On a late summer morning, when most 6-year-olds have returned to the classroom, Benjamin Yates knelt on a blue mat in the living room of his family's home in Webster Groves.
He was working on a human body puzzle with his mother and his 3-year-old brother, Nicholas. And he was clearly having a good time, which echoed in his response to the simple question: What do you like about learning at home?
“I get to choose what I learn about, so it's more fun.”
Benjamin is one of an estimated 29,000 Missouri students who learn at home. Families have a variety of reasons for making the choice, ranging from a concern about school environments to a dissatisfaction with academics to a desire to instill moral and religious training in their children.
But most parents can recall when and why they made the decision.
Tracy Yates recalled taking Benjamin to visit a pre-school, when he was 4 years old and already reading.
“He asked me why they only had half the alphabet on the wall,” she said. “And I explained to him that other kids were learning their letters, and he asked me why they were learning that way. And why they didn't know them yet. So I felt like I could do more for him at home.”
Two years later, she said she’s happy with how things have worked out. The puzzle scene is a pretty good example of how home schooling operates, she added: Let your child follow an individual path toward learning, instead of sticking to a typical school structure.
“He likes to learn very deeply,” she said of Benjamin, “and he also likes to go on what we call rabbit trails — we're talking about this, and there's another interest, and we look that up. And that doesn't fit into that structure.”
One other thing that home-schooling parents can agree on: The job isn’t easy.
Kama Brown admits there are times she really could use a break from teaching her daughters Elizabeth, 7, and Emma, 6, at home.
“There are definitely days that I would really like to watch reruns of 'Heroes' and eat chocolate,” she said, “and if I had my kids in school, I could certainly take the day off of work and do that without any pressure, but since they're just sitting there, what are we going to do, then every day has got to be some monumental, grand curriculum experience. That pressure can be sort of overwhelming sometimes.
“You have to make sure that you stay off your cell phone. You have to make sure that you don't get aggravated in traffic. You have to make sure that you're not eating like six Oreos in the middle of the day. Because you have your child staring at you.”
In terms of socialization, and learning to get along with others, Yates said Benjamin is doing just fine.
“I actually think that he gets a lot of really good socialization,” she said. “I'm not that concern that he learns how to raise his hand and wait in line for lunch. He gets line-waiting opportunity at the grocery store.”
And parents point to an upside from the constant closeness with their children. Ten-year-old Sage Filmore learns at home, and her mother wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I think the best part for me is that I don't ever have to be away from her,” Emily Filmore said. “I really enjoy being with her. I really treasure every moment.
“Being able to really guide her and watch everything that she learns really click for her, it's been beautiful.”
Except, she added, when she realizes that Sage isn’t always meeting and working with people as she would at school. As a serious ice skater, she has a close group of friends, but loneliness is a factor.
“When she makes friends,” she said, “we know that they're really good friendships. Watching her struggle with being lonely at times is the hardest part for me.”
Sage agreed, but still doesn’t want to go to the Parkway school near her home.
“One time,” she recalled, “when my doctor said you should go to school, I went under the piano bench and cried for two hours because I didn't want to go to school.”
What the law says about home schooling
According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, state law does not require home-schooling families to register with the state, and DESE has no role over regulating students who are taught at home. The state offers no money, curriculum or materials for home schooling.
Parents who home-school from the start don’t have to notify the state. Those who want to take their children out of public school should submit a letter of withdrawal.
The group Families for Home Education has a sample on its website, asking the child’s former district to provide copies of all of the student’s records and emphasizing that the district can no longer count the child in its records to receive public funding.
The state’s compulsory attendance law requires that children begin their education at age 7. No more than four children who are not in the same family may attend a home school together. Students must receive 1,000 hours of instruction a year, including 600 in the core subjects of language arts, math, science and social studies.
Families must document the schooling with a written plan book, a portfolio of samples of the child’s work and an evaluation of the child’s progress. DESE says no one checks the records unless there is a report of educational neglect to the state Department of Social Services. Last year, that department reported 84 substantiated cases of educational neglect statewide.
In lieu of a diploma from a public school, students can show they have completed high school course work by taking an equivalency test starting at age 16.
For families who are home schooling for religious reasons, the law says this:
“Nothing in this section shall require a private, parochial, parish or home school to include in its curriculum any concept, topic, or practice in conflict with the school's religious doctrines or to exclude from its curriculum any concept, topic, or practice consistent with the school's religious doctrines.”
Different ways to teach and learn
Whatever their reason, home-schooling parents say that freedom from school structure and government mandates gives them the opportunity to shape learning around their children’s interests.
For Benjamin Yates, that means a house geared for all kinds of learning – an electronic keyboard, a small trampoline, electronic snap circuits with diagrams to show how to make lights shine, an art table shaded by drapes that look like they’ve been visited by Jackson Pollock and a backyard where Benjamin can look after chickens and find different varieties of mushrooms. Upstairs, overstuffed bookshelves are around every corner.
Tracy Yates, who has a degree in special education and a master’s in clinical psychology, is still experimenting to get the right balance between self-direction and structure, to take advantage of Benjamin’s interests and his learning style but still make sure the basic subjects get covered and he’s at the grade level his age says he should be.
“Right now,” she said, “I know they are ahead of the game, so I'm fortunate with that. I don't have to worry. But to be honest, that's not even my concern. Just that he's wanting to learn every day, he's requesting to learn, and he's seeking out information. Then I know that we're OK.
“It's amazing what kids will learn when they're just given the space to do it, and the stuff to do it.”
But kids still are kids, and they like some subjects more than others. For 7-year-old Bugsy McRay, the stumbling block was math. But his mother, Judith McRay, came up with a solution.
