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Homeschooling Grows Quickly in Prince William

Thanks in part to county policies, homeschooling has gone from a fringe movement to a thriving alternative that exists symbiotically with the county public school system.

Twenty years ago, a family who chose to homeschool their children might have been labeled “hippies" for bucking the traditional public school system. Today, there is a strong undercurrent of support for the homeschooling movement flowing through Prince William County. Homeschooling, once seen as a small, alternative culture, is now growing strong.

Occoquan District School Board member Grant Lattin said he first encountered concerns among homeschooling parents in 2004 while going door-to-door meeting constituents while campaigning. He said there was “a frustration amongst homeschoolers that the Prince William County Schools were not as helpful as they could be.” 

Lattin and fellow board members decided that they needed to see what they could do to make homeschoolers as welcome within the PWCS as anybody else.

“We asked the superintendent to ensure that this was not a confrontational process, that people were welcome to come in and register,” Lattin said.

In June 2005, the county passed homeschooling legislation removing the “approval before removal” requirement which often made it difficult for families transitioning into homeschooling to remain compliant with the law. The revised legislation provided the time needed for families to make the decision to homeschool and file the appropriate documents without feeling pressured by the school district. 

In addition to more user-friendly procedures and an improvement in attitude, Lattin said that Prince William County and other Northern Virginia school districts led the way in the Commonwealth with another major policy change regarding home instruction.  

“We allowed homeschoolers to take classes in the public schools on a space available basis, and that was very well received by homeschooler students and parents," Lattin said.

Since the change, Lattin said he hasn’t had a single complaint from a homeschooling parent in his district.

In Prince William County, the number of students registered for homeschool instruction has increased by 9 percent in the past two years whereas the county’s overall student population has only grown by 3 percent, and the rise is expected to continue. For comparison's sake, the Department of Education has estimated that the national homeschool population has grown at the rate of 8.3 percent per year over the past four years.

According to the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), there's reason to believe that we would expect to see a surge in the number of children being homeschooled over the next ten years, as "those individuals who were being home educated in the 1990s may begin to home school their own school-age children."

The NHERI research found that most families decide to homeschool for multiple reasons, including: to customize learning environments and curriculum for their child, provide structured social interactions with peers, provide a safer environment because of exposure to violence, drugs and alcohol, mental abuse, and "improper and unhealthy sexuality associated with institutional schools," and teach a particular set of values and beliefs.

“[Homeschoolers] tell us, 'Don’t try to lump homeschoolers in a single group. We all have different reasons for doing what we do,'" Lattin said.

For homeschooling mom of six, Amanda Mattson, homeschooling met two needs for her family. It offered a learning environment where her son, diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, could thrive without the use of medication, and it provided a Catholic education for her children without the hefty price tag associated with parochial school.

Missie Gautsch, mom of three, has homeschooled her children from the very beginning.

“It was a combination of a lot of things: moving around a lot as military, the idea of sending our six-year-old to full day school was not appealing, and our oldest could read fluently before she entered kindergarten. I was worried she would go to kindergarten and be bored or be a pest because the things they taught, she already knew,” Gautsch said.

Making the decision to homeschool may be the most difficult part of the process.

“As a mom, you’re already worried that you’re doing the best you can for your children, and you’re going to add their academic career on top of your responsibilities; it can be really stressful,” Gautsch said.

To help prepare for homeschooling, Gautsch recommends visiting other homeschooling families and researching the different approaches and support organizations.

Because the reasons for homeschooling are so varied, so are the organizations that support those needs. The community support for homeschooling families is vast. A good place to find contacts within your community is through the website for The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers, an association for homeschoolers that provides resources such as updates on legislature, advice from fellow parents, and provides connections with homeschooling support groups in local communities, as well as a forum for relevant issues.  

The website provides a guide for homeschooling your child, which outlines the steps to create a learning environment in your home, as well as finding support in your community and filing the proper documentation with your school district.

The Code of Virginia requires a parent to file a notice of intent to provide home instruction for their child no later than Aug. 15 prior to the start of the school year. Each county outlines its specific procedures and point of contact within their school district on their websites.

Fairfax County Schools
Loudoun County Schools
Prince William County Schools
Stafford County Schools

“You don’t need to provide a reason [for withdrawing your child],” Mattson said. “It’s not asking permission to homeschool. It is letting them know that you are homeschooling.”

Homeschooling may never be mainstream, but it has outgrown its early stages as a fringe movement. 

“I think there’s always going to be a stigma with something that is countercultural, but now there are enough people that know somebody who homeschools or has been homeschooled," Mattson said. “People are recognizing it as a valid choice for education for their children.”

This is the first part of a new series on homeschooling in Prince William County, with a focus on the Lake Ridge-Occoquan area.

