MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few mocha moms. We visit with members of this mother support group each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.
Today, we're talking about homeschooling. Many people think of it as something only certain kinds of people do, conservative Christians who want to keep their kids away from secular influences, or people who live in rural areas. But the National Center for Education Studies says that more than a million children were homeschooled around the country in 2003. That's the last year full numbers were available, and the number of African Americans doing it has increased by about 20 percent since the year 2000.
So we wanted to know why this movement is taking hold, and how do you do it? Here to talk about this are the mocha moms, Cheli English Figaro, Jolene Ivey, Joby Dupree, and Shawn Spence. Welcome ladies, moms.
Ms. CHELI ENGLISH FIGARO (Mocha Mom): Hi, Michel.
Ms. JOBY DUPREE (Mocha Mom): Hi.
Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Mocha Mom): Hi, Michel.
Ms. SHAWN SPENCE (Mocha Mom): Hello.
MARTIN: Joby, I have to start with you. You homeschooled your three children from pre-K through eighth grade.
Ms. DUPREE: I did.
MARTIN: I wanted to know why you made the decision to do it, and how is it that you still have all your hair?
Ms. DUPREE: Well, to be honest, I decided to homeschool because we put our daughter in public school for the first half of first grade, and we didn't feel she was being challenged. And those years are so important. So we wanted to make sure that she was challenged, and I thought that we could actually kind of do a better job than the public schools were doing.
MARTIN: Are you a teacher by training?
Ms. DUPREE: I wasn't at the time. I am now. I am now a professional teacher, and I teach sixth grade in Fort Washington, Maryland. But there are many reasons to homeschool. The idea that you know what your child knows because you are the one teaching them. The idea that you have all that opportunity to spend with your child and instill your values. The idea that you can customize. The teaching and learning can be student-led, which is something that even I as a public school teacher cannot completely do. So those were some of the main reasons we chose to...
MARTIN: Jolene, you thought about it, but you ultimately decided not to do it with your five.
Ms. IVEY: I was thinking about it with one in particular because he was having a very difficult school year, and it wasn't his fault. It was definitely just the school was just awful. The kids were mean, and the teachers were poor, and when I went by to check on them...
MARTIN: You mean poor quality?
Ms. IVEY: Poor quality. I went by to visit with some of his teachers, and I asked this one teacher how is he doing, and she said, David is no problem at all. He's getting great grades. But she could not communicate with me what he was actually learning because all she cared about was the fact that he wasn't giving her a problem, and that's not what I wanted him to get out of school.
MARTIN: How did you decide not to do it, even though you were so distressed by what he was experiencing?
Ms. IVEY: I was very distressed. And I talked to my husband about it, and he said, Jolene, you're a wonderful person and a great mother, but you're not very patient, and I don't think that you would do a good job. And I thought about it, and I thought about it, and I said, you know what? He's right, and if I were homeschooling them, we'd go to the museums, and we'd go to the zoo, and we'd do field trips all the time, but that math, that science?
MARTIN: They wouldn't be able to add, and they wouldn't be able to read.
Ms. IVEY: Well, they could read because I love to read, too. But that would be all they could do, would be read and write, no math, no science.
MARTIN: OK. I see.
Ms. IVEY: I'm not disciplined like Joby is.
MARTIN: I'm going to talk to about that in a minute, what it takes to be effective at homeschooling. But, Shawn, you are currently homeschooling, and I think you are telling us that you've homeschooled, and you also have five like Jolene, and you've sort of homeschooled some and not others. Just talk to me about that. How do you decide who to homeschool and to what grade?
Ms. SPENCE: You know, it really does depend on what your goals are. I think what's important for people to think about is that traditional school is not what homeschooling has to be. If you don't put homeschooling in a box, you can do exactly what Jolene said, museums and things like that, and then you can supplement the educational process with community colleges, art courses at different museums. So you really have a lot of options. What I wanted to do was give my children a desire to learn and also challenge them and give them an opportunity to work on their personal gifts and their own personal skills.
