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Home schooling has advocates and detractors

By Gail Marsh

(May 25) Stonewood resident Sharon McClain compares teaching her children at home instead of sending them off to public school to raising tender, young plants.

"You place tiny plants in a greenhouse until they are strong enough to grow on their own. With children, it's much the same," she said.

McClain believes it is important to nurture children emotionally and spiritually. They should become strong and healthy in a safe, caring environment. In this way, they will be able to withstand the storms of life and harsh treatment.

McClain and her husband James, who are the parents of nine children, home school their two youngest, Saron, 15 and Joel, 13. The McClains are among the 65 families who home school more than 100 children in Harrison County.

"This was something our children wanted to do, and I feel honored that they want me to work with them. I enjoy being able to give them Christian input and to make sure their emotional environment is not a detriment to learning," she said.

Home schooling began a resurgence nationally in the 1970s, growing from 10,000 students to more than 1.3 million in the 1990s, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).

Reasons that parents give for home schooling are as varied as the numbers they represent. A majority of parents teach their children at home to instill religious and moral beliefs. Others believe public schools don't set high enough academic standards.

Some parents lament the rise in violence and social problems in the schools, while others feel they can do the best job for their children by instructing them at home in an environment they can control.

Whatever the reasons, the growth in home schooling has brought to the forefront concerns from professional educators from around the nation who believe a child's best chance for success can be found in the traditional, public school classroom.

Officials of the National Education Association (NEA) believe home schoolers aren't around enough children their own age. They believe home schoolers miss out on acquiring group problem-solving skills and people skills needed when they enter the world of work.

Though national statistics consistently show that home schoolers test on the average nearly 30 percent higher than their public school peers, NEA officials don't believe those results are valid.

"Home school organizations use self-selected statistics which have no accurate comparisons with public school children. There is no real way to know how these children would do if they were in the public schools," said Kathleen Lyons of the NEA's Washington, D.C., office.

As far as doing well academically, McClain said the "proof is in the pudding."

"Both of the children have done extremely well on the yearly academic tests. Sharon's eighth-grade test last year showed she was working on an eleventh-grade level, while Joel's fifth-grade test showed him on an eighth-grade level in many areas," she said.

Though the NEA believes home schoolers do not have enough opportunities for socialization, one local home school parent said she has the opposite problem.

"I think maybe years ago it may have been a problem, but not any longer. We belong to one of the county home school support groups that meets every week and sometimes we have to cut back on our activities and not do so much," said Mary Beth Stenger, a mother of three who home schools her two school-aged children.

Stenger believes her children have a better chance of learning group problem-solving skills by interacting with people of all ages, not just with those of the same age in a classroom situation.

"When we get together as a group you see 12-year-olds interacting with the younger kids and getting along well. And I think they can acquire the skills they need in other groups like 4-H and scouts," she said.

McClain said home schooling gives her the flexibility to take advantage of learning opportunities that a regular school schedule would not permit. She believes it is important to expose her children to many different kinds of social situations.

"Joel went with me several times when I helped to take care of a 97-year-old gentleman. He conversed with Joel and told him a lot about his experiences in making maple syrup. Because of that, we took a field trip to Pickens to a maple syrup camp," she said.

Joel said he enjoyed the chance to talk with the older man and to hear about how life was when he was young.

"It's beneficial to take the time to listen to the elderly. When you look down deep in their hearts, they have a lot to say," he said.

McClain and her daughter recently took a bus trip to Virginia Beach with several hundred women to hear a motivational Christian speaker. It was the first time they had seen the ocean.

"It was a really good experience, and I found myself pretty comfortable despite knowing very few people," Saron said.

The 15-year-old said she enjoys home schooling and being able to work at her own pace. She doesn't feel like she's missing anything by remaining at home, she said.

"I listen to the news and my older brothers and sisters tell me what's out there. We know what's going on, but we just choose not to have any part of it," she said.

The NEA does agree with the HSLDA findings that students will do well when they have a high level of parental involvement, one of the key ingredients of successful home schooling. But they still believe public school is the best way to go, Lyons said.

"Public school, with a high level of parental involvement, can offer the best of both worlds. We encourage parents to visit the schools and see what really goes on there. We think they'll find we're doing a lot of things right," she said.

Lyons said the NEA does not view home schooling as a threat but as a challenge.

"We want to make public schools better so that they are the first choice of every parent," she said.