For Isabel Bishop, 12, and her 8-year-old brother, Bodhi, school might mean a trip from their home in Fairfax County to the Harriet Tubman Museum in Maryland to learn about slavery and the underground railroad.
For Mali Holmes, 7, of Richmond, school might mean playing chess with friends and developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
For Tera Thomas’ sons – Noah, 10; Jude, 8; and Elias, 7 – school might mean baking Christmas cookies. “Lots of math and instruction following,” the boys’ mother said.
Those children are among the approximately 62,000 home-schoolers in Virginia – a number that has doubled over the past decade and is up 40 percent since fall 2019.
Experts say home schooling has grown in popularity across the socio-political spectrum, from the religious right to the humanist left, driven in recent years not only by the COVID-19 pandemic but also by the culture wars being waged in many school districts.
“I think it will permanently change the landscape of education,” said Yvonne Bunn, director of government affairs for the Home Educators Association of Virginia, or HEAV. “I don’t think it will ever go back to the way it was before.”
Bunn said home schooling lets parents “individualize the curriculum to fit the needs of their children.”
Nikiya Ellis, Mali’s mother, agreed.
“Our children learn from us in different ways,” she said. “And it doesn’t have to be this academic way of learning all day, every day. They learn from watching us cook, watching how we treat each other. It doesn’t have to be sitting down at a table with pen and paper.”
Over the past two years, home schooling has increased in 120 of Virginia’s 132 school divisions, including in all but one of the 15 largest districts. If home-schoolers were a division unto themselves, it would be the sixth-largest in the commonwealth – with about as many students as the public schools of Virginia Beach or Chesterfield County.
COVID-19 was the main trigger. When the coronavirus prompted schools to move instruction online in spring 2020, many families created “pandemic pods“ to home-school their children: A handful of students, often from the same neighborhood, would study together, led by parents or a hired teacher.
As a result, the number of home-schoolers in Virginia spiked from about 44,000 before the pandemic to more than 65,500 for the 2020-21 academic year, when instruction remained virtual in most communities.
Tera Thomas’ children were part of that initial exodus from the public schools.
“We knew there was no way our kids were going to enjoy being on a computer all day,” said Thomas, a former high school English teacher who lives in Louisa County. “I don’t even want to be on a computer all day.”
When public schools resumed in-person classes this fall, some home-schoolers returned to campus, but most continued their studies at home. They were joined by children like Isabel and Bodhi Bishop.
Their mother, Carlea Bauman, said home schooling not only makes learning fun and interactive but also helps her forge “deeper relationships with my kids.”
With the sharp spike when COVID-19 emerged and then a slight dip this fall, home schooling in Virginia has seen a net gain of about 18,000 students over the past two years.
“That’s amazing to us,” Bunn said.
The number may continue to grow. Since September, Bunn said, HEAV has handled more than 21,000 phone calls for advice about home schooling. “It’s been unbelievable the surge in parents just wanting to know what they need to do and how they could do it.”
Andrea Cubelo-McKay, president of the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers, said many families that turned to home schooling early in the pandemic thought it would be a temporary move. But they “decided to continue home schooling because it was a really positive experience for them.”
Why the increase? Zoom, masks, CRT and Billie Eilish
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cubelo-McKay said, two factors boosted home schooling:
- When public schools moved online, many students experienced Zoom fatigue, failing grades and other trouble learning in a virtual environment. They wanted an alternative.
- At the same time, more parents were working from home, had flexible schedules or were furloughed from their jobs. That made them more available for home schooling.
When school doors re-opened for the 2021-22 academic year, numerous parents and students opposed mask requirements, social distancing and other measures adopted by school boards to curb the spread of the virus.
In addition, some home schooling advocates have circulated misinformation that the coronavirus vaccines are dangerous and that public schools are forcing students to get them. Such misinformation may have scared some parents about sending their children back to school.