MARTIN: Had you planned on homeschooling when you started having kids, being an educator yourself?
Ms. SPENCE: No. I had not, interestingly enough, Michel. I really believe in public education. What happened when we moved to Baltimore is that, unfortunately, the schools were not safe, physically not safe. And so that's the reason why we chose to homeschool full-time.
MARTIN: Cheli, what about you? You have homeschooled in the past, your oldest, but not your youngest. Talk about it.
Ms. ENGLISH FIGARO: When I started to homeschool, that was a million years ago. My son is now in 10th grade. When I started to homeschool him in kindergarten, that was when kindergarten in public school was only half-day. And the children didn't have to learn cursive and do long division in kindergarten. So I knew my son was a visual learner, and I knew that he would probably do very well in a homeschool environment because he already knew his letters, and he already knew all those things at three. So we decided to homeschool him, sort of ease in to the homeschooling environment. I stopped because I realized that not every family needs to homeschool. Because when you're homeschooling, you are working. That is a job.
MARTIN: Oh, that was something I was going to ask because each of you were at home at the time you made the decision to homeschool. Right? You weren't working out of home. You were working primarily at home.
Ms. SPENCE: I actually did have a job.
MARTIN: You did?
Ms. SPENCE: Part-time. Yeah, I added homeschooling to a part-time job that I had.
MARTIN: But that's the piece I don't understand, is how would you manage this if you had paid employment? I mean, Jolene, you had paid employment at the time, right or no?
Ms. IVEY: No, I did not. I was an at-home mom. And truthfully, I mean, the thing about homeschooling is that probably no two homeschools are identical because it's a decision that you as a family can make. How can we make this work? Typically, you think, in most homeschools, someone is at home.
But no two are exactly alike, and certainly, you could probably find a way to homeschool even with paid employment, particularly when the students, your children, get older. They can do a lot of independent work, and that's something that, as a homeschooling educator, you stress. And that's one of the advantages of homeschooling. Children learn to be independent learners.
MARTIN: And I have to tell you that, in the spirit of full disclosure, I do have a relative who homeschooled, who was a single mom, and who had twins, and she sent one child to regular school, a public school, but she just felt the schools were not working for her child. So she switched the child's day. During the day, her child worked with another mother as a mother's helper. In the afternoon, she had the kind of typical job that a lot of kids have after school, and then she did her schoolwork in the evening. So she switched the day, and so when she was home, it's when she worked on the schooling. So it can be done.
But what about the intimidation factor? Joby, I have to say that, even at the - like Cheli was saying, kindergarten today is so academic. I mean, they're teaching kids, you know, grammar and all this other stuff. I mean, back in our era, it was like crayons and sandwich and tie your shoes and thank you very much. But today, it seems like the academics start so early, and we are not being, like Shawn, a trained educator. Were you intimidated about teaching things that perhaps weren't strongest subjects for you?
Ms. IVEY: I wasn't really intimidated because I did look at just taking it one year at a time. I can do kindergarten, OK? I can do first grade, and to be honest, I will be truthful with you, there were many times when I was learning something the night before, or a couple of nights before I was going to teach it to my children because it was something that I didn't remember. But there's no shame in learning something right before you're teaching it. Some of the best experiences I remember is when I was learning when my children were learning. We were learning together.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking with the Mocha Moms about homeschooling, and we'd like to hear from you. Do you have an experience with homeschooling that you would like to tell us about, or do you have another question for the Mocha Moms that you'd like them to answer on our website? If so, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522, or you can go to the Tell Me More page at npr.org. Shawn, do you ever worry, though, that other people that are homeschooling who are not as skilled as you are as a teacher?
Ms. SPENCE: You know, it's interesting. I don't think that the fact that I'm a school teacher assisted me with homeschooling, in all fairness. I think, as parents, we're always teaching. I mean, we taught them how to walk. We taught them how to do all these other things. And so, if we brought in the idea of teaching, we really are capable. I think I really just had to take it one year at a time, one child at a time because I was teaching different grade levels at different times, and we defined school which worked for us.
