Homeschooling Is Taking Off... Why?

Feb 18, 2019

The number of students being homeschooled in our area has grown a lot over the last decade. In the first of a two-part series, WMRA’s Andrew Jenner explores why that’s happening.

[Fade in Nat Sound – clarinet playing during audio trivia round]

It’s lunchtime on a recent Friday. At the downtown Staunton office building where he works, Joe Sullivan sits at a conference table with his wife, Gleamer, and their kids, Riesling and Cashel. Over carryout pupusas, they’re playing trivia, a family tradition.

[Fade up nat sound]

The Sullivans are unschoolers. That’s an approach to homeschooling where Riesling and Cashel, ages 15 and 12, learn how to think – rather than what to think – by pursuing things that interest them. Here’s their mom, Gleamer:

GLEAMER SULLIVAN: When they were very small, I discovered that people didn’t have to be made to do things through carrots and sticks. They didn’t need external motivation to learn or anything. Once we got to the time when Riesling was supposed to start school, we decided that we wanted her to continue being intrinsically motivated, and not have people get her to do what they wanted by using rewards and punishment.

Gleamer and Joe play supporting roles as educators, helping their kids really dig into their interests, which lately have included horses, computer games and tennis.

GLEAMER: We trust them fully to learn what they need when they need it. And it’s our job, and sometimes a very difficult job, to continuously provide those resources and opportunities to them.

JOE SULLIVAN: We use our skills as critical thinkers to help them learn how to acquire knowledge, and then how to also test their assumptions, which is really the key to insight and learning. Teaching people how to think, to be wily, creative, like think on their feet, and be able to ask these critical questions of themselves and the processes they’re involved in, that’s 21st century thinking.

The family lives on the Rockingham County side of Grottoes, making Riesling and Cashel two of the 856 students being homeschooled in the county this year, according to the Virginia Department of Education. That’s up from 617 homeschooled students 10 years ago – a 39 percent increase. In Augusta County, homeschooling – which includes families that claim religious exemption from public school attendance – has grown 43 percent in the last decade. In Albemarle County it’s risen 42 percent over that time; in Shenandoah County, 62 percent.

YVONNE BUNN: We have definitely seen an increase in the number of calls that have come in, particularly this past year.

Yvonne Bunn is the director of homeschool support and government affairs for the Home Educators Association of Virginia. The group provides information and support to families exploring homeschooling.

BUNN: Every year we’ve seen an increase, and so we expect that trend to continue. Almost everyone now knows someone who homeschools. It’s not as unusual as it used to be.

But, why the big increase? According to Bunn, violence in schools – like the mass shootings that have become regular occurrences – is the primary reason that her organization has seen a spike in interest in homeschooling.

BUNN: Parents will often call in when something tragic happens at a school. They’re concerned about the safety of their children, and they see homeschooling as a possible alternative to that.

Concerns about bullying and a child’s anxiety about school are also common motivations that Bunn hears from parents. In this part of the state, however, several homeschooling families told WMRA that they and their peers generally have other reasons.

JENNIFER HALL: We desire that our children’s education be based on a Christian worldview. It’s a great privilege to have the freedom to homeschool, and we’re very thankful for that.

In Stuarts Draft, Jennifer Hall is now homeschooling five of her eight children, from kindergarten through 11th grade. Her two youngest haven’t started school yet, and her oldest son just left for college.

HALL: He was homeschooled all the way through. I was very pleased that he scored so well on his SAT last year.

Hall is co-president of Parent Educators of Augusta County Homes, or PEACH, a support group for families in the area that homeschool for religious reasons. It organizes group field trips and graduation ceremonies for its members. Last year, 23 seniors walked in the PEACH graduation – its biggest ever.

HALL: The homeschooling movement overall is just really experiencing an exponential type of growth right now.

And whatever a family’s reasons for homeschooling, Hall also expects that growth to continue.

HALL: There are so many wonderful curriculum choices out there. There are homeschool coops that have sprung up, and other support groups. And so, along with that, we’re seeing a lot of grads now that are going into college and beyond, and they’re being very successful. And so all these various things are combining to just empower more and more people to make the decision to home educate.