SAN RAMON, CA - Ask Omar Alwazzani to name all the countries in Western Europe and he’ll do it at the speed of light.
Can he name all the presidents of the United States? Yup. Does he know where Morocco is on the map? Of course. How about Italy? No sweat.
At 9, Omar is super sharp and bright. His mother, Nabila Hanson, will tell you it’s because his innate passion for learning hasn’t been stifled in a public school. And he hasn’t been “dumbed down” in one, either.
“The public school system,” asserted Hanson, who home-schools her two children in their spacious two-story house in this East Bay suburb, “is just a joke. It’s an embarrassment.”
As California’s public schools buckle under the weight of the state’s catastrophic budget problems, more and more parents like Hanson are taking education into their own hands. Once considered the domain of white evangelical Christians, who were concerned that their children were not getting enough moral guidance in public schools, home schooling is now gaining currency among ethnic minorities and people of all faiths—or no faith.
Especially in California, “a lot of black and Hispanic students are home-educated,” noted Michael Smith, president of the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Fund (HSLDF), a nationwide organization that has been helping families navigate home-schooling laws since 1983.
Until recently, African Americans made up only a tiny percentage of home-schoolers. But researchers say they are now the fastest- growing minority in the home-school movement.
Hanson, founder of the seven-year-old Kinza Academy, named for her daughter, which educates parents about alternatives to public schooling, said she’s also seen a surge in interest among Muslim families. Hanson embraced Islam when she was 21
, giving up the Christian faith she was raised in.
Loren Mavromati, a trustee of the California Home School Network (CHSN), speculated that the numbers would be even higher among ethnic communities, but immigrant parents don’t want their children to miss out on the opportunity to learn English.
“In California, public and private schools have to teach in English, so they want their children to take advantage of that,” she said.
Nationwide, home schooling is growing at about 7 percent a year, according to a 2009 National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) study, moving from an “alternative” form of education a decade ago to now “bordering on mainstream,” said Brian D. Ray, founder and president of the Oregon-based group.
Because home schooling is loosely regulated in much of the United States, exact figures are hard to come by. But Mavromati estimated that around 2 million students are educated at home, about 166,000 of them in California alone. That is about 3.7 percent of the state’s public-school student population of about 6.3 million. Another 533,000 students attend private schools.
Although there has been no noticeable surge in CHSN’s membership, Mavromati has seen an increase in registration to the group’s annual conferences—which leads her to believe that more parents are looking at home schooling as a viable option, especially given its academic successes.
According to the NHERI study, in the academic year 2007-2008, home-schoolers were found to have scored 34 to 39 percentile points higher than the norm on standardized achievement tests. The home-school national average, ranged from the 84th percentile for language, math and social studies to the 89th percentile for reading.
The study also showed that the achievement gaps common to public schools were not found in the home-school community, and that home-schoolers enter college as self-starters, with the ability to work independently.
Little wonder, then, why many colleges, including Ivy League universities, are routinely accepting home-schooled students. Stanford University, for instance, gives home-schooled students “the flexibility to submit supplemental materials, in addition to their applications,” said Richard Shaw, the school’s dean of undergraduate admissions.
“Stanford has seen a consistent rise in home-school applications,” he said, noting that over the last five years, the number has doubled from 68 in 2006 to 136 in 2010. “Several home-schooled students are admitted and enrolled at Stanford each year.”
Home-schooled students—especially those wishing to attend a four-year college—generally enroll in community college courses while still in high school. Like public school students, they also take the SAT and ACT.
Taiwanese immigrant mom I-Wen Connick gave up her high-paying job as a research engineer in Silicon Valley 15 years ago to educate her four children in their home in Walnut Creek, Calif.
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Connick said she and her husband made the decision to keep them home long before their two older children were even ready for school after hearing about the successes of home-schooled kids in their former Silicon Valley neighborhood.
