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Homeschooling, Away from Home

Homeschooling has evolved to embrace as many forms and techniques as there are families. Forget the image of a quiet, makeshift home classroom; many homeschooling families supplement their curriculums by using resources and agencies outside the home.

In the last few years, several Central New York organizations have taken steps to address the needs of homeschooling families directly.

When Elizabeth Baer and her husband Tim moved with their four children from Baltimore to Central New York two years ago, they didn’t know what to expect. As a homeschooler, Elizabeth wondered how she would keep her children stimulated in the rural setting of their Cicero home.

“In Baltimore, we could literally find a million things to do whenever we wanted,” said Baer. “At first, I did wonder, What are we going to do?”

Thanks to connections through a Yahoo group with other local homeschoolers and a quick study of the local cultural scene, the Baers have been able to continue homeschooling that’s supplemented by a wealth of area resources. Baer says having access to programs and facilities outside of the home fits well with the reasons why she and her husband wanted to homeschool in the first place. None of the couple’s children—ages 3, 5, 7 and 10—has attended school anywhere but home, primarily because the couple wanted the kids to have more interactive learning opportunities.

“Both of us were really bored at school,” Baer explains. “It was kind of to the point where we got into trouble just to keep things interesting. We didn’t want that for our children.”

In Baltimore, Baer used the local YMCA to help her older children get structured physical education. She would log what they did and how long they did it. Since moving to Cicero, the Baers have continued to use their Y membership. They supplement their home studies with a Swim and Gym program offered at the North Area Y in Cicero, and an art program developed for homeschoolers that’s offered at the East Area Y in Fayetteville.

“The people at the Y are really enthusiastic,” Baer says. “If you are going to outsource something in terms of educating your children, you want the people involved to be into what they are teaching. The PE teachers at the Y teach sports. They love what they do and the kids pick up on that.”

Ryan Lucas, of the North Area YMCA in Cicero, says the Y began offering a daytime physical education class for homeschooled students about two years ago. “It started with just a handful of students, but now 12 to 15 utilize it.”

The 10-week program exposes students to a variety of sports, from basketball to volleyball. The format is loosely based on a program the Y has offered to preschoolers for years, and it was easy to adapt the class for older children. Members of two local homeschooling organizations, Syracuse/CNY LEAH (Loving Education at Home) and CNY Homeschoolers (an online community of homeschoolers), participate in the class, and he expects demand to grow.

“Word-of-mouth is spreading, and that is often how homeschooling parents hear about these programs,” Lucas says.

The North Area Y also offers a 10-week Gym and Swim program for ages 5 to 16. Students get a half-hour of swimming taught by a Red Cross-certified instructor and 45 minutes of gym time. “Not all homeschooling families take advantage of the swimming because, if you have several kids, it can be a costly option,” Lucas says. “That’s tough on larger families, so we’re looking at different options.”

The North Area Y also offers clubs that homeschooling families use to enrich their programs, Baer says. A club for fans of the Magic Tree House chapter book series was recently formed, for example. The Baer family also takes advantage of general programming any child can enroll in. A Lego robotics class at the East Area Y was a particularly good fit for her oldest son. The classes were held in the evening, not during the “school day,” but the program incorporated engineering and software instruction that might be outside the expertise of the typical homeschooling parent. “It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to do on your own,” she says.

The East Area Y offers a six-week Arts and Sports program for homeschoolers up to age 12 during the winter. Last year’s sessions focused on illustration for the art portion of the program, while the sports segment emphasized sportsmanship, creative games and sport-specific skills.

Baer says if she could change anything about the programs at the Y, it would be to loosen some of the age restrictions. Many homeschooling families organize activities and lesson plans suitable for children of all ages. It’s not unusual for parents from the Yahoo group to pool together for field trips, bringing all the families’ children.

“It used to throw people off,” Baer says. “But I think homeschooling is understood and more accepted these days. There is a lot more willingness to work with parents.” She advises new homeschooling families: “Don’t be afraid to call places and tell them what you’re looking for.”

Baer’s children are also frequent visitors to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park and the MOST (the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology). Baer is happy that she was able to assemble a number of options to keep the family’s approach to homeschooling as diverse as possible.

“We do a lot of cross-learning,” Baer says. “My kids will get into something at the zoo, and then they will want to read books about that. It’s a real natural way of learning. It allows flexibility.”

Local homeschoolers have a variety of options for offering their children hands-on connections with nature. Emma Anderson, an environmental educator at Baltimore Woods Nature Center in Marcellus, says that facility began offering daytime programming specifically for homeschoolers last year. Starting in September, Baltimore Woods will offer monthly hour-long programs on topics like maple sugaring and pond organisms.

The decision to offer homeschooling-specific programming was an effort to try and establish an ongoing rapport with those families, Anderson says. “We do a lot of school field trips here, but we wanted homeschooling parents to know that they are welcome here,” she says. “We have strong programs, and students can get a lot of interaction with nature. It’s using hands-on, minds-on learning in a way that, I think, homeschooling parents can appreciate.”

Baltimore Woods has made an effort to keep the costs to parents low and is deliberately moving slowly with this programming. Many of the center’s regular programming is popular with homeschoolers as well, Anderson says. The staff at Baltimore Woods can also arrange specific programs from its Exploration Science series for local educators and tours for groups of 10 or more homeschoolers.

