When Home is School

More families are taking education into their own hands—and into their own homes. Here’s how they make it work.

Anna Heinrich, left, and other homeschool students tak robotics class in the Heinrich family's kitchen.
Anna Heinrich, left, and other homeschool students tak robotics class in the Heinrich family's kitchen.
Photo by Matt Rainey

Pam Heinrich has robots in the basement of the charming center-hall colonial in Flanders she shares with her husband, Donn, and their three children. Instead of a dining table in the spacious eat-in kitchen, there’s a massive robotics worktable with bins underneath, where robot parts are strewn all over. On the second floor, Pam keeps a room locked every August. No one’s allowed to ask what’s going on inside. Why the mystery? The Heinrichs are homeschoolers. The upstairs room is their schoolroom—and it’s locked because Pam likes to create a sense of excitement prior to the start of the new school year. She redecorates it every summer; last summer she swapped out the children’s desks for a large, communal table. As for the robots, they’re a big part of what the Heinrich children are studying.

The Heinrichs’ home is unique, even among homeschoolers, where techniques and philosophies employed can be as individual as fingerprints—but the Heinrichs are not. There are an estimated 40,000-60,000 children currently being homeschooled in New Jersey.

Admittedly, that’s a wide spread, but exact numbers are hard to come by. While homeschooling has been legal in all 50 states since the mid-1990s, degrees of regulation and oversight vary.

New Jersey is one of the few states that does not regulate or monitor homeschoolers. There are no required standardized tests, no curricula or subjects that must be covered, and no minimum training or qualifications for the parents or guardians doing the teaching. Parents are not required to notify the state or local school board of their intent to homeschool. Jersey law merely states that parents or guardians must provide “equivalent instruction elsewhere than at school;” the word equivalent is not defined.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1999, approximately 850,000 children between the ages of 5 and 17 were homeschooled nationwide. By 2012, that number had more than doubled to almost 1.8 million. The total has since leveled off. The 2017 report states that most homeschool students are white, nonpoor, and live in urban, suburban or rural areas. Most live in two-parent households in which one parent stays home, usually the mother.

Most parents in the survey said the main reason for choosing to homeschool their children was “concern about the school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure.” Other reasons included dissatisfaction with academic instruction, desire to provide religious instruction, and personal concerns—such as family time, finances, travel or a desire for a more flexible schedule.

Benjamin Justice, professor and chair in the department of educational theory, policy, and education administration at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, puts homeschoolers in two camps. There is the homeschoolers camp—families that “are driven by religious views and tend to be conservative.” And there are unschoolers, whom Justice defines as “people who object to the politics of public school or have children with special needs and are looking for an alternative.”

None of the homeschooling families interviewed for this article identify themselves with either category.

Joshua Heinrich, 17, mentors a robotics team for homeschooled kids, including his sister, Abigail, 14.

Joshua Heinrich, 17, mentors a robotics team for homeschooled kids, including his sister, Abigail, 14. Photo by Matt Rainey

Erin and Dan Lichtman of Millstone describe their style of homeschooling as eclectic. They use both curriculum-based and self-directed learning in educating their three children.

“I was a public school teacher,” Erin says. “I believe in school.” But when their oldest child, Rose, turned four, Erin met a homeschooling family at a YMCA program. “[Rose] was so bright, and we were just enjoying her so much,” she says, “I thought, Hey! We could do this.’”

As they got into homeschooling, Erin’s teaching credentials seemed less relevant. “So much of teacher training is spent on classroom management,” she says. “Almost all schools segregate kids by age group, [and] it becomes a mob. The toughest, most assertive kid becomes the leader. With homeschool, the younger kids remind the older ones to look at things in a natural, simplistic way, [while] the older kids pull the younger ones up.”

There is also less academic time compared to a regular school day. Erin—who also homeschools Rose’s younger brothers, Reilly, 11, and Finn, 6—says that by working with only one or two children at a time, it’s easy to cover a week’s worth of lessons in a day, leaving more time for free play and self-directed activities.

The popularity of homeschooling has spawned a support system of curricula and free and fee-based programs. In New Jersey, such programs have expanded in response to the growing demand.

“About 10 years ago, Liberty Science Center recognized that many of our members were homeschool families utilizing our exhibits and theaters as educational tools,” says Ruben Rosario, the STEM enrichment director at the center in Jersey City. “We [now] have about 50 families attend our regular monthly workshops, [and] we continue to expand our offerings.”

Cynthia Winslow, curator of education and community engagement at Macculloch Hall Historical Museum in Morristown, tells a similar story. A homeschooler herself, Winslow was hired six years ago, in part for her ability to build programming based on the needs of homeschoolers. Today, about 60 families attend her programs.

In 2011, Jayne Besjak started the Mosaic Free School—a learning center founded in Long Hill, now based in Oldwick— offering free, à la carte classes to homeschool families at the local library. She outgrew the space at the library and built a business instead, charging $210-$600 per class.

Most homeschoolers use a mix of resources tailored to their kids. Erin Lichtman creates many of her own teaching materials according to each child’s predilections and individual learning styles, but also utilizes technology classes from Steam Works Studio in Princeton and formal curricula like Singapore Math and the Michael Clay Thompson Grammar Series. She consults the Common Core standards for “broad guidance.”

Additionally, Erin is part of a support group of homeschool families who share instructional responsibilities and provide opportunities for social interaction their children may not get at home.

When Alona Kopeld asked to be homeschooled so she could train full-time as a gymnast, her mother Jackie refused. She and her husband Shai value education above all else. Alona’s two older brothers graduated from a progressive private school and now attend an all-boys private high school. The Kopelds, who live in Morristown, had similar plans for Alona.

“I wasn’t for this,” Jackie says, but Alona persisted, so Jackie and Shai agreed to let her try homeschooling for a year. Alona withdrew from school and enrolled in her gym’s full-time training program. It required the Kopelds to subscribe to a tuition-based, online homeschool academy called K12. Alona would spend about eight hours each day at the gym—five training and three devoted to schoolwork under the supervision of a gym-employed proctor. Jackie would oversee homework and activities like science experiments.

By the end of the year, Alona wanted to go back to school. Jackie says her daughter’s decision was more about rethinking the role of gymnastics in her life than about homeschool. After some summer tutoring, she rejoined her class. Jackie says the homeschooling experience allowed Alona to “pursue her passion, to try something really bold and then make her own decision about it.”

Pam and Donn Heinrich enrolled their oldest son, Joshua, in a Christian school for first and second grade, but the commute and the cost of tuition were considerable, so they decided to try homeschooling. Joshua is now 17; his younger sisters, Abigail, 14, and Anna, 11, have always been homeschooled.

Pam, like Erin Lichtman, describes her homeschool style as eclectic. The wife of a Christian minister, Pam has a bachelor’s in English education and a master’s in counseling. She strives for individualized instruction according to the interests and learning styles of her children. Joshua is hands-on, while Abigail prefers reading, and Anna loves anything to do with music. Pam purchases much of her curriculum from Christian supplier Bob Jones University Press. She finds other materials on Amazon and at homeschool conventions.

Though the state doesn’t require it, Pam administers the Iowa State Achievement test annually to see if her children are on track with their in-school peers and to give them experience with standardized tests.

Pam has been homeschooling for more than 10 years, but still approaches the work with “prayer and trepidation,” fearful of making a mistake. “When your children go to school,” she says, “it’s easy to blame the teacher when things go wrong, but with homeschool, it’s just you.”

Everything seems to be going right for Joshua. He started a FIRST Robotics team and serves as a mentor to a FIRST Lego League team. (FIRST Robotics is an international high school competition.) Both teams are made up entirely of homeschooled kids, including his sisters. He splits his time between homeschool and County College of Morris, where he attends an advanced engineering program that produces hardware and software for NASA. Through the program, Joshua earns college credit toward associate degrees in mechanical engineering technology and electrical engineering.

Jersey’s lack of oversight means there is no state-issued diploma at the end of high school for homeschoolers. Many opt to take classes at a county college and use that transcript as a work-around when applying to a four-year school. Some, like Joshua, earn an associate degree and can transfer the credits to a state university. Others take the GED test or create their own transcripts and diplomas at home.

Many universities—including Montclair State, Rutgers and Princeton—have sections in their admissions materials dedicated to homeschool applicants. Princeton’s begins: “Princeton welcomes applications from homeschool students.”

Research on the long-term outcomes for “eclectic” homeschooling is thin at best. Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, ties the lack of data specifically on unschooling to the attitude of mainstream researchers who see self-directed education as “a very small fringe movement of little interest or relevance to society at large.” Joseph Murphy, of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, says it’s challenging to assess homeschoolers because they are not included in school-district data and are not required to take standardized tests.

Even for families committed to homeschooling, it remains a work in progress. Despite their experiences, the Lichtmans have begun to phase out homeschool, at least for their older children. Just before middle school, Rose told her parents she wanted to try school. The Lichtmans found a private Quaker school, Princeton Friends, that aligned well with their educational and social values. Rose liked it and is now at the Peddie School in Hightstown. Reilly also wanted to try school, so they enrolled him as well. Though he, too, is curious about school, Finn is still learning at home with Erin. This year, they are trying a new learning technique called notebooking, a kind of academic journaling, and both seem excited about it.

Christen Fisher is a freelance writer living in Morristown.

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