Homeschooling, City-Style

Why more and more city parents are teaching their kids themselves.

Homeschooler Ocean, 5, of Cobble Hill, playing with his 2-year-old sister, Billie. “When school was created, it prepared people for the industrial revolution or factory jobs,” says mom Oona Hart, who shares homeschooling duties with her husband, Danny Timmins. “It’s limiting.”

It’s 1:15 on a Monday afternoon, and two dozen kids, mostly girls in brightly colored leggings, are in the gymnastics studio at Asphalt Green on 90th Street and York Avenue, doing what kids in gymnastics classes do. They’re stretching against a wall, palms pressed flat, arms overhead. They’re jumping and fidgeting on a puffy mat as an instructor demonstrates tumbling moves. Up in the balcony, meanwhile, their moms are in semi-distracted kid-tending mode. With one eye, they’re observing their blossoming Gabby Douglases, while with the other they’re reading their iPads, chatting with one another, keeping track of smaller children—or all of the above.

The scene is totally normal, except for one thing. It’s a weekday. At lunch time. Aren’t these kids supposed to be in school?

They are in school, sort of. These are homeschoolers. They can take gymnastics in the middle of the day because they don’t leave their houses each morning, laden with backpacks and lunch, to spend six hours in classrooms down the block or in a different borough at what their parents call “regular school.” Their mothers (and a few of their fathers) are their teachers and their principals, their recess monitors and their librarians, having taken over from New York City (or Dalton, or Sacred Heart) the responsibility for their children’s education.

The term homeschool used to evoke images of conservative Christians in the rural districts of western and southern states, who, in protest against secular education and the eroding morals of the nation’s youth, took matters into their own hands. The earliest homeschooling resources—the curricula and the online networks and message boards—were developed by Christian activists. The Internet was a boon for these parents, whose interests were aligned but who often lived hundreds of miles apart. “Do we want our children to be like the ultraliberal teachers that they have in public school,” asked the vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2002, “or do we want them to be like their Christian parents?”

But in recent years, as the number of children being homeschooled has exploded from 1.1 million in 2003 to 1.5 million in 2007 (or nearly 3 percent of the school-age population), according to the U.S. Department of Education, so has the number of homeschoolers in American cities spiked. According to the department’s most recent data, some 320,000 kids are being homeschooled in apartments and walk-ups, in brownstones and housing projects nationwide. There are homeschooling support groups providing resources, classes, and curriculum help. In New York City last year, 2,766 children were being homeschooled, up from 2,550 in 20010–11. (And that’s a low estimate, according to New York homeschool advocates, because it doesn’t include preschoolers or teenagers over 17.)

Urbanites cite many reasons for choosing homeschooling, but religion is rarely one of them. Laurie Spigel, who runs the website Home School NYC, estimates that “maybe one percent or less” of New York homeschool families are religiously motivated. “You can only generalize about homeschoolers as much as you can generalize about New Yorkers,” says Spigel. Mostly, though, New York City homeschoolers are “educated, middle-class people,” she says, who don’t like what’s on offer from the Department of Ed and can’t afford or don’t want to pay private-school tuition. In this way, New Yorkers who homeschool reflect the homeschool population at large: The greatest proportion of homeschool parents in the United States earn between $50,000 and $75,000 a year and have a bachelor’s degree or more.

Why Teach at Home?

Urban homeschoolers frequently cite the homogenization of public education as the reason they chose to take over their kids’ schooling. With federal and state education policy placing ever-greater emphasis on core standards and standardized tests, many parents want to give their kids something more creative, flexible, and engaging than a school day they see as factory-made. The one-size-fits-all model is especially unappealing to parents of children who are “special” in some way: unevenly intelligent, intensely shy, immature, or in need of a flexible schedule to accommodate their professional acting or dancing or musical careers. In New York, even parents in the best districts complain about overcrowding and about teachers, who, however motivated and skilled, have their hands full managing the unruly few who can reign in some classrooms. Then there are the problems that come with all traditional schools: the bullying, the playground politics, and the escalating gadget and fashion arms races. According to the DOE, nearly 88 percent of U.S. homeschool parents express concern about the school environment, citing drugs, negative peer pressure, and general safety.

Kristin Sposito was one of the moms at the Monday-afternoon gymnastics class. She and her husband, Brett, decided to homeschool when their daughter, Maya, was 5. The Spositos, who lived in Portland, Oregon, at the time, looked around at their friends’ children who were going off to school. The school day seemed very long for children so young, Kristin thought. And the kids who did go to school came home “with bad attitudes right off the bat,” she says. The children were mouthy; family relationships grew strained; the joy of family life was somehow lost; and the children were none the better for it. “It’s not like they were away all day and then came home and were brilliant. And I thought, You know what? This is a waste of time. I could do it better myself.” The family moved to New York City five years ago. Maya is now 12. Neither she nor her two brothers, Jonah, 9, and Simon, 4, has ever been to school, and Sposito is happy with her choice. “It’s like a big secret, like we’re getting away with something,” she says.