“I took out a bag of M&Ms,” she said, “and he started counting it, and he started doing addition and subtraction with M&Ms. Stuff like that. He can't do that at school.”
And Kama Brown wants to make sure everyone understands that just because a family is home-schooling doesn’t mean they don’t take advantage of what the community has to offer, or get together in co-op fashion to share skills and interests.
“There's this sort of myth that home-schoolers just sit at home,” she said, “which is the absolute opposite of what happens. I mean we're almost never at home.
“We have three hours every morning that they do work, and yeah, they have to do it, just like every other kid. They have to do handwriting. They have to do math. They have to do history. They have to do English. They have to do grammar. But after that, we're out. We're out and about. So home schooling is not about being at home.”
For Sage Filmore, following rabbit trails has led to a deep interest in the Holocaust, civil rights and women's rights. When she watched the Democratic National Convention, her mother recalled, she was angered at learning that the Equal Rights Amendment had never passed.
"She's really getting a good grasp of what the world should look like," Emily Filmore said, "and she's being able to interpret what she's hearing at the same time. So I had a really good teacher moment, I think, of seeing everything kind of crystallize in her, and that was a beautiful home school moment for me."
Closer family bond, good academic preparation
How well does home schooling prepare students for college?
When he was growing up in Marthasville, Missouri, Joe Hainline and his three younger brothers were taught at home. He was named a National Merit semifinalist, then went on to get a degree in computer science at Truman State and an MBA at Washington University.
He said that learning at home helped him prepare for that academic career and his work life, where he is employed at the same firm as two of his brothers.
“I didn't even really know when I started that there was any real difference,” he said about learning at home instead of in a classroom with other children.
“I think everyone teaches their kids at home a little bit, when they're young, and that just sort of continued, so I never really thought about it as a kid. It was probably first or second grade before I noticed there was a real big difference. But I never didn't want to do it. It just always seemed like, this is what we do.”
Part of the advantage, Hainline said, was the fact that his parents moved a lot, often living in rural areas where he said school systems probably weren’t the best. “I think that home schooling was probably a better option than some of the options we had,” he said.
Building a closer bond with his family was a big plus, he added. And with the exception of sports and foreign language, he said, he was well prepared for college – academically and socially. Cliques weren’t a part of his life.
“Some of the kids in college that I met seemed to have had an unpleasant high school experience,” he recalled, “and I feel like I kind of just skipped past all that, for better or for worse.
“I just dove in in college and never really felt concerned with whether I would fit in or who I would be friends with. It just never occurred to me to worry about that.”
Now Hainline has four children of his own, two of school age. The family lives in Kirkwood, and the older children go to public school there. Why? His wife’s background as a public school teacher is one big reason, he said.
“Home schooling is one of those things where both parents need to be fully on board for doing it,” he said, “and my wife didn't really want to do it. But I wasn't really pushing strongly for home schooling. We really like the school they're in, and so I think it's a good choice, and my wife and I were both working, so it made a lot of sense.”
What other factors should parents consider when trying to decide whether home school is right for their children?
“Are you prepared to work really hard at it?” Hainline said. “Because even if it's just one kid, home schooling is a fair amount of work for the parents.
“The other thing -- Are you doing it for religious reasons, or for some other reason, to keep your kids sheltered a bit? Because if that was your reasoning, I would advise against it. I think that it's better to be able to expose your kids to more points of view and let them learn to reason for themselves and hear different arguments and different things in the world for themselves.”
For Clare Bolestra, who is in freshman year at Truman State after eight years of home school, then high school at Cor Jesu, the combination worked just fine. The structure of a real school took some getting used to, but academically she felt prepared.
What advice would she have for families about making the choice?
“Really take advantage of all of the freedom that you have,” Bolestra said. “Use resources in your own backyard. My family, we used the botanical gardens, all the different museums. Use those things as part of your learning, and make them as hands on as you possibly can.
“For the kid, I would say really dig into learning, and take charge of it yourself. Realize that you have this great opportunity to explore things that you want to explore.”
How long can it last?
One question lingers over most home-school situations: How long it will last? Parents generally reply: As long as it works, for the child and for the family. Brown put it this way:
“Out of all the questions I get as a home school parent, that's always one of them. How long is this going to continue? I honestly have no idea. I didn't think that I would ever be home schooling them. It wasn't in my plan.
“So how long it will continue I guess will be as long as it goes well. It's going well. They're learning. They say fascinating things. They're politce. They're friendly. Nobody is really having any hard time with it, so it's great.”
And, she added, home schooling won’t continue because she thinks it’s the only way a child can learn.
“I think tons of great minds come out of public school, come out of private school,” Brown said. “We certainly don't home school because we think that there's anything wrong with any other education system or choice that any other parent makes. It's certainly not that.”
When is the right time to put a child into regular school? That varies with each family, but Yates said she knows what she doesn’t want to do.
“My husband said let's put him in for junior high,” she said, “and I said don't you remember junior high?”
Brown said she’s not concerned about keeping up with her daughters’ academic needs.
“I think people don't give themselves enough credit,” she said. “You step up to the plate. It's just like learning anything else. You go to a job. It's new. You learn new things.
“If you home school your kids, yeah, you don't know everything there is about home schooling. I'm not a certified teacher, but I'm certainly academically inclined enough to know when something is a good source of knowledge and be able to pass that on in a presentable form to a child that I've raised.”
Emily Filmore said she will take her cues from her daughter.
“If Sage ever says to me, ‘Mom I'm done. I'm ready to go to school,’ or if it appears that we're having difficulty meeting our minds, then we'll consider other options,” she said.
Sage doesn’t think that day will come before the end of high school. Then, she added, it will be time for a change.
“My mom says I have to go live in a dorm room at college. I can't just stay home.”
Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger