Learning in the Living Room

06/11/2008 12:00 AM |

Ten-year-old Sarah Grace Lehmann wakes each morning around 8am to the sound of her older sister Rachel stirring in their shared room. “I have that delicious feeling of being awake, but being allowed to stay in bed,” she says.

An hour later, she descends the ladder from her loft bed and makes her way into the kitchen for morning chores and breakfast. The kitchen is as far as Sarah Grace, S.G. as her family sometimes calls her, will trek in the morning — she is one of New York City’s 3,654 homeschooled children.

“I went to school once,” she says, “just to pick up a friend, and I was like, ‘Wow. This is different. People come here to do what I do in the living room.’”

S.G.’s living room serves as the central school area in the Lehmanns’ Morningside Heights apartment. But S.G. and her three siblings (ages three, seven and 13) can be found at various times throughout the school day at the park, running errands, picking up fresh food from a greenmarket, at a museum with friends, in their respective rooms working on projects or studying with a tutor. On Wednesday morning, for example, all four kids attend classes in art, cake-decorating, chess, Spanish, creative writing and science at a homeschooling co-op, facilitated by a group of Upper West Side homeschooling parents.

S.G. lifts her lively blue eyes up from the pages of The Phantom Tollbooth, adjusts her glasses and says, “I love reading. It’s my ultimate thing. I can’t stress that enough.”

S.G.’s reading habits are, indeed, voracious. In just two weeks she read all seven hefty Harry Potter books on a dare from her sister. That’s more than 4,000 pages in 14 days — nearly 300 pages a day.

S.G., who has a large, outgoing personality and is prone to random outbursts of Broadway showtunes or quotations from whatever she’s  reading at the moment, loves homeschooling. At times, she says her mom jokes about sending her to school. “I have nightmares about it.” S.G. loves homeschooling because she gets to see her dad more than she would if she went to school, there’s more flexibility (“you can go on vacation in the middle of the year!”), she’s able to ask her mom questions when she needs help, she can move at her own pace and — what almost every homeschooler will tell you — she’s able to take breaks when she needs them.

Like most kids, S.G. thinks about what she’d like to be when she grows up. She’d like to open a bookstore in her neighborhood, “with a green awning and a red door, filled with only books that I’ve read so that I can recommend them to people.” She’d also like to go to college for marine biology, and she’d like to become a spy — “but no one’s supposed to know that.”

At one point, when S.G. was six or seven, she saw a movie about Christian missionaries in China and resolved to go there as a missionary one day. So, like any average seven-year-old, she began teaching herself Chinese. “My dad bought me computer games in Chinese and I would talk to waiters saying, ‘the food was good, thank you, goodbye’ stuff like that.” Eventually S.G. began more formal lessons.

Sarah Grace and her three siblings are representative in many ways of NYC homeschoolers. In New York, the stereotypical image of a homeschooler as the kid who can’t make birthday party conversation but will recite the titles of Shakespeare’s plays in alphabetical order is replaced by mature, cultured, politically aware kids for whom authority issues seem to be non-existent. Most importantly, with knowledge of and a say in their curriculum, their schedule and their pace, learning is a process that’s empowering and inclusive — a process that doesn’t end with the afternoon bell.

“I’ve never trusted the school system to educate my kids,” says T.C. Neimann, a public high school teacher in the South Bronx who, on sabbatical this year, is homeschooling his two daughters, Sylvia, 9, and Chloe, 8. His wife also teaches public school in East Harlem, but they decided to pull the girls out this year at their request. T.C. notes he’s yet to meet another homeschooling dad and says that his time at home with the girls has informed him as a teacher invaluably. “People ask what I do with the girls for classes, and that’s the beautiful thing — I’m not tied to that Samuel Taylor public school model that was originally designed to produce effective factory workers who can stay in line and respond to bells. At school they spend an inordinate amount of time getting kids to stay in line. That says nothing about learning. The other day the girls created a dance in the magnolia trees and incorporated the fallen petals. We have lots of lovely moments like that. To me that is learning.”

It all seems a little dreamy — self-motivated kids learning foreign languages, proficient in instruments, taking a vested interest in their own health and nutrition, with a knowledge of current events, dancing under trees… If you cup your hand to your ear you can almost hear Tolstoy applauding from his grave. So why doesn’t everyone homeschool?

There are as many ideological justifications for keeping kids in school as there are for pulling them out, but, at the end of the day, many non-native New Yorkers come here to advance a career, not stay at home all day, and most New Yorkers need as much income as possible to afford the ever climbing cost of living. Even T.C. says that he is receiving 70% pay on his sabbatical and if the state continued to pay him to homeschool, he would in a heartbeat. And though there are creative ways for homeschoolers to pinch pennies — sharing curriculum materials, finding group rates at museums and movies — the majority are able to make such a life choice because they are in a position to sacrifice a great deal of income. A University of Maryland study shows that homeschool parents tend to have a higher than average income — 1.4 times more, by their estimate.

Perhaps the most widely known reason that parents choose to homeschool their children is a conservative Christian fear of secular, science-based education, but you would be hard pressed to find such reasoning among New York’s homeschooling parents. Even people of faith who homeschool seem to do so with a more nuanced critique of New York’s school system and a long-term view of their child’s development as an engaged world citizen. Faith, however, is still the biggest motivator for homeschooling. Christians constitute the largest group of homeschoolers, and the fastest growing group is, reportedly, Muslims.

