthCare, got pregnant, they began discussing the possibility of homeschooling their children. Holzbach now teaches his 12- and 11-year-olds; he plans to take the seven- and five-year-olds out of school once they complete second grade. “What terrifies me about school is taking a test, even if you get an A-plus, and forgetting it the next day,” he says in his Winthrop home. “There’s no incentive to learn long-term.”
While talking to me, Holzbach pulls out a single sheet of paper; it’s a sample task list from a recent day of homeschooling: two hours of math, a one-hour history lecture, 40 minutes discussing the Brooklyn Bridge, time spent on Portuguese, 90 minutes of history reading. His daughters can choose when to do what, but it all has to get done by the end of the day. And they also must practice typing. I like how seriously he takes the individual subjects, and I like the flexibility.
Holzbach has always emphasized reading, too, and fortunately, his older daughters are passionate about books. This year, they read Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool; The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt; and E. L. Konigsburg’s Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth, to name a few. They could happily read all day long, and some days they do. If the family seems to need a break from one another, Holzbach will declare it a reading day and the girls may retreat to their rooms upstairs or to the brown leather couches in the living room.
For other subjects, Holzbach relies on a variety of materials. He uses the well-known Saxon Math books, published by Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which offers an entire line of textbooks for homeschoolers. He also uses Khan Academy, a free learning website that has received more than $10 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Holzbach regularly introduces subjects through the Great Courses—multipart lectures, available for purchase, that cover history, literature, science, music, philosophy, and more.
He also has a wealth of regional resources catered to the homeschooling trend. Public libraries and major museums and organizations—from the Museum of Fine Arts to Mass Audubon—offer day programs. Alternative learning centers that provide daylong classes, semester programs, and communal learning programs have exploded. There are more than a dozen around Massachusetts, including Parts and Crafts, in Somerville; Trellis Community Learning, in Pembroke; and the Macomber Center, in Framingham.
And aided by the Internet, homeschooling parents are finding it easier to build a village. On a given week, for example, Kerry McDonald says she lets her four children—ages eight, six, four, and 20 months—guide what they talk about and explore, using homeschooling family play dates found via Yahoo boards and other online forums to supplement the learning. McDonald tells me about meet-up offerings, including math classes, soccer, and museum visits.
Certainly there are resources aplenty for the ambitious parent. “You can sign your kid up for something every day,” says Milva McDonald. But are the kids happy and normal, or introverted and antisocial? I wanted to meet them.
“My dad makes us do typing,” complains Audrey Holzbach, 11, as she falls into a cozy leather chair in the living room. She’s just emerged from the basement, where she’s been perfecting her skills. When asked what she’s been working on this breezy, sunny June afternoon, she mutters just like any tween, “Nothing.”
Audrey knows to make eye contact and gracefully shake hands with a stranger. But she’s visibly annoyed by nearly everything her father says. “You loved it when that vet came over,” he suggests, recounting the animal doctor who came to talk to the girls about her profession.
“No, I didn’t,” says Audrey, crinkling up her face.
And later, “I thought you liked the dog-sitting business,” Holzbach says, about the various canines the girls have been watching for the past year (proceeds are split between a college fund and pocket money). Audrey demurs, which Holzbach later explains as merely an expression of her distaste for large dogs.
It seems about as normal, or normally tense, as any tween-parent interaction. On this day, Emma, the second grader, is still at school, and Zoe, the youngest, is bouncing on the couch and draping herself over Holzbach’s shoulders, trying but largely failing to talk over her older sisters. With an arrestingly adorable smile, she wants to show off her recent drawings of her family. She’s more patient than most five-year-olds would be during an hour of chitchat about her older siblings, and after being tickled by her dad she seems somewhat sated.
When asked what she thinks of being homeschooled, Audrey says she’d rather be going to school. “All my friends go to school,” she says. “I never see them that much.” Later, Holzbach qualifies his daughter’s answer. He says that she “wants the recess time, really…social time with local kids,” but doesn’t actually crave the early mornings public school demands, or its classroom setting.
