When Joan Bridges started home schooling her children 25 years ago, first in Texas and then in Colorado, she just wanted to give her children a well-rounded education informed by the Catholic faith — an education she felt the local Catholic schools were not providing.
Home education was the option of last resort for Bridges. She knew hardly anybody who home-schooled, her parents expressed their deep concerns, and the burden would fall mainly on her because her husband traveled a lot for work. But Bridges told God she would give it just one year.
“That one year became 25, or 26 years,” she told the Register with a laugh. But she added that the passage of years showed “the beauty of God’s plan for our family.”
Today, Bridges has educated eight children through home schooling, with “blood, sweat and tears,” who have gone into the world with a variety of vocations and career paths: including two professed Carmelites, an attorney in Washington, an accountant in Houston, and a medical sales representative; others work in finance and mechanical engineering. One is currently focused on pre-medicine studies. The options for Catholic schools have improved too: Bridges said her ninth child is currently enrolled in high school, since that option now works better for his temperament.
But the home-schooling milieu allowed her to give her children an education, combined with a domestic liturgical life that included going to daily Mass or praying the Rosary every day.
“Our home literally revolved around the liturgical cycle of the Church,” Bridges said. At the end of the day, she wanted her children to realize that learning the faith and how to read, write and communicate with proper grammar and punctuation was important. “We have to use the talents God gave us for his glory.”
Home schooling has entered the U.S. mainstream as an education option. According to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics, upward of 3% (1.8 million in 2012) of all school-age children are home educated. Those figures represent a doubling over the previous 10 years alone.
Brian Ray, president of the National Home School Research Institute, who has studied home schooling for more than 30 years, told the Register that home schooling has become more accepted as more people learn about it and as the studies show that home-schoolers are performing either at or above the level of their non-home-schooling peers. Ray estimates that 3.4 million U.S. adults have been home-schooled at least one year out of their K-12 educational experience, with an average being educated at home for six-eight years.
Other studies, he added, show home-schoolers are on average more involved in civic life, but less likely to trust institutions, such as Congress or banks. The studies also show that rather than being “narrow-minded,” home-school graduates are “more politically tolerant than the others.”
Home schooling has also drawn families from all socioeconomic statuses, educational backgrounds and income levels. Another aspect, Ray added, is that home schooling provides a vehicle for parents to transmit their particular culture, heritage and values to their children. Although the majority of home-schooling families are identified as white, the proportion of non-white home-schooling families is increasing. Ray said this is particularly true for African-American families, who have been frustrated at the racism in public schools, particularly bigotry directed at their sons and their future possibilities. Home schooling, he said, has also allowed them to pass on the history of African-Americans in the U.S. and their contributions to society in a way they are not getting from other school settings.
But as home schooling has grown and become part of the mainstream consciousness of American academic life, so have the different support resources for home schooling, from a diversity of curricula offerings to online-support systems and even cooperatives that integrate a child’s home education with a weekly part-time, classroom-like environment. Ray said that other than the internet-based support, most of the different support models have existed for the past three decades.
“You can’t not find encouragement if you want it,” he said.
Cynthia Montanaro, a Catholic mother of six living in the Virginia suburbs around Washington, D.C., has home-schooled for approximately 20 years, using a classical curriculum, and provides online-based teacher-support for Mother of Divine Grace School. She told the Register that the method allowed her to educate her children and form them in the Catholic faith at a pace suited for their learning needs. Some of her children, she said, learn at an accelerated pace; others have learning challenges that require more time and patient attention. Montanaro said in both cases the home-education model has children progress at an incremental pace suited to their gifts, with personalized attention from someone who knows their needs well.
“I think the best way is to have the child complete against his or herself,” she said, adding that standardized tests can provide one benchmark for a child to evaluate his or her performance against the last time they took the test.
Socialization Needs Met
When home schooling was in its infancy, a major concern was whether home-schooling students would be able to socialize well with others. Montanaro said that question has largely been answered in the affirmative “Yes” by parents who do not “shelter” their children, but have combined home education with other social activities, such as home-schooling co-ops, dance classes, swimming, sports or community theater, to name some examples. Montanaro explained this combination of home education does well because students learn for six hours every day how to learn and interact with other human beings who are both much older and younger than them, and not just their peers.
“Socialization means becoming more fully human,” she said.
In the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, the Holy Family Homeschoolers cooperative provides a support network to more than 100 involved Catholic families. Classes are offered on Fridays through the school year for students from pre-K through high school, along with other activities, such as sports and orchestra, events such as dances once a month and prom, and field trips throughout the year. Mass and confession are available every First Friday.
Elizabeth Leone, a Catholic home-schooling parent and member of the co-op’s steering committee, told the Register this model allowed her children to have a “best of both worlds” educational experience and learn in an environment where the Catholic faith is woven into the fabric of learning. She added that the classroom experience also helped her two high-school graduates now in college prepare for studying and interacting with professors and students in a classroom setting.
Another home-schooling model is found at the Holy Family Homeschooling Apostolate at St. Jane de Chantal parish in Covington, Louisiana. Katherine Weyert, head of K-12 programs, told the Register that the apostolate has two different models. It began originally in 2013 as a home-school cooperative that would meet on a Thursday afternoon. That program continues, but last year, a K-12 home and traditional-school education hybrid with the apostolate began using the Seton Home Study Curriculum. Last year, 26 students were in the hybrid program — this fall semester, the total enrollment jumped to 99 students, including 33 in the high-school section.
“It’s worked out really well,” she said. Weyert explained the apostolate’s three-day-a-week classroom model appealed to parents who had to juggle different ages for schooling and saw the limited classroom structure as a complement to their home school. She said it has also appealed to other parents who wanted to home school but were on the fence. It has also helped other parents who realized their children needed “positive peer pressure of being in a class,” which inspired them to do the home-school work they had been reluctant to do at home until they saw their peers engaged in it.
The hybrid apostolate still has some flexibility built into it. For children in K-8, parents — not the apostolate — administer any tests for their home-schooling children.
She said, “This program still gives them enough flexibility to work with the children where they are and still have support.”
Prepared for Success
Dolores Mihaliak, a sophomore at the University of Dallas, told the Register that home schooling from grade school through high school prepared her well for the rigors of studying at her Catholic university, both discussing the Great Books together with her peers and being comfortable interacting respectfully with professors across the board.
“The flexibility of home schooling really helped,” Mihaliak said.
She had already learned how to manage her time, because four days out of the week as a home-schooler she had to work hard on her subjects in order to have time for leadership activities such as Civil Air Patrol and then work evenings at an Irish import shop in Connecticut. Having more opportunities to discuss business with her father helped inspire in her a desire to explore a business career of own.
Mihaliak said she is grateful that she also had the opportunity to develop as a well-rounded Catholic person through their Adoro Te home-school support group, which serves 86 families in the Hartford, Connecticut, area. Every Friday, she joined other Catholic home-schoolers for extracurricular activities in an atmosphere of Catholic faith that incorporated the Mass and the Rosary, along with works of mercy, such as preparing meals for the poor. Mihaliak said that she appreciated having this experience of interacting with Catholics of all ages and learning how to articulate and discuss her ideas well in conversations.
Mihaliak has yet to declare her major, but she is looking at a double major in business and drama — two areas in which home schooling allowed her to develop a real love, thanks to her experiences.
“Home schooling really set me up well for that,” she said. “I’ve got these two windows that are open to me. We’ll see what happens in the near future.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.