For example, in an online interview with The Virginia Mercury, J. Allen Weston, executive director of the National Home School Association, said some parents fear “that their children will be bribed or coerced into getting injected with a ‘so-called’ vaccine that has been proven to be damaging and even deadly to many who get it.” (In fact, scientists agree that the COVID-19 vaccines approved for children by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are safe and effective.)
But it wasn’t just COVID-19 that spurred home schooling.
In Loudoun County, where Cubelo-McKay lives, angry parents disrupted school board meetings over the role of critical race theory in teacher trainings and education more broadly (school officials insisted that it is not part of the curriculum) and by protesting a policy requiring teachers and staff to refer to transgender students by their chosen pronoun.
Conservative commentators have speculated that those controversies prompted politically conservative families, especially Whites, to pull their children from the public schools.
At HEAV, which espouses a “biblical worldview,” Bunn said parents may have turned to home schooling because “they feel like they’re not being heard” – a theme that Republican Glenn Youngkin struck in his winning campaign for governor in November.
“The children don’t belong to the state. I think parents really want to impart their own values to their children – their values and beliefs and their own worldview. And that is a major reason parents are home schooling,” Bunn said.
At VaHomeschoolers, which calls itself an inclusive alternative to “Christian conservative home-school organizations,” Cubelo-McKay said the rancor over social issues in the public schools had a different effect: It drove more Black and LGBT students to try home schooling.
“They didn’t feel safe with the level of hostility” toward racial equity iniatives and transgender rights, she said.
Beyond public school policies, recent buzz over celebrity home-schoolers has energized the home-schooling movement. Grammy Award winner Billie Eilish has attributed her success as a singer and songwriter to her years of being home-schooled. And Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old home-schooler from Louisiana, won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Virginia is among top states for home schooling
Home-schoolers represent about 5 percent of Virginia’s total public school enrollment. That is among the highest proportions in the United States, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.
Fifteen states publicly report their home-schooling numbers, the institute said. Only two – North Carolina and Montana – had a greater percentage of home-schoolers than Virginia.
The proportion of home-schoolers varies widely among the commonwealth’s school divisions. It ranges from less than 1 percent in Arlington County and the city of Norton to more than 15 percent in eight mostly rural counties. In Franklin and Highland counties, nearly one of every five students is home-schooled.
The law on home schooling, and a call to ban it
- By Aug. 15 of each year, parents must file a notice with their school district that they plan to home-school their children. The notice must list the subjects each home-schooler will study.
- At the end of the school year, parents must submit “evidence of the child’s academic achievement.” That can be a standardized test score or an evaluation by a licensed teacher or “a person with a master’s degree or higher in an academic discipline.”
In Virginia, parents generally need only a high school diploma to oversee their child’s home schooling. Even then, there’s an exception: Parents who didn’t graduate from high school can home-school their children if they use “a program of study or curriculum,” such as correspondence or distance-learning courses.
A Harvard Law School professor recently created a stir among home-schooling advocates when she criticized such laws as too lax and said home schooling should be closely regulated if not banned.
In an article in the Arizona Law Review, Elizabeth Bartholet, who specializes in child welfare laws, called for a “presumptive ban” on home schooling, saying it “presents both academic concerns and democratic concerns.”
In a follow-up interview, she said there is a danger that home-schoolers “are simply not learning basic academic skills or learning about the most basic democratic values of our society or getting the kind of exposure to alternative views that enables them to exercise meaningful choice about their future lives.”
Citing “right-wing Christian conservatives” in particular, Bartholet said many home-schooling parents question science and “are extreme ideologues, committed to raising their children within their belief systems isolated from any societal influence.”
She noted the dearth of independent, peer-reviewed research to support claims that home-schoolers are as well prepared academically and socially as public school students. “We have zero evidence that, on average, home-schooled students are doing well.”
Bartholet’s views outraged home-schooling advocates.