MARTIN: How do you do that, though? That's the other thing. I mean, that's kind of the traditional one-room schoolhouse, where you've got kids of different grades learning all together. Some people think that's great, but some people think that's chaos. Shawn, what about that?
Ms. SPENCE: Well, you know what? I had the older children read to the younger children. We also taught history and science together, and we just require a different homework assignment. So, when you're studying Rome, I might have someone just coloring in a coloring book, right? And then the other one is actually doing a research paper.
There are a lot of resources, and I think that, as parents look at what may be lacking in traditional schools, we all can supplement using the Internet, using other resources, so that we can give our children the edge that they need, regardless of what your background or your training is.
MARTIN: Cheli, you've had the blended experience, both homeschooling and sending kids to regular school.
Ms. ENGLISH FIGARO: I think people have to realize that it's really a challenge when you're dealing with multiple-aged children. I know that was one of the challenges I had because I had my son as an only child for a long time, and we were homeschooling really well, and I thought we were having a great time. We were going to museums, and we're going to field trips, and we were doing all this wonderful stuff, and then I had his sister.
MARTIN: You're one of those moms that I'm jealous about when I go out for lunch hour, when I see the moms with their kids at the museum, and I hate my life.
Ms. IVEY: You know, can I tell you something? Can I tell you something, Michel? I was getting up at three o'clock in the morning to do that. So when I had my second child, things just really went crazy, especially as she got to be a toddler. And my son, who was getting to be second and third grade, needed multiplication tables. He needed real schoolwork, and I had this little running around toddler who wanted to go out and play. And that's a real consideration.
MARTIN: Can I ask Shawn about that? How did you manage that?
Ms. SPENCE: You know, it's - I redefined what school was. We started our school day nine o'clock because I'm a morning person. They had to work with how I flow. And probably about one o'clock, the older children who didn't take naps, they actually went and did private reading. We had sort of a reading list that they worked from, and then I took a nap with the little people.
I've got to be honest, I had no problem with taking a nap from one to three. And I also had certain times in the day where I incorporated - we did consumer education. That is synonymous with going to the grocery store. We did meal planning, and that was our - I forgot, what do you call it? Home ec. So all of those things that I did around the house, I incorporated them as well.
So because I didn't isolate it to just the math, the science, the reading, it really helped me to incorporate them in our life, and actually, homeschooling is kind of like a culture, even though some of them are no longer homeschooled. They love going to the library, and we had scavenger hunts in the library and those kind of things.
MARTIN: How did you know they were staying on track? How did you know they were learning what they needed to know to stay at pace with their peers?
Ms. SPENCE: There are standards that are available on the Internet per state. There actually is an independent agency that actually evaluates state standards across the country. I actually used the state standards of each state that won in a certain subject area. For example, California has the best history program in the country. At one point in time it was Virginia.
So during the summer, I would research those, I would print out their standards, and I would track them. So there are resources, again, available. And for some people, they unschool. So they may not even want to follow standards. They just want to make sure their children have a love for learning, and that their children are growing every year. Does that make sense?
Ms. IVEY: No.
MARTIN: At some point, they've got to reenter the educational system if they're going to go to college. Probably, Joby - what about your experience, because your kids are all in college now. So, clearly, it worked out
Ms. IVEY: Yes, they are. And they've all done very well. I have, you know, one at Columbia, one at Brown, one at Maryland on a full academic scholarship.
MARTIN: Hello, just so you know.
Ms. IVEY: Right, exactly.
Ms. SPENCE: Which is awesome. Absolutely.
MARTIN: How would you know whether homeschooling is for you? If it's something you should even think about attempting.
Ms. SPENCE: Homeschooling is definitely a lifestyle. And I don't know that you really know that it's right for you until you actually do it. But certainly, what I did was I had many neighbors who were homeschooling, and I went and talked with them. I went to some support groups. But it's almost like any major decision that, you know, you make. You never really know until you've tried it. And it worked out beautifully for us. I've talked with many accounts of many families where they tried it, and it did not work out for them.