The epic waiting lists, gargantuan costs and not-always-friendly competition for many of New York City’s private schools also deter parents — the tuition of some NYC private elementary schools is akin to that of many liberal arts colleges.

In Harlem, Karen Clemente, who homeschools her two kids, Elena, 10, and Alejandro, 7, who are never far from their beloved hamster Alfredo Frodo Clemente, says that she might not be homeschooling if she weren’t living in New York City. “I didn’t plan to homeschool… I’m very conventional in some ways — I liked school, I pictured myself on the PTA — but I had a kindergarten-aged kid and a two-year-old, and to get to a good school from where I lived, I would have had to commute more than two hours a day. I figured instead of lugging a kid in a stroller around all day I could teach Elena myself. And we’re not morning people.”

Karen also suggests that kids in New York City face serious life questions at young ages, and she likes being able to walk with her kids through their formative experiences, not entrusting them completely to someone else. She wanted to have a more active role in their learning, explaining, “I could send them to school and then debrief them through the lens of my belief system… or I could just teach them, which would take about the same time at that age.”

Like Karen, the majority of homeschooling parents are married mothers whose husbands work full time and teach a subject or two to their kids in the evening or on the weekends. Karen’s husband, Victor, originally from Puerto Rico, taught his kids Spanish on Saturday mornings for three years. He teaches history every night when he gets home from work, and also gives science seminars, like a recent three-week course on electro-magnetism.
As a homeschooling parent, Karen says she understands the oft-asked question, “Are your kids socially well-adjusted?” On first impression, her kids do tend to use more adult language than their peers simply because they spend more of their time in conversation with adults. But that doesn’t make them less social. She usually answers by saying that people should spend a couple of hours with the kids and decide for themselves. Karen says, as will most homeschooling parents in New York, that her kids have a full, healthy social life and maybe even spend more time with their friends than other kids who are drained after seven hours of sitting in school.
Maybe, she admits, they are less fluent in pop-culture speak: she recalls a time when Elena was visiting a friend who lived outside of the city and went to school. The friend wanted to watch Hannah Montana but Elena didn’t know what that was and wanted, instead, to stage a revolt against the parents and draft their own Declaration of Independence. “That can seem a bit dorky to people,” Karen says.

Meg, a six-year-old NYC homeschooler, however, seems in many ways like a typical little girl, pop culture speak and all — she loves Disney princesses and can rattle off plots and songs from cartoons, and adores jewelry and dress-up. Ask her about hobbies and she’ll tell you it’s “playing with dolls.” Typical, right? “Oh, and Jackson Pollock,” she says. “I love painting like Jackson Pollock because you can make a mess. I love learning about artists like Galileo and, you know, I think someone crumpled my favorite artist’s nose… his name is Leonardo.”

“I love that my kids don’t have an ageist peer group,” adds Monica Carson, another Morningside Heights mother who homeschools her two kids. “They mix with grownups and little kids and kids close to their own ages more easily. I also like that my daughter isn’t as hung up on what’s ‘in style’ in school. She kind of plays around, looks at other kids, musicians that she likes, etc. and tries to find a style for herself.”

But, for all its advantages, this is New York City, and most people, even people with hefty incomes, live, quite literally, on top of each other. Lack of space — the dining room doubling as schoolroom and maybe even recess room — is an issue for homeschooling families in New York. But most of NYC’s homeschooling parents are quick to espouse the joys of educating a child in a city where the best, brightest and most diverse are close at hand: museums, galleries, restaurants, theaters, cultural centers, businesses — places that get the kids out of the house and learning about the world, without having to bring home a permission slip.

In New York the Education Law requires that a child must “attend public school or elsewhere” — that elsewhere can in fact be the child’s living room as long as they are under instruction for 900 hours in a year and given “instruction at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to minors of like age or attainments at the public schools.” Families must submit a letter of intent, submit quarterly progress reports to the state, keep a record (at least a semblance of a record) of attendance and write a final year assessment with the last quarterly report that proves the children are on par with state requirements for learning. Parents do not have to be certified teachers to homeschool.

There are plenty of ways for homeschooling families to connect and share ideas — blogs, co-ops, chat groups, support groups, groups like New York Home Educators Association that plan activities for homeschoolers. But some still insist that there’s not enough socialization.

At most colleges and universities, admission processes are basically the same for homeschooled students and non-homeschooled students, according to an admissions representative I spoke with at Columbia University, where, for example, in addition to SATs, homeschoolers must take two extra College Board subject tests. But that’s the only difference.

Either way, the kids seem to enjoy it. Although S.G. does feel that if she went to school she might feel more accomplishment, because “there’s always more” for her to do as a homeschooler, but at school she would be able to finish all her work in one day. Danny, S.G.’s seven-year-old brother, who also loves being homeschooled because he gets to build things and see his mom a lot, says, “There would be one good thing about going to school — stirring up a little mischief. You know, you spit a spitball at the back of someone’s neck and everyone’s looking around saying ‘Who did it? Who did it?’ and you say ‘I don’t know, was it you?’”