They pointed out that home-schoolers are diverse: African Americans represent the fastest-growing home-schooling demographic nationwide, and Black and Hispanic families have been more likely than Whites to home-school their children during the pandemic, according to a 2020 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Proponents of home schooling also say most studies show that home-schoolers do better than their regular-school counterparts on achievement tests and in college later on; however, such studies often have been sponsored by home-schooling advocacy groups like the National Home Education Research Institute.
How and why families home-school children
Many parents say they have firsthand evidence of the benefits of home-schooling. Nikiya Ellis said it has been a far better fit for her son Mali than Barack Obama Elementary School, which serves the family’s Battery Park neighborhood in Richmond.
“He’s not a disrespectful child at all, but he’s curious and he’s smart,” said Ellis, who is a doula (a home-birth assistant to a midwife) and co-director of the nonprofit organization Birth in Color RVA. She said Mali likes to ask questions like “Why?” and “Can I do it another way?”
Mali attended Obama Elementary for kindergarten during the 2019-20 academic year, and his inquisitiveness got him in trouble, Ellis said.
“We want our children to be free-thinking and creative,” she said, but Mali’s teacher “felt that he wasn’t listening and he was being defiant because he was questioning her.” As a result, Mali received frequent demerits (repeatedly being placed “on red” in the school’s behavioral management system) and was moved to the back of the classroom, Ellis said.
She said Mali wanted to learn, but the school’s chief lesson was “obey authority, don’t question anything, sit in your seat and be quiet – and if you don’t, you’ll be punished.”
When she picked up Mali from school in the afternoon, Ellis said, “Sometimes, we were literally in tears.”
For the 2020-21 academic year, Richmond Public Schools, like other districts, held classes only online. “That did not work for Mali at all,” Ellis said.
So for the current year, Ellis developed a home-schooling system that she believes does work. It has several components, including:
• A curriculum from Acellus Academy, a popular learning program for home-schoolers. Mali is taking classes in math, English, robotics and Spanish. The program involves online coursework, working independently and studying with guidance from Ellis; her partner, Duron Chavis; and, on weekends, Mali’s father, David Holmes. (Ellis and Holmes are divorced.)
• Activities at the Cultural Roots Homeschool Cooperative, which emphasizes the “cultural attributes, traditions and histories of Black and Brown communities.” Mali takes classes in art, cultural studies, science, yoga and capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. Mali also plays chess and outdoor games with friends at the co-op.
• Lessons mostly in reading and writing with Dr. Hollee Freeman, an award-winning teacher and executive director of the regional MathScience Innovation Center. Mali is reading on a fifth-grade level, Ellis said.
• Weekly visits to the Libbie Mill Library to check out books, participate in scavenger hunts (finding pictures among the stacks) and meet in a study room to work on academic projects.
• Field trips to venues such as the Science Museum of Virginia, where Mali recently watched an immersive film about Antarctica and played the role of a pit crew member for an exhibit about Hot Wheels, racing and velocity. “When the environment is a fun, welcoming one, Mali doesn’t even notice when he’s actually ‘learning,’” Ellis said. “He takes it all in and is eager to know more.”
That schedule is packed but doable, Ellis said.
She is a busy person: Ellis and Chavis are urban farmers who manage three community gardens and an orchard, and Ellis is not only a doula but also a beekeeper and a member of a regional task force on maternal and infant health.
But Ellis said she and Chavis are both self-employed and have some flexibility in their work schedules.
Moreover, Ellis said she now realizes that learning can happen at any place at any time. “I never thought that a trip to the grocery store could actually teach my son about math and money,” she said.
For instance, Ellis might give Mali $5 to buy certain items on their shopping list – and if he can come in under budget, he can use the leftover money to purchase a piece of candy.
Another strategy is to let children make some of their own decisions about learning.
Mali hated reading the books he was assigned in public school because “it wasn’t anything that he was interested in,” Ellis said. Now, she said, Mali gets to choose age-appropriate graphic novels. “He loves it, and now he’s going through books.”
Tera and Silas Thomas, who have been home-schooling their three school-age sons for the past two years, also say their children are learning a lot and enjoying it.
