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.