Home is where the school is
The neat, tan house doesn't stand out from others on its tidy Troutdale street, but within its walls there's a whole lot of learning going on.
Jackson, Ava and Jason Lawrence are three of hundreds of East Multnomah County students who are home schooled. Jackson likes the flexibility of learning at home.
"We can do our work when we want to," the reedy 11-year-old said.
He has lots of company. The number of home-schooled children reached 1.8 million in the U.S. in 2012, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. That's an increase from 1.7 percent of all students in 1999 to 3.4 percent of students in 2012. Some experts estimate that the proportion is higher now.
In Multnomah County, 2,309 students were home schooled in 2015-16, up from the 2,212 in the 2014-15 school year and 2,102 in the prior year. Most, 83 percent, of home-schooled students were white, and 89 percent were living above the poverty line.
There are many reasons people shun traditional schools to teach their children at home. In a survey concern about the "environment" of public schools was the most common reason families cited for home schooling. That apprehension includes worry about school safety, drugs and negative peer pressure, according to a survey by The National Center for Education Statistics
The next most cited reasons were "a desire to provide moral instruction" and "dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools."
Rachel Bjorklund, also from Troutdale, was not happy with the education she received in public school and wanted a more rigorous and classical education for her four children.
"When I went to high school in Orange County (Calif.), 'recycle' was a vocabulary word in the 12th grade. You should know that word by then," Bjorklund said, shaking her head.
As a college freshman she was a volunteer writing tutor at Fullerton College, a community college in California, and was dismayed at the poor spelling, grammar and writing skills she saw.
"How did these kids graduate from high school? I didn't want my kids to fall through the cracks like that," she said.
Nicole Lawrence and her husband, Matt, were home schooled and she felt that also was the right choice for her family.
"We both had really close relationships with our siblings and parents. It just felt like a natural fit for us," she said.
There are as many approaches to home schooling as there are families who home-school.
Some stick to fairly rigid schedules while some are more relaxed. The Bjorklund students have a daily "task list" posted on the refrigerator that can be completed at their own speed. The Bjorklunds — Eva, 12, Amanda, 10, Bethany, 8 — work for varying amounts of time. Three-year-old Cassie doesn't have formal school yet, but hangs around as her siblings work. Eva generally does one hour for each of her six subjects, and the younger kids a bit less.
"When you don't have to do 30 kids, it can be done much more quickly," Rachel Bjorklund said.
Lawerence tries to plan the whole school year "with flexibility. Some moms plan by the week or month, some not at all."
Home-school families also love the latitude it affords. The Lawrence family took advantage of dad Matt's sabbatical by taking an extended trip to the Redwoods in Northern California. They started school a month late, but exploited the educational opportunities of the Redwoods trip.
Home-schooling families get books and courses of study from all sorts of places. Lawrence has tried various options and uses a Christian-Infused curriculum called abeka, primarily for reading. For math, she uses materials called Saxon from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Bjorklund mostly uses "Classical Conversations," a national group that provides materials and plans for home-schooling families.
She likes the traditional focus. Her children learn parts of speech and actually diagram sentences. There is more memorization than in today's public schools, and much of it is done with the facts set to songs.
"I can expand or personalize to my kids' learning style (with materials) from the internet," Bjorklund said.
Students using the Classical Conversations system meet once a week at a local church and recently took part in a science fair. When they hit eighth grade, students in the system engage in mock trials.
There are different home-schooling co-ops in the area that allow families to come together for classes, art sessions, field trips, sports, music and other activities. Other families tailor programs for their students using different home-schooling courses and catalogs, library and bookstore materials, and of course the internet. The World Wide Web offers hundreds of educational websites that are a treasure trove for stay-at-home students.
Home-school families also visit area educational attractions such as the Oregon Zoo, Philip Foster Farms, Portland Children's Museum and Fort Vancouver.
"We take advantage of the OMSI science labs," Lawrence said. "Last week we were in one lab for over an hour."
Her children also go to Mad Science classes offered through Troutdale's community services.
It's perfectly legal to home school in Oregon and teacher-parents, overwhelmingly mothers, need no special training. But families must register kids with their county Education Service District.
Home-schooled students are also required to take the same Oregon standardized tests as public school students before the end of grades three, five, eight and 10.
The National Home Education Research Institute reports that children educated at home typically score 15 to 30 percent higher than public school students on standardized academic achievement tests.
The big rap against home schooling is that the children are isolated and don't have an opportunity to make friends, learn how to get along with others and take turns. But the home-school parents work hard to give their children opportunities to be around and work with other kids.
"I have no worries about socialization," said Bjorklund, flatly. "We've done swim lessons, piano lessons, friends have done gymnastics."
Her girls also participate in American Heritage Girls, a scouting-type program infused with Christian values.
Jack Lawrence is in Boy Scouts. Bundle-of-energy Jason plays soccer, and Ava is in American Heritage Girls.
Home-schooled students can generally participate in athletics, band and other activities in their school district, if they choose. They sometimes can take high school science and lab classes that are more challenging to do at home.
Home-schoolers can also tap into public schools for special services. Ava Lawrence is sight, hearing and speech impaired. She gets services such as Braille and mobility training at Troutdale Elementary School.
"The school is wonderful. I've been very impressed how supportive they've been," Nicole Lawrence said.
The families find few downsides to home-schooling. Lawrence admits that "it's hard work and not for the faint of heart." She confesses that she is a bit envious when the school buses cart neighborhood students off and their moms can meet for coffee or get chores done.
But her daughter Ava and satisfied home-school student declared, "There's no downside."
Interested in learning more?
The Multnomah Education Service District has a wealth of information on home schooling on its website. Visit: mesd.k12.or.us/Page/67. There are links to other resources and explanations of the laws and requirements for home schooling.
Another East Multnomah County co-op, called Firmly Planted can be found at fchm.org/fchm/locations/us/or/eastgresham/.
OCEANetwork.org is also a great resource for parents who want to learn more about the laws regarding home schooling in Oregon, finding local support groups, etc.