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."
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.
"He wasn’t understanding things, and he wasn’t being pushed but he never said anything," his mother said. "Then he started coming home with jokes and attitudes and behaviors that he had learned at recess that weren’t according to our values that I didn’t appreciate."
Bitter also began to worry about the information being presented to her children at the traditional school. She said she prayed about what to do and felt impressed to educate her children at home.
"He just thought if we didn’t change all our light bulbs to (energy-efficient models) then the planet was going to die," she said. "I’m sure that’s not how the teacher presented it, but that’s what was getting programmed into his mind."
That experience was shared by Anissa Wardell, who began home schooling her three school-age children last year.
Her children, Wardell said, were learning lessons in school about the environment, government and politics that required her to regularly discuss and reteach her family's values.
"I had to do what I felt was best for my kids and bring it back to where I could have those discussions and not feel like they’re being bombarded constantly with things that just didn’t fit in with how we believed," she said.
The first few months of home schooling presented a steep learning curve, and she wasn't always fully confident that she had made the right decision. But by October of her first year, she could already see positive results from her choice.
"Our kids were better friends," she said. "They were learning faster because they were helping each other. So it was a little scary at the beginning, but it was actually quite a blessing."
Schedules are different for each family, but many home-schoolers begin their day with an opening thought or devotional, sharing anything from a religious or inspirational message to a review of current events.
Amy Olson, who has home-schooled her children since 2006, said she begins with religious studies from 8:20 a.m. to 9 a.m., followed by science, language arts, reading and writing, math and history, all presented in roughly 40-minute increments.
Her children will often study the same material, but with the older students carrying a higher workload.
Olson's oldest child, who would otherwise be in eighth grade, is also enrolled in an online home school that provides lessons in social studies and STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"Home schooling is not hard. When people think about it, they think it’s so overwhelming," she said. "Really its just sitting down with the kids and just reading something, and then sharing our thoughts about it and what they have interpreted and how they feel about it and how they would apply it to their lives."
Professional educators counter that truly effective teaching is difficult. Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh even described the profession as being "rocket science."
"Those who feel that they are able to do this job without any training, I think don’t have a big picture or a complete understanding of the complexity of teaching," she said. "There is definitely a science to teaching and there is an art to teaching, and you really can’t have one without the other and be a good teacher."
She said the role of parents, in any form of education, cannot be understated and that any good teacher recognizes that parents know their child's needs better than anyone.
But she added that teachers are trained to look at student learning from pedagogical and developmental viewpoints, which goes beyond simply presenting children with information about a subject.
There is also a benefit to having an objective teacher involved in the education of a child, Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. In her own experience, she believed her children "walked on water" but was often surprised by the insight she gained from parent teacher conferences.
"It was something that I, as a parent, couldn’t see through the fog of my love and my adoration for my angelic child," she said.
Allison Riddle, who teaches at Foxboro Elementary in North Salt Lake and was named Utah's Teacher of the Year last October, said that benefit of an objective educator is why she never taught her own children.
Objectivity helps identify learning difficulties and aptitudes, she said, and it can be difficult for a parent to detach their own interests and expectations from the experiences of their children.
"That either means that a parent could be too soft and not expect enough, or they could be far too tough on their own kid and expect them to progress faster then they are developmentally able to," she said. "You see the same thing when you see a parent coaching their child in a sport. They sometimes are hardest on their kid."
Riddle said she admires any parent who cares enough about their children's education to accept the challenges of educating them at home. But she added that, even with her degree, credentials and 26 years of classroom experience, it's not a decision she would make for her own family.
"I belive there’s a limit to how well I can teach certain subjects," she said. "I don’t belive that everyone can simply read and have a background that’s sufficient to teach science and math concepts."
When asked about qualifications, Bitter said parents aren't necessarily qualified, but anyone who can read can teach children.
"Just because someone goes to college and attends and studies history, what they did to study history was to read lots of books," she said. "Well guess what? You can read lots of books about history and be able to teach history just fine. Or math, or whatever."
Other parents point to the wealth of resources available to help with the home schooling process, which has only increased in the Internet age and as home schooling becomes more mainstream.
"I would say that parents are fully qualified to teach their own children any subjects that they want to, especially if they are willing to learn along with their student or to find an appropriate source for teaching their student," said Elaine Augustine, a Lehi mother of eight who home-schools her six school-age children.
Augustine said the Internet has made it possible to learn "any subject under the sun" and she's found it enjoyable to reacquaint herself with concepts she learned as a student.
"My job, especially as my children get older, moves from being a teacher to being a mentor," she said. "I mentor them in their own self-learning."
