TORONTO—Catholic home schooling efforts are on the upswing on both sides of the U.S-Canada border.
As most students look to the “dog days” of August as a final respite before returning to the classrooms, increasing numbers of home-schooled students will go no farther than their living rooms for academic and faith instruction.
Taking advantage of the Internet as a key way of exchanging ideas, strategies, and support, home-schooling parents are showing renewed confidence in the face of continuing suspicion and resentment from traditional education supporters and some state education officials.
Catherine Moran, president of the River Forest, Illinois-based Catholic Home School Network of America (CHSNA), said home-schooling is one of the fastest growing phenomena in the United States, Canada, and other English-speaking countries.
Moran estimated that as many as 60,000 Catholic families are now involved in home-schooling in the United States, with thousands more taking part through personally-designed educational programs. Canadian figures generally run at about 10% of the U.S. total.
Home-schooling authorities suggest that when other faith groups are taken into account, up to 1.5 million American children participate in some form of home-schooling. Whatever the numbers, there is little doubt that enthusiasm for Catholic home-schooling is on the rise.
Moran told the Register that parents’ disenchantment with sexual education programs, and declining standards in religious instruction are key factors in the interest in Catholic home-schooling.
“Among the reasons heard most often are unhappiness with school sexed programs, which often rob children of their innocence and promote morbid curiosity about such matters before children are able to understand, and without parental approval or knowledge,” Moran said.
She also said many home-schooling parents have expressed disappointment with the poor quality of sacramental preparation in many parochial and public schools. Too often, she added, traditional schools are weak in teaching basic Catholic beliefs, particularly in such areas as the sacraments, the Real Presence of Christ, and the intercessory relationship of the Blessed Mother with Christ and the Trinity.
Moran dismissed criticism that Catholic home-schooling deprives children of opportunities to socialize with their peers in the public school system, and that it is a form of withdrawal from the real world. Even noted advice columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby), have attacked home-schooling for denying children access to “mainstream” schools and students.
“We hear this all the time, usually from those who have no knowledge or first-hand contact with home-school kids and their families,” Moran said. “In fact, home-schooled children are especially well socialized because in the family they associate not only with their peers, but with their older and younger siblings, with grandparents, neighbors, adults and other children at church, and at the many picnics and outings that are typical of home schooling groups and associations.”
This view was echoed by Miriam Doylend, president of the Ottawa (Ontario) Catholic Home School Association, one of Canada's largest Catholic home-school groups. “We don't see home-schooling as a form of withdrawal at all,” Doylend said. “Admittedly it's not for everyone and there are a number of sacrifices required, but it's a choice many families have made and it has been successful for them.”
Bob Brindle, director of the Bardstown, Kentucky-based Our Lady of the Rosary School, says Catholic home-schooling is a movement that has come of age. In a report distributed on the Our Lady of the Rosary School website, Brindle said declining standards in public education, particularly involving moral and faith issues, is driving more Catholic parents to the home-schooling option.
“Home-schooling's existence is now recognized by many people and their numbers are growing daily, even though the right of parents to educate their own children at home is being contested in many areas, “ Brindle said.
Our Lady of the Rosary School is one of several Catholic home-schooling organizations offering curriculum, resources, and support to families interested in home-schooling. These “schools” have taken advantage of the Internet and electronic mail to reach even more families throughout North America.
A Catholic home-schooling conference recently attracted several hundred supporters to St. Paul University in Ottawa. Issues discussed at the Ottawa conference included avoiding home school burnout, Church teachings on home-schooling, and home-schooling for the large family.
One of the key speakers at the conference was Dr. Mary Kay Clark, director of Seton Home Study School, and author of the popular book, Catholic Home Schooling: A Handbook for Parents. Dr. Clark's Seton Home Study School in Front Royal, Va., provides home-schooling curriculum to nearly 10,000 families in the United States and Canada
The new popularity of Catholic home-schooling has forced participants to defend the movement. Some state education officials have argued that home schooling parents should be officially certified as teachers. They have also demanded home schooling parents adhere to guidelines and other supervisory measures. The conflict has led to a number of legal battles pitting home schoolers against educational authorities. It has also resulted in the creation of home schoolers’ legal defense organizations in both the United States and Canada.
The certification battle rages despite clear evidence that home schooling students perform above national averages. Studies compiled by the Home School Legal Defense Association in the United States suggest that home-schooled students outperform their public school counterparts by up to 37%, when measured by standardized tests.
Catherine Moran of the CHSNA said despite some concerns over catechetical content, many bishops and diocesan officials welcome the new push for Catholic home-schooling.
“There are stories of real support and cooperation from some traditional bishops who are delighted with parental involvement in recent years, and from local pastors who know the attachment of home-school families to their parishes,” Moran said.
The dioceses of Pittsburgh and Chicago have recently established official guidelines for home-schooling. The guidelines recognize the parents’ role as foremost educators of their children, while ensuring some pastoral involvement in catechetical instruction.
Moran suggested that legislation in most U.S. states and Canadian provinces is tolerant of home-schooling. In Connecticut for example, the law calls on parents and those who have care of children to bring them up in “some lawful employment and instruct them or cause them to be instructed in reading, writing, spelling, English grammar … and United States history.” Similarly, the law in Ontario (Canada) with respect to home-schooling simply states that parents are entitled to remove their children from traditional schools so long as they receive “satisfactory education at home or elsewhere.”
While Catholic home-schooling parents welcome the support of bishops and pastors, some are wary of overregulation. Moran said diocesan guidelines on home-schooling range from reasonable to intrusive. Catholic home schooling groups actively monitor all efforts to regulate the practice with an eye to canon law stipulations on parental rights as primary educators.
This notion of parents taking more control over the education of their children has been bolstered by a 1994 Letter to Families by Pope John Paul II. In the letter, the Holy Father called parents the “primary educators” of their children. “Parents are the first and the most important educators of their own children, and they also possess a fundamental competence in this area,” Pope John Paul said. “They are educators because they are parents.”
Home-schooling authorities are not shy about discussing the sacrifices inherent in the home-schooling option. In addition to the time and energy required to prepare adequate lessons, home-schooling parents often forego opportunities for a second income. “The lack of two family incomes requires parents to examine their first principles and priorities for the years when they are raising their children,” Moran said.
The sacrifices involved in home schooling are more than offset by the rewards, says J. Fraser Field, executive director of the Mission, British Columbia-based Catholic Educator's Resource Center. While not formally a home schooling organization, Field's group supports the aims of home schoolers.
Field said home-schooling in British Columbia has increased by 25% since 1996. “What has been impressive is how willing these parents often are to make personal sacrifices in order to educate their children,” Field said. “By and large the families I have encountered are achieving their goals. They are managing to pass on a living faith to their children while at the same time preparing them to relate and succeed in the larger secular world.
“The majority of home educators I have come to know impress me as down to earth, intelligent, and remarkably well-informed,” Field added. “They are some of the strongest and most active Catholics in their respective parishes.”
Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto, Canada.