Stephanie Dupal-Demartin August 03, 2011 at 07:29 PM
Great article, Keri!
Amy Wilson August 03, 2011 at 07:58 PM
I am so pleased with the positive attitude towards homeschooling families in Prince William County. Homeschoolers themselves worked to get the school division to end its "approval before removal" policy, mentioned in the article. We formed a grassroots coalition and spent months in meetings and speaking to the school board members to end that policy, which was actually contrary to state law, which already allowed families to begin homeschooling at any point in the school year without receiving prior approval. While I think that the school board's recognition that this policy had to be changed, and the adoption of a part-time enrollment policy, are both important steps, I don't think these laudable changes are the reason more families are homeschooling in the county. Concerns about the nationwide focus on testing in public schools, a desire for a family-centered lifestyle, and the advantages of customized educational approaches for each individual child are some of the primary reasons families choose homeschooling. Kudos to Prince William County for the positive relationship it now has with the homeschooling community.
Rachel Leon (Editor) August 03, 2011 at 08:21 PM
Amy, thanks for your comment! Since this is a series, we can address the grassroots efforts in a future article - would you mind if we contacted you for further comment?
Amy Wilson August 03, 2011 at 09:36 PM
Please do contact me, Rachel. I'd love to talk with you.
Rachel Leon (Editor) August 03, 2011 at 10:33 PM
As a note: the implication that growth stemmed from a change in county policies came from one of my edits to Keri's original article. The article has now been edited to reflect that, while the policies make homeschooling in the county easier, they have not necessarily fostered the growth of the homeschooling movement in PWC, since there are other factors at work. Thanks again for your comment!
Shay Seaborne August 03, 2011 at 10:58 PM
I was heavily involved with the grassroots coalition that drove the changes in PWCS policy to which Mr. Lattin refers. Yes, we did work very hard to resolve the "approval before removal" (I coined the term) issue. We also worked very hard to initiate partial enrollment- and wrote the draft policy that was adopted almost word for word. This included a great deal of time listening to board members' concerns, researching, revising, speaking at board meetings, and even posing something of a budgetary threat. PWCS policy had been punitive for 20 years, and is now a model for other jurisdictions in Virginia. This is due in part to the mindset of the school board, but the most credit rightly goes to the homeschool parents who were the driving force for positive change.
Grant Lattin August 03, 2011 at 11:56 PM
Shay is absolutely right and she was a terrific advocate for home schoolers.
Priscilla Martinez August 04, 2011 at 05:34 AM
Amy, my husband and I have worked with Rachel many times over the past few years. Rachel, I have personally known Amy and Shay for at least seven years and can say with confidence that they truly represent homeschoolers and our interests, as diverse as we are in so many ways. I look forward to y'all's collaboration. ~Priscilla Martinez, Loudoun County
Rachel Leon (Editor) August 04, 2011 at 10:07 AM
Good to hear from you, Priscilla!
Danielle Hollars August 04, 2011 at 11:06 AM
What a great article Keri! I am friends with Mrs. Mattson, and she was a great asset in helping me get started in homeschooling. I hope journalists continue to follow these wonderful stories and families, and to help debunk a lot of myths about homeschooling that I have had to fight even within my family. Danielle Hollars, Neabsco District
Shay Seaborne August 04, 2011 at 11:21 AM
Yes, as Danielle notes, homeschoolers spend a lot of time and energy debunking the myths about what we do, how we do it, why we do it, and how our kids turn out. Yes, we are official weirdos, but that's a good thing!
Rachel Leon (Editor) August 04, 2011 at 12:27 PM
I'm very familiar with these myths as a former homeschooled kid myself! :) That's why we felt that turning this topic into a series was so essential - there would simply be too much information and too many perspectives for one story.
Stephanie Dupal-Demartin August 04, 2011 at 12:52 PM
I know four women who homeschool their children. One, a good friend, has transformed a room in her house into a teaching area. It was eye-opening for me to "see" the homeschooling experience and not just hear about it. I hope that subsequent articles in this series will include photos of parents and children in their homeschooling environment.
Rachel Leon (Editor) August 04, 2011 at 01:52 PM
You can share your own homeschooling story here: http://patch.com/A-kMPS
Keri Goodfriend August 04, 2011 at 03:58 PM
Stephanie, That's what I'm up to today. The next part of the series will feature two local families who home school, and photos from a day in their lives.
Shay Seaborne August 05, 2011 at 01:26 AM
I am certain that a major contributing factor to the rise in homeschooling is the quality of the homeschool network/community. The Internet makes it a snap to find or initiate virtually any kind of group or activity that suits our children's needs. The local Homeschool Theatre Troupe is an excellent example. Ten or so years ago, it was an informal group that consisted of a few families, and met in one family's basement. One of the early shows was in the backyard, on a stage made of pallets with shower curtains strung between trees. Now it's affiliated with the Dale City Rec Center and performances are held at the Ferlazzo building auditorium and has become a signature part of the wider community.
Shay Seaborne August 05, 2011 at 11:01 AM
The story of PWCS's adoption of a model homeschool regulation is not complete without note that the key school board member was Gainesville District representative Don Richardson. He was always open to discussing issues with us, displayed a constant fair-mindedness, and it was his initiative that ultimately brought the majority of the board to vote in support of eliminating the "approval before removal" clause from the books. Writing about this brings back vivid memories of this quite interesting time and amazing turn of events. There is a great deal of back story and under story, which won't likely ever be told. I'll just say it was a much greater victory than meets the eye.
Don Richardson August 13, 2011 at 02:57 PM
Shay, thank you kindly for your mention of my involvement. It was a good example of what can be achieved when folks just listen and try to understand each others' perspectives on an issue. I came away with a much better appreciation of the sophistication and diversity of the home-school movement. I'm also proud of the partial-enrollment option we instituted - that was a statement that PWCS knows that we are all in the same business, and we should cooperate whenever we can. Best Regards!
Shay Seaborne August 13, 2011 at 09:00 PM
Don, we homeschoolers came away with a better understanding of PWCS, and especially, greater appreciation for the magnitude of service that the school board members provide the community. That PWCS took the initial partial-enrollment option a step further, including non-academics, shows that the board's core intent is to do the best thing for the children of our community. I wish we could instill your approach into other elected officials. :-)
Keri Goodfriend August 15, 2011 at 11:50 PM
After hearing back from the county's school system, it appears that homeschooling in Stafford County is growing as fast as Prince William County- a 9.5 percent growth over the past two years.

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