Ben Anderson, president of the Utah Home Education Association, said there is a "ridiculous" amount of resources available online, which allows parents to develop curricula specifically for their children.
"I don’t think everyone should home-school, but I do think that parents are the best at choosing how to best achieve the educational goals of their family in most instances," he said.
Augustine said her decision to home-school was motivated by a dissatisfaction with how her local school district was teaching math and a philosophical objection to the use of homework.
She said if a student masters a skill at school, which they should be able to do during a seven-hour day, then sending work home just cuts into the time that families can spend together.
"As a parent with many children, I value my time and I don’t want to spend it doing work for the schools," she said.
But she was also bothered by some of the nonacademic activities promoted by her local elementary, such as a periodic pajama day.
"When you go to school you wear school clothes, when you go to church you wear church clothes and when you go to bed you wear pajamas," Augustine said. "There is certain appropriate clothing for different activities and wearing pajamas to school was not appropriate."
An objection to a school environment is a frequently cited concern in discussions of home schooling, both for proponents and detractors.
Some parents express a desire to shield children from inappropriate influences, while others argue that isolating a child makes them ill-prepared for the realities of a diverse society.
Jennifer Jensen, a Draper mother of five, has been home schooling for roughly 20 years.
She said her daughter, who is now 22, at one time wanted to attend public school. But after enrolling in LDS seminary, she no longer wanted to learn among her peers.
"It’s so different to not have to worry about kids being naughty and speaking out and being obnoxious and when you want to learn, you can learn," Jensen said. "You can learn at your own pace and you have more control over what you’re learning, and there’s not kids making fun of each other and being obnoxious and loud."
Jensen said she was proactive about providing social experiences for her children, from church and Scouting activities to community karate and dance classes.
She didn't worry about her children becoming socially stunted and said whether or not a person is an effective communicator is more a reflection of their personality than the setting of their formal education.
"If you come from a really shy family, you’re going to be shy whether you go to school or not," Jensen said. "I don’t think it’s the home school that does that."
But Jenny Dickson, a Logan native who now lives in North Carolina, said she believes her transition to higher education would have been more challenging if she had not first attended public high school.
Dickson was home-schooled during her elementary and middle school years, and she said it took time in a traditional school setting to come out of her shell and socialize with her classmates.
"It’s also really important to learn that you have to meet a deadline and that you have to go at other people’s pace sometimes," she said. "I think having the structure and the due dates and all of that was actually really important to me being able to successfully transition to college."
While she likely would not choose to home-school her own children, Dickson said, she values the time that she was able to spend with her family.
But she added that the isolated worldview that resulted from learning at home was not necessarily a positive experience for her and her siblings.
"Just being among different people with different points of view, I think, is a good thing," she said. "I think a lot of parents that home-school like the fact that they have more control over the message that their kids receive, but there’s also something to be said for being exposed to different ways of thinking."
In terms of college preparation, home-schoolers argue that the structure of at-home learning is a natural precursor to higher education, where students only meet with a professor a few times each week and are expected to be self-motivated.
"They know how to outline, they know how to read textbooks, how to find main points in textbooks," Bitter said. "I’m teaching them all the skills that I was never taught that I had to figure out once I got to college."
Riddle said home-schooled children are at a disadvantage when it comes to the developing qualitative or "soft" skills — like working with others to reach a consensus — that a potential employer expects of their staff.
"You can’t really get an experience that helps you learn how to use those and practice those unless you’re in a group setting where the group members vary," she said.
Most home-schoolers agree that the public perception of at-home education has softened over the years — often attributed to the proliferation of charter schools, online learning and other education alternatives — but that a stigma still exists.
"We get funny looks and I think some think that we’re nuts, that we don’t know what we’re doing," Wardell said. "I think that a lot of people would be surprised at what they are learning."
Jensen said people automatically assume her children are going to be socially "backward," but she added that a parent needs to do what is best for their family and not worry what other people think.
"It’s not about just sending your child off to school and hoping for the best," she said. "It really is about what will do the best for your child and help your child succeed."
Back in the Bitter family kitchen, 8-year-old Cilisia said she would like to know what it's like to go to school because all but two of her friends go there. Her mother says Cilisia hears from her older brothers about recess and class parties on Halloween and Christmas and has come to believe that is what public school is.
"My boys, they don’t want to go to school," she said. "They don’t want to ever go back because they get more free time when they're home. They get more play time and they don’t have to do homework after they’re done with school."
Bitter, a former public school teacher herself, said the subject of home schooling is a touchy subject in her family, which includes several public school educators.
She said teaching is "in my DNA," and she is asked every year whether she intends to send her children back to school.
"My family is still highly concerned that my children won’t be as educated as everyone else," she said.
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