The family was living in Henrico County, and the boys were attending Springfield Park Elementary School, “when COVID hit and everything got shut down,” Tera Thomas said.
Even before then, the Thomases were disenchanted with the public schools. For example, Tera Thomas said she felt the teachers assigned a lot of busywork. Her children would come home with a pack of worksheets they had completed at school, she said. “I’d ask, ‘What’s worth keeping?’ And they’d say, ‘None of it.’”
“We wanted there to be more value in their education, more individualized (attention), more freedom to explore and do things,” Tera Thomas said.
So the Thomases took a home-schooling class from HEAV. And when the public schools shifted to online instruction because of COVID-19, the family switched to home schooling.
Last spring, the Thomases moved to Maidens, an unincorporated community in Goochland County. Tera Thomas said the boys – along with their 3-year-old sister, Adah – enjoy the variety of educational activities the family has developed.
At times, the children work one on one with their mother at the “mom station.” Other times, they work independently – perhaps with a curriculum program like Saxon Math. Sometimes, they all read a book together but do different follow-up activities based on their academic levels.
It’s structured but customized: When a son was grumpy one morning, Tera Thomas told him to take a break, and then they completed the lesson later in the day.
The Thomases also belong to a home-school co-op, a group of parents who have pooled their resources to organize classes and other learning activities for their children. (Tera Thomas declined to name the co-op because it is a private group and is not seeking more members.) The boys go to the co-op once a week for lessons in science, creative writing, Spanish and American history.
There are about 100 home-school co-ops across Virginia, and they offer a broad range of models. Some are highly structured, emphasizing classical education or religious orientation. Other co-ops focus on creative and critical thinking or music and performing arts. Such support groups provide a sense of community for home-schoolers and their parents, Tera Thomas said.
“There’s this idea that home-schoolers are unsocialized – weirdos, for lack of a better term. But there’s a huge network of people” involved in home-schooling, she said. “We have more of a community of friends and parents than we ever did in the three years that we were at Springfield Park.”
In the co-op, parents share ideas on how to facilitate learning. “You don’t really get to have those conversations in the public schools,” Tera Thomas said. “You just are kind of at the mercy of whatever they’re choosing to do – ‘one size fits all.’”
As part of their home-schooling adventure, the Thomases have taken their children on trips – not only to nearby sites like Colonial Williamsburg and Pamplin Historical Park but also cross-country in the family’s pop-up camper.
Tera Thomas said her son Jude is “very into Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone” – and the boy was captivated when the family visited the stomping grounds of those two frontiersmen in Tennessee.
On another occasion, the Thomases spent a “homesteading weekend” on a farm.
“My kids came home knowing how to raise chickens and process chickens and rabbits. It was hands-on. I think by the time we were done, my 10-year-old had processed 30 chickens from live to packaged and ready for market,” Tera Thomas said.
“Some people might not see value in that, like ‘How is that teaching you math and other things?’ But it does teach a level of work ethic and self-sustainability and how to take care of animals well.”
Experiential learning also is a crucial component of home-schooling for Carlea Bauman and Geoff Bishop’s children, Isabel and Bodhi.
Bishop works at Marriott International’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland; Bauman has worked for various nonprofits and currently is a director for Sambhali U.S., which helps women and girls in Rajasthan, India.
They started looking into home schooling after COVID-19 disrupted work and school in the spring of 2020.
When the Fairfax County Public Schools went virtual for the 2020-21 academic year, “they did the very best that could be done,” Bauman said. Even so, she said, “it was awful” for Isabel and Bodhi, who were “anchored to their chairs for eight hours a day.”
In her research, Bauman found that “there is no one way to do home schooling – which is great but also terrifying.” So for the current school year, she developed a program customized for her children.
For Isabel and Bodhi (a name that means enlightenment in Buddhism), home-schooling has included lessons with their parents – Bauman’s strong suits are English and history – and online learning programs such as Science Mom and Math Dad.