MARTIN: And, Shawn, I wanted to ask you. You've done it both ways, and you do different things with different kids. How do you know when it's time, perhaps, to move one or more children into a more conventional educational setting?
Ms. SPENCE: You know, like Jolene said, it really depends on your family situation. I'm older, don't tell anybody, and I realized that there are a lot of things that I wanted to do personally. And of course, when you are, as Cheli said, this is a job, and that was my full-time job. When I realized that I wanted to continue to do other things, that's the reason - one of the main reasons that my husband and I decided to move the children to traditional schools. We also relocated to a better school district. So, in all honesty, I think that's also important, that you have to assess your current situation.
MARTIN: Cheli, what did you learn from homeschooling that you'd want to share?
Ms. ENGLISH FIGARO: I learned that you really do have to be very organized and very disciplined and very diligent. It's not playtime. It's not playtime. I knew that, when I had my third child, that there was just absolutely no way I could I - no reason I could continue because I knew I would lose all of my hair if I tried, but it is a sacrifice. I mean, make no mistake, especially when you're homeschooling all these multiple children, you don't have a lot of me time. There's not a lot of downtime. There's just nothing that...
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about this. Don't you ever wish you had a break?
Ms. SPENCE: Well, I took a break.
Ms. ENGLISH FIGARO: You don't have a break. For me, at least - well, you took a nap. You took a nap. Well, that's great. Right? I took weeks off. I made my own vacations, and all of that. But you really - it's harder. I live in a place where I don't - I'm not from Maryland, so I don't have any relatives anywhere near here. And so no one really got a break. You just don't get a break. And so that's something you have to be prepared for.
MARTIN: What about the whole socialization aspect of school, like dealing with people who are not the same as you and having to figure out how to mediate relationships with kids who are not the same as you?
Ms. ENGLISH FIGARO: There are so many outlets. Well, co-ops - and my son, he was in a co-op every other day, between the gym co-ops and the science co-ops, and there's Spanish co-ops. I mean, you do form a community of homeschooling parents, lots of opportunities, so that shouldn't stop you.
Ms. DUPREE: The homeschool community does tend to be kind of homogeneous, though. I mean, that is true. I mean, if you're really thinking about it, it does. So you maybe have to make - to be conscientious about exposing your children to different types of people.
MARTIN: Because I have to tell you, most of the people I know who homeschool are religiously motivated.
Ms. DUPREE: Right. And that was...
MARTIN: And if that's not particularly your values system or not the way you practice, that isn't necessarily for you.
Ms. DUPREE: And that was one of the things that made it a little bit difficult for my family because there were no religious motive for doing this or motivation, so that made us a little bit different. But the homeschooling community is, you know, it's an open community, and they were welcoming.
But you do kind of have to make sure that you're making an effort to expose your children to different types of new neighborhoods. And we did use the community college also, which was very helpful. But homeschooling is a lifestyle, and you have to be willing to spend a lot of time with your children.
MARTIN: Jolene, final thought from you. Is there something that you - because you're also a state legislator in addition to being a mom of five and a wife, do you - and a Mocha Mom - do you feel that there are ways that sort of, from a policy perspective, that need to be different to either support homeschooling or perhaps to make it more rigorous?
Ms. IVEY: Well, I think every state has to look at what works for them. I would not be a person who would tell any state how to run their state. When I first started hearing about homeschooling, I thought it was weird, and I thought the people who did it were strange. And then I met Joby, and I said, you know what? There's somebody out there doing it right. So, and since then, I've met lots and lots of homeschooling families who are doing a great job, and I really admire them, and I'm very happy when the school bus comes and takes my kids away.
MARTIN: The Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro, Joby Dupree joined us in our Washington studio, and Shawn Spence joined us from our bureau in New York. Ladies, moms, thank you all so much.
Ms. IVEY: Thank you, Michel.
Ms. SPENCE: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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