Back-to-School 101: Home schooling continues to grow

Madie Feeney of Bethel is going to be junior. During the school year, her kitchen is her classroom.

“The first year was really rough. At first I didn’t want to be home-schooled. I thought I would miss going to school and seeing all my friends,” Madie said.

Several of her courses this year will be taken online. “For math I am going to be doing geometry. Science I am going to be doing the Cordon Bleu baking chemistry, so I am really excited for that,” she said.

Her younger brother, Gabriel, will be a seventh grader. He recently received his pre-algebra book in the mail, but chemistry experiments are what really peaks his interest. “Oil, salt and vinegar. The salt combined into little clumps and floated to the top,” he said, describing a recent experiment.

All three of the Feeney kids are home-schooled. “We can either choose to get up and do it and have the rest of the afternoon, or drag it out throughout the day,” Gabriel said.

And the learning is not confined to the house. Field trips to places like the Boston Museum of Science happen frequently.

“I just felt like the education system was failing my children,” said Dietre Feeney, the home-schooler’s mother.

The family made the decision to home school a few years ago. To do so she had to write up proposals for each child. Basic courses like P.E., math, science and history are required. Feeney admits it has not always been smooth sailing. “It was very hard to balance school and home life — separate it — and I felt like, oh my gosh, was I doing the right thing,” she said.

But she’s not going it alone. Act 119 — passed in 1998 — allows home-schooled students like the Feeneys to participate in public school classes if they choose.

The kids are also active in athletics and other after school activities associated with the traditional school environment.

“Robotics, scouts, and soccer and drama,” Feeney said. “They get a really good well-rounded education. But then I submit examples from all of that to the state.”

The checks and balances happens at the Vermont Education Agency offices in Montpelier. The home study program offers guidance for families navigating the system and makes sure a student is not falling through the cracks. “If we have concerns about the progress, we will spend time talking to the families,” said Karen Agnew, a consultant with the Home Study Office. There, file cabinets are filled with reports of thousands of home-schooled students across the state. The home study team makes sure yearly progress is being made and that adequate protections are in place.

Annually, they require one of the following: parent reports, onsite teacher visits, or standardized testing. “It is really a matter of trusting the parents to do what they say they will do,” Agnew said.

Home schooling is a growing trend in Vermont. In 1981 there were roughly 90 home-schooled students. Ten years later that number jumped to more than 800. In 2001, close to 2,000 Vermont students were home-schooled. Last school year there were more than 2,400 students. This year 2,500 kids will be home-schooled in the Green Mountains — more than 3 percent of all students statewide.

“I certainly don’t think it is the failure of either schools, whether they be public or private, or the students for that mater — being round pegs in square holes. There are great opportunities in the age we live in. The world gets smaller and smaller and some of those opportunities to learn don’t come out of a textbook,” said Andy Snyder with the Oversees Home Study Program.

The Feeney’s choose to submit progress reports at the end of each year. Madie, who was once against the idea, has come around. “Last year I wrote a 15 page paper on the Titanic, so I think I am doing pretty well,” she said.

And Jacob Feeney is already enrolled in a physics class at Vermont Technical College. “It’s a lot of freedom to take your time to learn something and apply it. It is very rewarding,” he said.

“I’ve enjoyed having my kids at home. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of home-schooling. I’ve enjoyed learning right along with them,” Dietre Feeney said.

A family right at home, when it comes to going back to school.

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