Making the Choice to Home School

Commentator Lester Spence explains why he and his wife home school their children. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

In much of the country, this is the first day of the new school year. Commentator Lester Spence explains why he and his family operate on a different educational calendar.

LESTER SPENCE:

When we made the decision to move to Baltimore last year, teaching our kids at home was not originally part of the plan. People raved about the nice school in our neighborhood, close enough to walk to. Soon we realized we had to make other plans. My oldest son, Kamari's, first-grade class had about 30 students. Because the school did not have adequate resources, my son's class didn't have recess. Think about that. A class overflowing with six-year-olds who have enough problems keeping their feet still, and you don't give them recess. Oh, did I mention they didn't offer gym either?

Rather than shell out money we didn't have for private schools, we decided to take our kids' education into our own hands. We didn't expect other hands would join with ours. Last year, on the first day of homeschooling, my wife took our kids to the library, wondering if we hadn't made a colossal mistake. She spied a couple of other kids who by all rights should have been in school. They didn't look sick so my wife did what any woman in her position would do. She followed them, followed them to their parents and right into one of the largest black homeschooling communities in the country.

Most of the families in that network are trying to make ends meet, just like us. But we've taken our children to the United States Mint in Philadelphia, we fielded a first-place team in one of Maryland's most prestigious academic competitions and we've hosted a standing-room-only graduation ceremony for dozens of black homeschooling families. Getting to this point hasn't been easy. My wife does most of the teaching. And, unlike many teaching jobs, she does not get time off from her students. But taking it on was one of the best decisions we've made as a family in the almost 11 years we've been a family. Our five children are closer than they've ever been.

To tailor the curriculum to their needs, my wife draws from the resources of the dozens of free museums in the Baltimore-DC area. Through our homeschooling network, the kids are able to play and socialize with some of the highest achievers in the city of Baltimore, and, quiet as it's kept, the kids are as cool as the other side of the pillow. Our plans this year? For starters, we'll user mapping Web sites to trace where our elected officials get their major contributions. By following the money, our children can develop math and investigative skills and an understanding of political science. By documenting their findings, they'll learn how to communicate and organize.

As a parent, I realized that the schools of Baltimore are, like most urban schools, designed to train kids for jobs making cars or making parts for cars or making machines that make parts for cars. That's all fine and good if we're talking about 1965. But we aren't. The odds of those factory jobs coming back are probably about as good as the odds of our paying 72 cents a gallon for gas again. All the battles about vouchers and student-teacher ratios won't bring those jobs back. My wife and I would not be where we are today without the public school system. At some point, though, parents are going to have to think critically about what education in our urban centers is supposed to look like in the 21st century. I suspect that many of them will come to the same conclusions we did.

CHIDEYA: Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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