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Back (home) to school: Thousands of Utah children return to class in their own kitchens, living rooms

Published: Saturday, Aug. 23 2014 5:30 p.m. MDT

Updated: Sunday, Aug. 24 2014 8:51 a.m. MDT

Kristy Bitter reads with Adin Bitter, 6, left, and Eliza Bitter, 4, on their first day back to home schooling at their home in Lehi in Lehi, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.

Michelle Tessier, Deseret News

LEHI — Summer ended in fittingly rainy fashion for thousands of children this week as Utah's public schools began opening their doors to usher in a new school year.

Once again facing the rigors of academia, Hiram Bitter described his zeal for learning in a manner likely in keeping with many of his peers.

"Torture," the 10-year-old Lehi resident said. "Torture is what it's like."

But unlike most of Utah's school-age population, Hiram did not venture out into the rain-soaked Lehi streets heaving a loaded backpack toward a crowded classroom where he would remain for six or seven hours.

Instead, he walked to a kitchen table loaded with workbooks and binders where his classmates Jachin Bitter, 12, Cilisia Bitter, 8, and Adin Bitter, 6, were practicing their arithmetic.

Youngest sibling Eliza, 4, sat on the floor in an adjacent room arranging numbered tiles in sequence, and their mother and teacher, Kristy Bitter, periodically made her rounds to check on each child's work.

Four loaves of freshly baked bread cooled on the counter, and on the wall a wooden plaque read: "When your children are in your arms they are no longer under foot."

Five years ago, Hiram attended kindergarten at a public school but has been home-schooled ever since. He doesn't ever want to go back.

"I like this better because you can finish your school work in, like, three hours," he said.

Numbers for 2014 are not yet available, but according to data from the Utah State Office of Education, 8,988 Utah children were home-schooled in 2013, down from 9,177 in 2009 but up from 2012, when 8,260 children were educated at home.

The numbers fluctuate each year, but about 16 children are learning at home for every 1,000 students enrolled in traditional public schools.

Talk to any parent who home-schools and they can anticipate the questions: Are parents qualified to teach a variety of subjects without formal training? Are children kept at home able to develop social skills? Will they be ready, academically and socially, to transition to college or enter the workforce?

Families leave public education for a variety of reasons, but most maintain that if a parent is attentive, proactive and willing to learn along with their children, there's no reason a child educated at home cannot keep up with their peers or even excel.

And for many, like Bitter matriarch Kristy Bitter, manicured social interactions are part of the draw.

"I am glad my kids are not associating with other kids their age except for those that are in our general neighborhood that I approve of," she said. "Especially when my older two were in school, they didn’t know how to say ‘no,’ and ‘that’s not right.’ Even though I had taught them, they didn’t know when they were hearing jokes that weren’t appropriate."

Preparation

Much like traditional schooling, back to school season for home-schoolers comes at the culmination of weeks, if not months, of planning.

Bitter said she starts planning the next year's curriculum in February or March and orders materials in June, spending between $100 and $150 per child.

"I do it as cheaply as possible," she said.

The Bitters typically begin their school day between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., working through the morning and stopping around noon for lunch. The afternoon is then spent reading or doing hands-on learning through art and science projects.

Bitter decided to pursue home schooling when her oldest son, Jachin, was in second grade. He was quiet in class, which led to his needs being overlooked.

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