Work & Family: When parents home-school kids while holding jobs
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In the quest for work-life balance, wearing three hats -- work, kids and personal life -- is enough for most parents.
A fast-growing group of parents is adding a fourth: home-schooling.
Amid expansion of home-schooling in general, the involvement of parents who are employed full time or almost full time is increasing even faster, researchers and home-schooling advocates say. This new group of employed home-schoolers often work for family businesses that offer flexibility. But an increasing number answer to independent employers and clients, juggling deadlines and corporate demands with book reports and math tests. For some, this means working split shifts and seven-day weeks on little sleep. But these parents say they also gain more time with their kids and more control over their education.
From 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day, Shari Smith, who works about 60 hours a week as an online-community moderator for the Web site iVillage.com, also home-schools her 11-year-old daughter Rebekah. Working side by side with Rebekah at adjacent desks in their Yorktown, Va., home, Ms. Smith takes 15- to 30-minute breaks from her job to explain concepts and answer questions. Each evening, she sets aside time to prepare her daughter's assignments for the next day.
Occasionally, Ms. Smith says, "all hell breaks loose" on her job because of co-workers' needs or breaking news, and she has to focus intensely on work. Then, she asks Rebekah to go on auto-pilot. "I'll say, 'You know what, why don't you work on that report?'" But most days, she enjoys extra time with her daughter. Her husband helps out when he can, but has a less-flexible career in the military.
Rebekah says she likes working side by side with her mother. Home-schooling, she says, "is pretty cool, because I can be in my pajamas in school."
About 1.9 million to 2.4 million children are home-schooled nationwide, estimates the National Home Education Research Institute, a Salem, Ore., nonprofit. In 2003, 1.1 million children were home-schooled, according to the federal government, the most recent government data available.
While parents traditionally have home-schooled their children for religious reasons, an increasing number have secular motivations, including concerns about peer pressure, security worries or other complaints about public schools such as a lack of individual attention, says Laura Derrick, Austin, Texas, president of the National Home Education Network, a nonprofit. Based on her own rough estimate, she says about 33 percent of home-schooled children are taught by parents who also work at paying jobs, up from about 25 percent five years ago.
Fitting a school course load into the work day isn't unrealistic, parents say. After subtracting commuting and nonacademic activities from kids' days, such as waiting in line, free periods and other down time, most parents can finish academic work in two to four hours, they say.
Among parents I interviewed, all had told their bosses or clients about their home-schooling; none met any objections -- although flexible work setups are crucial. Most admitted they worry sometimes about shortchanging either work or their kids' education, and many have to drop a day's lessons now and then for work. But all said they are confident that over the course of each year, their children get a good education. Several pointed to their kids' high scores on standardized tests. What suffers most, some say, is personal time.
The rising availability of packaged and online curricula ease the load (and also enable parents to handle subjects they don't know well). Students using the Robinson Curriculum, for example, a program popular among working parents for its emphasis on independent problem-solving, have doubled in five years to an estimated 60,000 students, says creator Art Robinson, of Cave Junction, Ore. Growth in organized classes for home-schooled kids, offered by museums, libraries or community organizations, is also a help.
Still, working and home-schooling is insanely difficult sometimes. Single mother Amy Garber, Mechanicsville, Va., works full time as a compliance specialist for a financial-services concern. When she has to go to her employer's office in the mornings, a sitter cares for her two children, 9 and 2. At home in the afternoons, Ms. Garber focuses on learning time with her 9-year-old son. Then after the kids have gone to bed, she goes back to work in her home office from 7:30 p.m. to midnight. She says she routinely works weekends to get all her work done.
It is easier when mothers and fathers share the load. Lisa Wood -- mother of two, freelance writer and home-schooler -- splits teaching duties with her husband, who owns a saddle-fitting business. He teaches science and history; she teaches English and math. Ms. Wood gets up as early as 4 a.m. to meet daily professional deadlines.
"Some people say, 'Wow, you've taken on a lot,'" says Ms. Wood, who lives in Esmont, Va. "But then I watch people whose kids go to school, and that's a lot too -- hustling to get them out early to the bus, dealing with issues with the school." She adds, "Either way, educating a child is demanding."
Some resources for home-schoolers:
www.nhen.org The National Home Education Network offers resources and message boards.
http://nces.ed.gov Site for the National Center for Education Statistics; search "homeschooling" for government statistics.
www.nheri.org The National Home Education Research Institute has statistics, background and links to an academic journal.
www.hslda.org Site for the Home School Legal Defense Association offers legal information.
First Published September 14, 2006 12:00 am