Her older sister is more content. “I like it,” says Bea, 12, petting a large black dog she’s overseeing that day. “You get to do your own stuff and you get to wear your pajamas.” Bea’s favorite subject is math, and she says she’s scoring two grades above her current seventh-grade level. She recently earned a brown belt in tae kwon do, plays on a soccer team, and is in the afterschool drama club at Winthrop’s middle school.
Last year, the girls requested that their father stop schlepping them off to Boston all the time for events and museums and programs. They wanted to stick closer to home and ride their bikes to some of their activities. Holzbach says staying at home didn’t quite fit his original homeschooling vision, but he’s willing to adjust to what his girls want.
Holzbach can seem dominating at times, but he quickly catches himself and stops talking to let others chime in. He’s always partially smiling, a bit fidgety and not unaware of some of the eye-rolling going on in the room. “I want them to find education meaningful and fun,” he says. “But with two girls ages 11 and 12, I don’t always get that across.” Nor do parents who send their kids to traditional school.
Other homeschooled young women I talk to seem happy and well adjusted. Nadia Sladkey, 23, grew up in Arlington and never went to school. She was taking college-level Japanese classes in high school, volunteering at two hospitals, and attending dance classes. She received her GED at 17, graduated from Simmons College in 2014, and is now a nurse at the UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. “I was happy,” says Sladkey of her homeschooling experience. “I got to explore the city and explore what was interesting to me.”
Erin O’Brien-Mazza always had the option of attending regular school as she was being educated by her parents in Syracuse, but “I tried school for a few days and I hated it,” she says. That was in the seventh grade. “It was evident that there were different cliques,” she adds, which simply wasn’t appealing. Remembering seventh grade, I can’t really blame her. She’s now the band director at Malden High School, a job she finds extremely fulfilling.
And what about Milva McDonald’s daughter, Claire, who’s headed to Harvard? Is that a one-in-a-million shot, or have McDonald and her allies discovered a new path to the Ivy League—one that runs right through their living room? To find out what elite academic institutions think, I call Matt McGann, director of admissions at MIT. He’s entirely optimistic: “The homeschooled students in our population are a great addition to the MIT community. They are students who are more likely to have designed their own education curriculum, and they may be more ind ependently motivated to learn,” he says. “I think as the nature of homeschooling has evolved, colleges are seeing more and more homeschooling applicants who are appropriate for this environment.”
As a whole, the homeschooling community is surprisingly nonjudgmental, at least when it comes to how to educate your kids once you opt out of the system. Nearly everyone I spoke with made sure to point out that their way was only one way of approaching homeschooling, not the way. Those with younger families, such as Skow, were quick to add that this was a work in progress; they expected things to change along the way.
That said, homeschooling isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain financial security and access to resources that many of us don’t have. Holzbach earns significantly less than he did when he was working full time, but goes to great pains to show me how, after taxes and the long-term savings attendant with his running the household, the family’s net income ends up roughly the same. For the Ventolas in Arlington, no longer paying a hefty private school tuition has actually enhanced their financial situation.
The biggest demand, of course, is on parents’ time. Yet I repeatedly hear that when the stresses of school disappear, life actually becomes easier. “Moms say to me all the time, ‘I could never spend all that time with my kids,’” Ventola says. These comments surprise her: She’s found that now her kids are more independent and demand less structure. “When they were in school, I was managing them more,” she says.
Beyond getting her daughter into Harvard, Milva McDonald talks about the less tangible, but no less important, advantages of homeschooling her children. She says that spending so much time with them while they grow up creates strong familial bonds that might help them later in life. “When you are homeschooling, you tend to have a really close relationship with your kids,” she says. But what about when they’re staring at the ceiling or your teenager can’t be coaxed off the couch because, well, he doesn’t have to go to school? “I haven’t really dealt with that with my kids,” she says. “They were constantly interested in things, and they were always pursuing interests.”