Every child in the United States is entitled to a free public school education. However, many parents choose to forego that, and pay tuition for their children to attend a private school. Other parents choose a different route: they teach their children themselves, at home. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, parents who homeschool their kids have many resources to call on.
The Spring fishing season at Lake Fairfax, a park in northern Virginia, kicks off by stocking the lake. Park rangers, volunteers and fish wranglers gather in the park. They form a line from the lakeshore to a water truck crowded with fish, and pass buckets full of farm raised trout down the line to be released into the lake. One of the bucket brigade is 10-year-old Kaila Nathaniel. The home-school student is participating in this event to help her local community — and to learn.
"I learned it's important to do it because then there will be more trout," Kaila says, adding until today she didn't know what trout looked like. "It was cool seeing them."
Coming to the park is part of the academic curriculum for Kaila and her younger sister Kalia, according to their mother — and teacher — Leslie Nathaniel.
"It's a hands-on chance to really experience the stuff that we've been working on at home," Nathaniel says.
As a follow-up science experiment, Kaila, Kalia and their mother work on building something called a leaf pack. They put dry leaves into a small plastic net, and anchor it in the stream that runs through their neighborhood.
"The leaf pack helps to catch micro invertebrates that live in the stream. That's part of the trout's food source," Nathaniel explains. "We'll leave it there for three to four weeks. Then, we'll take a look and see what's actually inside the leaf pack. Streams that are healthy and clean and can support fish will have a lot of micro invertebrates growing in them. Ones where the water quality is not as good, obviously you're not going to find as much. We'll see what's there."
At home, there are a variety of resources available for the girls as they study different subjects, from books and puzzles to beanbags, dice and maps.
Leslie Nathanial says learning is an on-going process that takes place all the time, and in every room in the house. In the kitchen, she says, they bake and learn about weights, measures and fractions.
Any parent may choose to homeschool their child, but there are regulations, set by each state, that must be followed. Nathaniel says she had to notify the local school superintendent of her intentions, file a lesson plan, and at the end of the year, she has to submit proof of her daughters' progress.
"That shows that my child has made what the state considers to be adequate educational progress for the year," she says. "The easiest way to do that is usually to have them take a standardized test [given to public school students]."
Homeschooling parents, Nathaniel says, often find help through the Internet, and there are many organizations that help parents network and coordinate educational activities with families who live nearby. Other groups publish textbooks and provide lesson plans especially for homeschoolers.
"If you put in an order with that company, they're going to ship you a giant box full of everything you need to teach their version of fifth grade or whatever level your child is," she says. "There are also proms that are set up solely for homeschoolers. Big events with splashy dresses and all the other kinds of things. There are lots of opportunities to play sports and get together with people."
Leslie Nathaniel is one of a growing number of American parents who've decided to take their children's education into their own hands. Celeste Land, a homeschooling parent herself, is a member of the board of directors for the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers.
Land estimates there are 500,000 to 2 million children across the U.S. who are homeschooled. "Here in Virginia, the Virginia Department of Education's estimate is 21,000 some."
Land says most homeschooling families have religious reasons for teaching their children at home… but not all of them.
"Some parents are doing it for academic reasons," she says. "A lot of children in the home schooling community would either be labeled gifted and talented, or labeled as having leaning disabilities of some sort. Some families do it for social reasons. Their child was not getting along with the other children at school."
For Leslie Nathaniel, who gave up a computer-consulting job to homeschool her daughters, the reason was simple, but crucial. She says she wanted the joy of seeing them grow every day and helping them discover the fun of learning on their own and at their own pace.