National Edition

No kid is an island: Homeschool co-ops give social opportunities to children who learn at home

Published: Wednesday, March 27 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

Olive Ward’s busy life includes trips with friends to New York City's Museum of Natural History and other nearby cultural landmarks. The 8-year-old Manhattanite plays violin in a small orchestra and makes craft projects with a weekly art group. The lecture series she attends recently featured Nobel laureate Eric Kendel. And Olive's family goes on educational trips with other families — like one to Cape Cod, where she joined other kids in touring a potato chip factory.

This is how homeschooling looks for the sociable, urban Ward family — a lively blend of group activities offset by quiet hours in which Olive is taught at home by her mother, Bea Ward. Her dad, Ryan Ward, is a scientist who helps out by supervising science experiments for groups of homeschooled kids.

Banding together with other homeschooling families for learning activities — creating co-ops — as the Ward family does, offers the chance to trade ideas, create social opportunities for their children and take advantage of parents' subject area specialties, said Peter Kamakawiwoole, an attorney for the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, a national advocacy organization for the homeschooling community.

Homeschool co-ops, which are as varied as the homeschooling community itself, are increasing in number, said Michelle Van Loon, a long-time homeschooling participant and observer who blogs for Christianity Today. Perhaps that’s simply a reflection of the growing number of families who choose to school their children at home, she added.

Coming together

About 2 million U.S. children are schooled at home — around 3 percent of the nation's K-12 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The number of children schooled at home increased by 74 percent between 1999 and 2007, the latest figures available. A 2007 survey showed that for 36 percent of homeschooling families, a desire to provide religious or moral instruction was their main reason for homeschooling. Concerns about learning environment was most important for 21 percent of those surveyed, and 17 percent said they were dissatisfied with local schools.

The homeschooling movement took hold in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said Kamakawiwoole. In 1983, when the Homeschool Legal Defense Association was founded, homeschooling was illegal in as many as 30 states. Now, each U.S. state has a law or court holding that acknowledges the legality of homeschooling. The movement had roots among religious conservatives who disliked the secular nature of the U.S. public school system, and also among academicians such as Raymond and Dorothy Moore, whose book "Better Late than Early" held that formal, institutionalized education was damaging for young children.

Concerns about the academic viability of homeschooling have faded as a generation of homeschooled children have performed strongly on standardized tests. But worries about whether children schooled at home have adequate opportunities to socialize remain, Kamakawiwoole said.

For many families, co-ops are a way to address that concern. A homeschool co-op can be as simple as a casual group of families who meet occasionally for field trips, art or music classes, with activities changing as needs evolve. The activities Olive Ward attends are typical of these.

Co-ops can be highly structured, though. Some are aligned with religious groups and require families to sign belief statements and attendance pledges, for instance. Some require each participating parent to teach one academic subject to the whole group on a strict schedule. And some assess dues that pay for extracurricular activities such as lecture series and trips. As with most homeschooling decisions, the choice is up to the parent.

“Co-ops are an opportunity for children to have regular interactions with people of their own age,” Kamakawiwoole said. “Families find that attractive. Everyone pitching in and playing to the best of their strengths and abilities makes for fun and dynamic learning.”

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