Anderson hopes parents offer feedback on what they want, and how the center can best be used to meet their educational goals. “I can see that they want more control over what their kids are exposed to, and I think that fits well with our programming.”

Nancy Volk coordinates science education programs at the MOST. She says homeschoolers have long considered the museum a great resource to supplement their home programs, but last year, the MOST began offering a program specifically targeted to middle school-age learners, Family Fun With Science. Through four consecutive weekly sessions, children and family members learned and worked on solving science problems together. The program’s curriculum was devised by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

And there are many other ways homeschooling families can use the MOST, Volks says. Exhibit curriculums—designed in accordance with New York state standards and posted on the museum’s website—enable parents, groups and educators to coordinate lesson plans with MOST displays.

“People can pull up and choose the curriculum that is going to work best with what their kids are learning,” Volk says. The project is ongoing, and more options will be added as demand grows. The MOST needs at least 10 families to commit to a program such as Family Fun With Science; Volk hopes the museum reaches the goal this fall.

“I think the parents realize the benefits of hands-on learning, and that is something that we can really help homeschooling families with,” Volk says. “The learning done here can be much more focused.”

Volk, mother of two teenage boys, would like to work more closely with homeschooling parents, but getting the word out about specific programs has been challenging.

The Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse has also begun to reach out to homeschoolers. “Many homeschooling families already come to the zoo pretty regularly,” says Ashlea Vilello, education coordinator for the zoo. She knew that some of these families would appreciate an educational program they could come for as well.

Last spring, the zoo launched an educational program, Edventure Academy, for children ages 3 to 9. The program is offered on the first Friday and Saturday of the month. Each session includes a biofacts segment, during which children can learn more about a specific aspect of animal science with real pellets, skulls or feathers. “Since it is offered on Friday during the day, we figured homeschooling families would be able to take advantage of that,” Vilello says.

The zoo occasionally gets requests from homeschooling groups for specialized programs and is happy to oblige. Recently, 12 homeschooling students and their families from the Vestal-based chapter of LEAH visited the zoo and a literacy-focused program was arranged.

Another program the zoo piloted in May, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo Virtual Classroom, could have additional applications for homeschoolers. Vilello used videoconferencing to teach a lesson for an environmental science class at Liverpool High School. The program, sponsored by grants from Time Warner and National Grid, allowed the students to interact with animal experts at the zoo.

Santiago Buigues of Fair Haven, father of 11-year-old Josep, describes his family as “unschoolers.” “We don’t follow a curriculum, per se, but we are mindful of the New York state requirements and adapt to what Josep is expected to know at any given grade,” Buigues wrote in an emailed exchange from Spain, where he and Josep are visiting family. “We try to use local resources as much as we can.”

Buigues and Josep go on field trips in Syracuse with other members of Home Learners Association of CNY (HLACNY) and join social activities as well. Josep was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at age 6, so socializing is an especially important part of his education away from home.

“Locally, the Audubon Society in ‘nearby’ Savannah, offers programs geared exclusively to homeschoolers,” Buigues added. “Other groups are more than willing to open their facilities to homeschoolers when approached. Since normally homeschooling offers a lot of flexibility we can sometimes participate in activities, or use facilities during times, that would not be easily available to students who are traditionally schooled. We, like most schools, also try to contact facilities to visit (as a group) such as the postal office, fire stations, or banks.”

Buigues is active with local support groups and co-ops. The Home Learners Association of CNY (HLACNY), a secular co-op based at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Camillus, offers members support, park days, field trips, parties, events, educational opportunities, and networking opportunities for homeschooling families. Buigues is also a member of Fair Haven Home Schoolers, which specifically supports the family’s Baptist faith, and last year they started Learning in Fair Haven.

Buigues said the groups enable parents more opportunities to target their children’s specific interests. “HLACNY and Learning in Fair Haven tend to offer a lot of science/electronic classes—which my son truly enjoys,” he explained. “Fair Haven Homeschoolers tend to offer great gym and social studies classes.”

Patty Jess of Syracuse, who homeschools five children, is also a member of HLACNY. She considers it an invaluable resource for supplementing the homeschool experience. The group offers weekly co-op classes during the school year. Some are taught by volunteers, others by professionals. “Through the HLACNY co-op, my children meet many of their standards for art, music, science, math, social studies and language arts,” Jess says. Other co-op classes are “just for fun.”

Jess’ family takes part in programs offered through the Syracuse City Parks and Recreation Department as often as possible, and she applauds local organizations like the YMCA for their efforts to work directly with homeschooling families. But she admits there are still difficulties. “I made suggestions at the YMCA, wanting chorus and drama to be offered, and I do believe they tried to make that work,” Jess says. “But they could not get enough children interested.”

As homeschooling grows in popularity and acceptance, local organizations will likely fine-tune programming to meet homeschoolers’ needs. But Jess says the key to successful homeschooling isn’t “more” resources.

“I have found that everything I do with my kids, especially those things that take us outside of the house and into nature and the community offer ways to meet state requirements,” she says. “Homeschoolers tend to simply be parents who recognize that everything we do with our kids facilitates learning.”                            ■

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.


(Photos above: Michael Davis Photos)


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