Politics & Government

October 21, 2013

Home-school option gains favor in Florida

According to the Florida Department of Education, 75,081 students were home-schooled in the state last school year. Of those, 1,053 were in Manatee County and 1,081 in Sarasota County. Parents say they choose to home-school their children for many reasons: dissatisfaction in the school district, foster more family time or to simply be in control of the education experience.

With a baby in her lap, Jenni Stahlmann is helping her teenage daughter write an essay.

"The first point should be the strongest point you have to make," she says at the kitchen table. "You open it with your topic sentence, the next should be support for that topic sentence, some details and you finish it off with a clincher."

Not giving her mother a pinch of attitude, Skyler, 14, begins to write.

Elsewhere in the Stahlmanns' 3,300-square-foot Bradenton home, four other children, all home-schooled, are completing their work for the day. Stahlmann meets with each one in the morning, gives them their task list, then checks in every hour or so to monitor their progress.

The climate on this Friday morning: organized chaos.

"Going to the pond, Mom," says Seth, 11, as he zips out the door on his skateboard.

Griffyn, 16, bounds down the stairs and heads to the kitchen.

"Who ate my pizza?" he asks, slightly angry.

"Dad ate it for dinner," Stahlmann shouts right as 1-year-old Matty Jay leaps off her lap.

She tells Griffyn to go read two chapters of his book.

"That's too long, Mom -- one."

He strides back to his room knowing he better read two.

Instead of sending her children -- spanning ages 1 through 16 -- to a public or private school, Stahlmann, 39, gets up at 5:30 a.m. each day to teach them from sunrise to sundown at their home.

And she's not alone. According to the Florida Department of Education, 75,081 students were home-schooled in the state last school year. Of those, 1,053 were in Manatee County and 1,081 in Sarasota County.

Parents say they choose to home-school their children for many reasons: dissatisfaction in the school district, foster more family time or to simply be in control of the education experience.

"Home-schooling has created a lifestyle of learning," said Stahlmann, who has been home-schooling since the early 2000s. "They're cooking, they're knitting. We never stop. They might be reading in their room, they might be making signs for their little business. We never cut them off."

Stahlmann home-schools Monday through Saturday all year long. There's no spring break, no summer break, none of those early release days.

"Do you get summers off?" Stahlmann asks. "No. In the real world you work all year long. Well, we teach all year long."

Parents say they create a customized education plan for their child through home-schooling rather than relying on the cookie-cutter curriculum found in traditional schools.

Consider Courtney Fenech, a Manatee eighth-grader whose greatest passion is tennis. She attends a home-school facility that teaches the A Beka Academy curriculum, where she takes required classes (English, math, science) three days a week. She also takes daily private and group tennis lessons at Longwood Athletic Club in Sarasota.

"The beauty in us doing home school is that you eliminate a lot of the things during a traditional school day that takes up valuable time, like the study halls and the lunch period," said her mother, Beth Fenech.

When Courtney got serious about tennis, school began to interfere with training. But with home schooling, she's able to work at her own pace.

"She wanted to devote more time to tennis and when you go to traditional school, there's not enough time in a day," Fenech said.

Jody Hagaman of Bradenton has two home-schoolers with big dreams. Lexi, 17, wants to be an interior designer, so she goes to Booker High School's visual performing arts program each day and takes her required classes at home.

"What she's doing at Booker, I could never give her because the teachers at Booker are teachers at Ringling (College of Art and Design) also," Hagaman said. "Because we know that's what she's going to get into, we did it so she can get that in-depth study to get ahead of her peers in other high schools."

Jenni Stahlmann and Hagaman own a statewide nontraditional private school called Generation Harvest, which provides home-school opportunities to parents and monitors their progress.

These two moms often home school together. Stahlmann's five-bedroom, four-bathroom home serves as the perfect venue to teach eight students.

Diana Greene, Manatee County Schools District deputy superintendent of instructional services, said many aspects of a public school day would be hard to replace through home schooling.

"We are a microcosm of our society as a whole. We have children from diverse backgrounds that represent the same diversity that we see in society everyday and students are able to socialize and work together," Greene said. "We have to do these same things as adults. We have to come to work. We have to work with people that we don't know."

The American Experience Club starts at 9 a.m. Thursdays with a pledge and a prayer.

"Please stand," says 11-year-old Sara Yoder.

Benjamin Adams, 9, leads the prayer.

"Dear God, thank you for this day. I hope it will be a great day because we're going to learn about Josephina, a new American Girl. Amen."

Each week, about 10 children and their parents meet in a classroom inside the Central Church of Christ in Sarasota to study American history.

The first week of the new unit has just begun. Stahlmann, who started the club with Hagaman, is teaching the 1800s with a focus on New Mexico history. To help promote interest, she teaches through the American Girl books.

"Josefina speaks Spanish and because of that, the 'j' is pronounced like an 'h,'" Stahlmann tells her students. "Ho-sefina."

There's a certain stigma about home-schooler socialization being insufficient. But the average home-schooler gets just as much as any student in a traditional school, parents say.

Home-school parents all around Sarasota-Manatee meet in churches, on playgrounds and ball courts to socialize their children.

Christi Bowers enrolled her two teenagers in sports at Manatee HEAT, a sports program for home-schoolers. Her daughter is a captain on the volleyball team and her son plays junior varsity basketball. Between Manatee HEAT, internships, community service and youth groups, Bowers has never been concerned about her children being cut off from the rest of the world.

"The social issue makes me laugh -- that people still even consider it an issue," said Bowers, a Sarasota resident. "Are there people who struggle with it? Probably, yes. But there are home-schoolers who bury their heads in the ground and don't do anything. My kids are out there."

Home schooling also provides a way for families to bond, to spend eight hours a day together rather than apart.

Freda Yoder of Sarasota said she home schools her three children to gain extra time with family.

"I'm big on family and time with parents," Yoder said. "By the time other kids come home, do their homework and eat supper, it's time for bed and they don't get to see their parents. That's why I've always done this."

Seth Stahlmann sits on a skateboard in grass wet with morning dew. The sixth-grader writes what he sees, hears, smells and feels. It's called sensory writing. He's required to do it five times each week.

This is his first time writing at the pond down the street from his Bradenton home.

"If you look you can see fish jumping out of the water," he says.

The fish send bubbles up from below, while birds sing loudly to each other.

"I love the noise that the birds make," he says. "Amazing ... it's like their own little instrument. Us, we have to practice for years to get that good."

Seth likes the freedom of being home-schooled. The variety of assignments never leaves him bored.

"We learn a lot more because we're not doing the same thing every day," he says. "We're doing all kinds of different stuff."

Read more here: http://www.bradenton.com/2013/10/21/4783803/home-schooled-option-gains-favor.html#storylink=cpy

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