Once the alternative, home schooling could become mainstream
Two 9-year-olds played and chased each other around the Commons Park Playground in Royal Palm Beach on a recent Friday morning.
“The problem is, every day is pajama day,” Nathaniel Trzasko said.
“Oh yeah!” replied his friend Matthew Gilbert. “You could just spend all day in your pajamas, unless you go out.”
In this case, they were outside, and it wasn’t “Pajama Day” – it was “Park Day” for the Palm Beach County Homeschoolers Cooperative.
Nathaniel, who goes by the name Owl, has always been homeschooled. His parents chose this educational alternative for him long before the COVID-19 pandemic gave many families a taste of what it could be like to learn from anywhere – at home, at the park. , even in the intracoastal.
“Sailing lessons at the Palm Beach Sailing Club, jiu-jitsu, soccer and basketball,” Owl’s mother, Cheryl Trzasko, said, listing the activities most easily suited to her son’s homeschooling schedule. “He doesn’t do well sitting for hours because he’s 9 years old and active.”
Trzasko has led the Palm Beach County Homeschoolers since 2009. During the pandemic, she also started a statewide Facebook group, “Homeschooling Florida Style.” It has grown to over 10,000 members.
According to a WLRN analysis of school district data, nearly 8,000 more students are homeschooled in South Florida now than before the COVID-19 pandemic. The change, which is also being reflected nationwide, means more flexibility for some families, but fewer students and resources for traditional public schools.
“Homeschooling, to steal a term from a friend of mine, is a space of freedom that many people have never experienced,” said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, an organization nonprofit based in Oregon.
This freedom is becoming increasingly attractive to parents. Ray said the number of homeschooled students across the country has grown from 2.5 million in 2019 to 3.7 million today.
“After experiencing some of the benefits of home schooling, many parents – not all – said, ‘We like it. It’s good for our children. It’s good for our family,” Ray said.
School districts are funded based on enrollment, so when students leave traditional public schools, schools lose money. This means fewer resources for the remaining students. Representatives from South Florida’s four school districts — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties — would not accept interviews about how the growth of homeschooling has affected their scores.
Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, worries about the tax impact. Declining public school enrollment threatens teachers’ salaries as well as staff positions like teaching assistants, counselors and cafeteria workers, she said. Also at stake are choices such as music, foreign languages and the culinary arts.
“If the funding isn’t there, it affects every little bit in the schools and in the school district,” she said.
In September 2021, she said she joined other Broward teachers going door-to-door in an attempt to persuade parents who had left the district to send their children away.
“We wanted them to know it was safe to come back,” she said.
‘It’s so free’: Why families choose homeschooling
Hope Walsh joined the Palm Beach County Homeschoolers group last year. She started homeschooling her first-grader in part because of how public schools were handling COVID-19.
“Removing mask mandates made me and my husband very uncomfortable,” she said. “My husband was actually a school teacher and he also stopped teaching due to the pandemic, among other reasons.”
The group ensures that children experience many things they would do in a traditional school, such as a science fair, geography fair, talent show and yearbook. And, of course, “park days” like the recent one at Royal Palm Beach offer a chance to socialize and make friends.
“I think it’s so free and you can do whatever you want,” said Matthew Gilbert, one of the 9-year-olds, who said he’s become “great friends” with Nathaniel Trzasko through the group.
“You can just relax and go to school, and you just take your time,” Matthew said. “My parents give me the books and I learn on my own.”
“Obviously when he needs help we step in,” added his mother, Idania Gilbert, “but he’s usually good enough on his own.”
Nathaniel’s mother, Cheryl Trzasko, who leads the group, also started a statewide Facebook group called Homeschooling in Florida during the pandemic – and it grew to nearly 10,000 people. She shares information about homeschooling rules, paperwork and the curriculum.
“Homeschooling is a very individualized thing,” Trzasko said. “Some people go out and buy books and use them to teach their kids. Some people find programs online. Some people get together with other families and join forces and swap who teaches or maybe even hires a teacher.”
In Florida, homeschooling is loosely regulated. There are no education or certification requirements for teachers, no list of required subjects, and no set schedule or required number of hours that students must devote to learning .
Students must be assessed by a certified teacher each year, either by taking a standardized test or by submitting a portfolio for review.
COVID-19 isn’t the only reason parents are leaving public schools
John Edelson has seen homeschooling grow in popularity not just over the past two years, but over the past two decades. He founded the Time4Learning online homeschooling program in Fort Lauderdale in 2004.
“Nowadays, everyone knows about homeschoolers. It’s no longer dishonest. You are no longer a pirate. It’s a common thing. Shit, it’s really trendy now to homeschool,” Edelson said.
This trend is mirrored across the country and in South Florida. In Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, nearly 8,000 students transitioned to homeschooling during the pandemic and did not return to traditional schools, according to public records obtained and analyzed by WLRN. .
Homeschoolers now make up between 3 and 4 percent of the total student population in Broward and Palm Beach counties. In Miami-Dade, homeschooling was less than 1%, and now it’s closer to 2%.
While these percentages may seem low, they represent a significant number of students, as South Florida is home to some of the largest school districts in the country. In total, there are now more than 22,000 home-schooled students in the three largest counties.
In the Florida Keys, a much smaller district with unique geographic challenges, homeschoolers now make up more than 6% of all students. The number of at-home learners in Monroe County has doubled since the pandemic began.
“The demographics of homeschoolers today are very similar to the demographics of the country,” Edelson said. “It’s urban. It’s suburban and it’s rural…African Americans and Hispanics are now homeschooling in proportional numbers.”
Nearly 200,000 students are now enrolled in Edelson’s online homeschooling program, and he says the pandemic is just one of many reasons parents are leaving public schools in droves. Others include changes in vaccine requirements and concerns about high-stakes testing.
“It’s often regrettable and I don’t really like to quote it. But the school violence, of course, scared a lot of parents,” he said. home.”
Homeschooling doesn’t have to be forever
Melissa Limonte’s fifth-grade student, Ellie, is enrolled in Edelson’s online homeschooling program for math, language arts, social studies and science. It costs around $25 per month.
The program keeps track of their grades and files documents with public schools in Broward County, the district where they live.
Her son, Kaleb, is in eighth grade and enrolled in Florida Virtual School. Virtual school enrollment has also increased steadily across the state since the pandemic.
The Limontes moved from Virginia to South Florida about a year ago, and they have lived in RV parks in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
“We live in an RV,” she said. “We homeschool because I can’t find an area where I agree with the school system and the cost of housing. So we do it our way.”
She says physical education class the Limonte way is “hiking, biking, boating, or paddleboarding.”
“We can paddle up the Oleta River or cross the Okeechobee by boat,” she said.
Kaleb Limonte likes to be able to go out whenever he wants.
“You can take a break very quickly, go for a run and come back with a fresh mind,” he said, “and the mission is much easier and less stressful.”
The Limontes move around a lot, so it’s hard for the kids to make new friends. Ellie, 10, said she would like to go back to a mainstream public school eventually, so she can see her friends more. Kaleb said he wanted to try high school.
“I might even stay there until graduation,” he said. “But until then, I’ll be homeschooling.”
WLRN News Editor Jessica Bakeman contributed reporting for this story.
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