MOST local children returned to school last week, but not all of them marched into a classroom with 20 or more kids.
Instead, they’re being taught by parents who’ve opted to teach their children at home, a decision those parents say allows for individualized instruction geared toward their own child.
Andy and Leah Eernisse were both homeschooled when their parents were missionaries in Africa. They decided early in their marriage that homeschooling was the best choice for their children.
“Before we ever had kids, my husband said, ‘I hope that if we have kids, you’re going to homeschool them, because I think that’s really important,’” Leah said. “In the beginning, I was reluctant. I didn’t know if I can be home all day and do this.”
When their son Judah was born, Leah said she knew she wanted to be home with him. She now teaches 9-year-old Judah, who’s in the fifth grade; Bailey, 7, a third-grader; and Micah, who just started kindergarten this fall.
“He would play or watch PBS while I homeschooled the older children,” Leah said of her youngest. “But he always was interested in what they were doing, and he wanted to be a part of it.”
Homeschooling is not new. Most early Americans, including the nation’s Founding Fathers, were homeschooled. Public education didn’t become the rule until the late-19th century.
By the mid-1990s, people had begun returning to this system of education. A recent survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the number of students being homeschooled has increased from 2.2 million in 2003 to 3 million in 2012.
In the early days of modern homeschooling, education officials looked at it with skepticism. But today, as educators focus on fitting education to each individual student, that attitude is changing.
South Carolina Superintendent of Education Dr. Mick Zais and local school administrators said they see the decision whether to homeschool or not as a personal choice.
“Rather than forcing children to fit into one type of school, policy makers should promote a full menu of schools for parents to choose for their children, including homeschooling,” Zais said.
Stay-at-home mom Leah, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina, does most of the teaching. Husband Andy helps with reading and homework assignments later in the day.
The Eernisses cite several reasons why they think homeschooling is best for their children. First and foremost, they said they want to lay a spiritual foundation for their children.
“We realized that our kids develop their core set of values and beliefs that shape and mold them until they’re about 12, and we wanted to play the most integral part in that,” Andy said.
Another reason is the individualized attention Leah said she can give her children.
“It may be difficult for a teacher with a class full of students to really see where a child is gifted, but when you’re at home with your own kids and you’re teaching them, you recognize it,” she said. “Judah is really good in science, so I want to steer him in that direction.”
Like any trained teacher, Leah said she also relies on data to help recognize weak areas, and she instinctively uses skills some teachers have been taught to use, like hands-on experiences and games to learn.
That’s especially valuable when she teaches Bailey, who Leah said has difficulty paying attention.
“We have to find creative ways to keep her focused, whereas, if she was in public school, I think they would probably want to put her on some medication,” she said. “But being at home, we’re able to work around it and we are creative — we play games to keep her focused.”
Bailey and Judah said they’d rather study at home.
“Nobody else would be as good” a teacher as her mom, Bailey said. “It would be too hard to focus with other kids around.”
Judah said he likes having Leah teach him, and the fact that there are no distractions from other kids.
“And I like the short school days,” he said.
The Eernisses’ school day begins at roughly 9 a.m., and the kids are out of class most days by 1:30 p.m.
Andy said another reason they like homeschooling is the freedom. The family can take off at a whim and visit him at work or go to the park. On a sunny day, they can study at a table in the backyard.
“It allows us the freedom to go to the farm and make it a biology day,” he said. “We can incorporate everything we do into their schoolwork.”
Meal preparation can be a cooking lesson, and a trip to the grocery store a lesson in money-making decisions. Judah and Bailey can already shop at the grocery store and find the deals, Andy said.
“Yes, it’s set hours that they’re at the table doing the book work, but it’s really a 24/7 opportunity to teach them,” he said.
Cynthia Wilson, superintendent of Orangeburg Consolidated School District Five, said parents know their children better than anyone else and are better equipped to decide what form of education is best for them.
“When your child is born, your only hope is they’ll have the very best, and you still have those ideals when you homeschool them,” Wilson said. “You work very hard to make that hope a reality. You will go the extra mile to find extra resources to make it a reality.”
A disadvantage of homeschooling, she said, is that parents don’t have the resources available to them that the school system has in place. But she said OCSD 5 will work with parents to meet their children’s needs.
“I would also encourage them to contact the public school and ask if there are resources that they could use,” Wilson said.
She said homeschooling parents can also find excellent free resources at khanacademy.org.
Dr. Shirlan Jenkins, assistant superintendent in Orangeburg Consolidated School District Four, said she also sees the decision to homeschool as a personal choice. She said it may be an advantage when the parents travel or when the child has a physical condition that makes it difficult for them to attend school.
“Every child, every situation, is different,” she said. “Every kid doesn’t fit into the same mold.”
Jenkins said the district tries to partner with homeschooling parents to meet their children’s needs. OCSD 4 has roughly 20 students who are being homeschooled. She said while the General Assembly recently passed legislation that permits all students to participate in extracurricular activities in public schools, District 4 was already offering that option.
The greatest concern for the Eernisses when they decided to homeschool was that their children wouldn’t learn to be sociable, but Leah said that’s never been a problem.
“From the time they were little, we had them around people,” she said. “We’re not just secluded to being at home. We go to a co-op where they get to be around other children in their grade level. At church, of course, they get to interact with kids their age.”
While Judah has said he doesn’t want to attend public school, Leah said if the Eernisse children decide later that’s what they want to do, she would have no problem sending them.
South Carolina allows parents to homeschool their children under one of three options: under the direction of a school district with the approval of the school board; with the support of the S.C. Association of Independent Home Schools; or under the auspices of a homeschool association that has at least 50 members and meets the homeschool requirements.
Locally, the Orangeburg Christian Home Educators Association is a support group for area homeschoolers that brings students together for various activities, including parties and field trips. It also offers cooperative art, music and physical education classes, and brings students together for achievement testing and graduation exercises.
Mary Beth Myers, past president and advisor to the board of trustees, said more information is available online at ocheadotnet.wordpress.com.