“And many of the mothers had just high school degrees,” Connick observed, adding that a teaching credential is not essential to give a child a superior education. “A lot of information is available on the Internet.”
That sort of flexibility almost came to an end in 2008, when a California court clamped down parents who home-schooled without teaching credentials. Amid the resulting furor, the court reversed itself and declared that parents had a right to home-school under the state’s “private school” exemption.
California doesn’t have home-school laws, but parents here have traditionally been allowed to home-school their children as long as they filed affidavits with the state Department of Education establishing themselves as private schools, or hired credentialed tutors, or enrolled their children in independent study programs run by charter schools, private schools or public school districts.
Parents interviewed for the 2009 NHERI study gave a variety of reasons for home-schooling their children, Ray said, chief among them a desire to provide a customized education. “They don’t like the one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.
“In a public school, everyone has to learn the same thing whether they are interested in that or not,” noted Daniella Sevilla, who teaches her 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
Sevilla, who identifies herself as Chicana and her husband as Latino, belongs to the South Bay Home School Network in Los Angeles. She said her children benefit from a nontraditional style of learning. Her son, for instance can improve his math skills while playing Pokeman with his 20-year-old uncle.
East Bay mom and former public school teacher Bonnie Halpern was disappointed with the way her first-grader, Alicia, was being educated in public school. “She was asked to do the ABC book when she was reading at second-grade level,” Halpern said. “[The teacher] said he had to do it for classroom management.” There was no flexibility in the teaching.
Now 18, Alicia has been accepted into the Integrated Studies Honors Program at UC Davis, one of only 120 students in the 6,000-strong freshman class who won that honor.
Other reasons parents cite for wanting to educate their children at home include providing them a safe environment—“anecdotally, we know more parents are taking their kids out of public school because they are concerned about safety,” HSDLA’s Smith said.
Ray said a number of parents he interviewed for the study also said they wanted to shield their children from peer pressure.
“However, when I pushed them a little, many said their children had experienced racism,” Ray said. “And some said public schools were not teaching anything related to [their] ethnic background.”
About 10 to 12 percent of home-schooled students have special needs, according to Smith. El Cerrito resident Jennifer Sanjeevan removed her children from public schools after she discovered that the reason their grades were suffering was that all five of them were dyslexic.
“Those one-size-fits-all schools are not designed to address dyslexia or other forms of disabilities,” Sanjeevan said, adding: “You hear of kids who’ve gone to school, but they never learned to read. And you wonder why.”
Parents who home-school often face criticism that their children are isolated and don’t have an opportunity to develop social skills.
But they insist nothing could be farther from the truth. Local home-school networking communities provide a rich source of resources and support, and opportunities to meet and interact with students of all ages, not just their peers. For Alicia Halpern, park days and visits to museums and other educational institutes were done through the Alameda-Oakland HomeLearners network.
“When I walk into a room of home-schoolers, whether they be pre-teens, teens, or tweens, they know how to look you in the eye and hold a conversation with you,” Mavromati asserted.
In San Ramon, Omar and Kinza have befriended many of their adult neighbors in their gated community, Hanson said. Flexible class hours and not having a television set at home allows for such interaction.
She said she tries to make learning fun for her children. “Homework” is kept to a minimum so they don’t get stressed out. Sports, languages and pet care are as much a part of their curriculum as are history, math and English. Trips to museums, parks and farms, and soccer games with other home-schooled kids in the network help them learn as they go along. And regular visits to grandma in Sonoma County strengthen family bonds.
Hanson said that although she is raising her kids in the Muslim faith, “I don’t thrust religion down their throats.” Daughter Kinza prays five times a day with her, while Omar joins in for the morning and evening prayers.
As a single mom who runs an educational academy, Hanson acknowledged it’s sometimes hard to juggle her time between her work and her children. But watching them blossom, and “moving to their own beat” makes it all worthwhile, she said.
She herself went to public schools, from K to 12, but “my children have more academic knowledge today than I did when I graduated from high school,” she said.