Some 2.9 percent of all children in kindergarten through grade 12 are home-schooled, according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States issued by the U.S. Census Bureau this year. That percentage amounts to nearly 9 million children nationwide currently learning at home.
For some home-schooling parents, teaching certain subjects can be a daunting task. That is why Bradley County Home Educators, Cleveland’s local home-school support group, matches students with teachers in a co-op for such students.
On a given Thursday morning when the co-op is in session at Westwood Baptist Church, children rush from class to class as they might at your average public school. The differences are that their grades range from kindergarten to 12th grade and that the church hallway in which they walk is painted to look like a faux town with each room’s entrance painted as a different place of business. The pizzeria does not serve up pepperoni pies; it is a place of learning.
The co-op meets once a week, and students attend at least two classes that day, depending on their grade level. Three one-hour classes with short breaks in between make up a typical day for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, and the older students take two classes that each last 1 1/2 hours.
Courses are not necessarily for credit in kindergarten through eighth grade, but are electives to “enrich” what the students are already learning at home.
“They are not required to continue home study,” said Sara Black, director of the co-op. “These are classes that provide enrichment.”
Courses are offered in subjects like Spanish, public speaking, nature and art, the sort of subjects that organizers feel work better in classroom settings.
The co-op offers for-credit classes for high school students. The co-op’s organizers regularly choose to offer subjects that can be more difficult for some parents to teach without the necessary resources. Lab equipment is available for classes like biology, and people who speak foreign languages are on hand to teach them.
“It’s exposing them to things they may not be able to do otherwise,” said Phyllis Wilbanks, vice president of Bradley County Home Educators.
There are many different approaches to home-schooling, Wilbanks said. Some work very closely with their children on lessons, while others take a more independent approach.
Wilbanks said it all depends on each child’s skill level and age. She allows her 12th- and 10th-grade sons and eighth-grade daughter to work independently, regularly discussing assignments when they need help. However, she said she teaches regular lessons to her second-grade daughter.
Black said some have criticized home schooling because they believe children do not receive adequate educations. The mother and teacher of three children in kindergarten, fifth grade and seventh grade begs to differ because she knows many who are qualified to teach.
“I previously was a teacher, but knew that God was leading me in the direction of staying at home,” Black said.
According to Tennessee state law, parents must either register with a local public school system or church-related private school to supervise children’s attendance and academic performance. Home-schooling parents must have a high school diploma or GED but are not required to have a college degree.
She also said parents often know how to best teach their children because they are more likely to pick up on each child’s individual learning style. The co-op allows parents — some with college degrees and some without — to teach their own children as well as those of others.
But perhaps the most common misconception, Black said, is that kids are not “socialized” enough.
“Socialization is not an issue,” Black said. “I think most of us are highly involved and busy with our churches and other activities.”
Wilbanks said she finds many parents, like her and her husband, decide to home-school because they want to make sure their children are getting an education that is in line with the family’s faith. She said she likes that many of the co-op’s teachers share her Christian faith and that the classes help her kids prepare for college by allowing them to experience teaching styles different than her own.
“It’s helping them adjust to someone else being their teacher,” Wilbanks said.
Many parents choose to combine what their children are learning at home with co-op classes. While their children were in class one day, a handful of parent volunteers leaned over a chirping cardboard box in the hallway. Inside were chicks that Kim Wheeler and her son, Garrett, had brought for his public speaking class. The Wheeler family had started raising chickens not long before, and Garrett shared a speech on chicken breeds with his class — complete with real-life examples.
In addition to the co-op, the Bradley County Home Educators support group hosts events such as field trips for kids and social events for home-schooling mothers. Children of group members can also join a variety of student clubs — including a high school yearbook. Wilbanks said their group does not currently offer an alternative to competitive high school sports but that other groups in the area do.
“We try to give families a lot of things to do, no matter their approach,” Wilbanks said.