The children learn a lot of their own, too. In a blog post, Bauman recounted how Isabel learned math by playing a favorite video game: “She figured out that if she didn’t spend any (of the virtual) money and instead worked on her tasks with other players, her money would start to grow.” In her head, Isabel even calculated the amount to the penny.
The payoff, according to the blog: “Financial literacy AND double-digit multiplication. In a video game. That she was playing on her own. Because she wanted to.”
Such “game-schooling“ has become popular among home-schoolers. Bodhi and Isabel have been playing Proof – “a pretty fun math game,” explained Bauman, “and I say this as a person who never liked math.”
On Mondays, Bauman usually takes her children on a field trip – for example, to the U.S. Botanic Garden, Assateague Island National Seashore and historic sites like Jamestown.
The visit to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland was especially memorable for Isabel. After holding hands with a statue of the famed abolitionist who escaped slavery and then rescued other enslaved people, Isabel told her mother “that she could feel Harriet Tubman’s spirit,” Bauman said.
Bauman and her children also do community service projects together – hauling leftover produce from a nearby farm to a food bank, for example and conducting a neighborhood food drive.
The children aren’t the only beneficiaries of home schooling, their mother said. “I’m really getting this quality time with them that I will never get back, and I’m so lucky and grateful for that.”
Bauman is a proponent of self-directed education – sometimes called “unschooling“ – in which children follow their own interests at their own pace, without explicit direction from adults.
Andrea Cubelo-McKay also champions that philosophy. Besides heading VaHomeschoolers, she founded the Embark Center for Self-Directed Education, which provides mentoring, tutoring and work space for home-schoolers and holds classes on subjects from creative writing and guitar to cooking and skateboarding. The center, established in 2017, is in Leesburg in Loudoun County.
Society often tells young people they are wasting their time playing video games. But the Embark Center encourages kids to play Minecraft, Fortnite or Roblox – on grounds that such games can teach academic skills such as math and engineering as well as personal and social skills.
Cubelo-McKay, a former therapist and Montessori teacher, said the center serves students who felt bored and unchallenged, confined and frustrated, or perhaps bullied in traditional schools. Whatever the reason, she said, a regular school setting wasn’t working for them.
One such student was Becca Berglie, 18, who said she stopped attending Fairfax County Public Schools when she was a high school junior in 2019.
“I’ve always struggled with my mental health. I’ve had extreme anxiety and depression throughout my life, and school just made those issues bigger for me,” Berglie said. “I’ve always been an outside-the-box thinker and always very independent – not wanting to do something that somebody told me to do when I didn’t see value in it.”
Online, she discovered the Embark Center and the affiliated Liberated Learners network. With support from her parents, Berglie said, she left the public school system, registered as a home-schooler and became a self-directed learner.
She participated in activities at the Embark Center and even helped lead a class in American sign language, which she had studied in high school. More importantly, Berglie said, the center mentored her on how to pursue her career goals involving agricultural education and youth development.
As a home-schooler, Berglie said she had more time to work with 4-H, a leadership and service program for young people, and at Frying Pan Farm, a Fairfax County park that has horses, cows and other animals and reflects what rural life was like a century ago.
“Embark overall gave me a place of belonging, support and a place that I could learn about myself and heal,” Berglie said. She said the center also helped her navigate the college application process.
“It’s confusing for anyone but especially for a non-traditional student,” Berglie said. “Everything is made for that in-the-box traditional student. It can be scary and confusing because they’re not making it for you. They’re making it for the people that stayed on the conveyor belt.”
Berglie graduated – or “moved on” in Embark Center parlance – last June. She now attends Northern Virginia Community College, where she said she feels better prepared than other students because of her self-directed education.
After community college, Berglie has her eyes set on Virginia Tech, where she hopes to study agricultural sciences, leadership and social change.
“I’m extremely passionate about being able to provide opportunities for other youth to get to know themselves and learn and grow,” she said.