Left at home

Long a bastion of conservatives, Reno homeschooling now has an organization of liberal parents

Parent Jenna Hathaway Ewart teaches her children Arran, 8, and Alana, 6, at their home. Aladdin the cat looks on.

Parent Jenna Hathaway Ewart teaches her children Arran, 8, and Alana, 6, at their home. Aladdin the cat looks on.

Photo By David Robert

Liberal Home Schoolers in Nevadahttp://groups.msn.com/LiberalHomeSchoolersinNorthernNevada

Northern Nevada Home Schoolshttp://www.nnhs.org

September brings the sights and sounds of classrooms filled with children. But not all classrooms are schoolrooms. Some are kitchen tables. Some, family farms. Some, museums or planetariums—classrooms filled with homeschooled children.

While there is a stereotype of parents homeschooling their children in conservative, often Christian, homes, a different set of parents has now started its own local group. The Liberal Home Schoolers in Northern Nevada was founded by Reno resident Kassandra Kerns in March so group members could speak freely about their liberal political and religious views.

“During the election … things got really ugly,” Carol Sorensen said of the atmosphere in conservative homeschooling support groups that existed in Northern Nevada at the time. She’s a member of the liberal group. “If people expressed a view that wasn’t a conservative, pro-Bush view, they were really, really slammed. … That made a lot of liberals feel like you’re not necessarily safe in this company ‘cause you’re going to be personally attacked.”

Homeschooling groups sprung up throughout the country to provide support for parents who’ve opted out of the public school system. The homeschooling movement began to splinter noticeably in the 1980s among groups motivated by statements of faith (often Christian) and non-religious groups who often subscribed to humanism. These days, conservatives comprise the visible majority of homeschoolers.

“I’d say, overwhelmingly, homeschoolers I’ve met are conservative and religious,” Jim Poston said. He’s the chair of the Northern Nevada Home Schoolers, a “non-profit organization established to support and encourage homeschool parents in the Northern Nevada Region,” according to its Web site.

“We’re a neutral group,” Poston said, “but being neutral means that we can’t actually support folks on the minority side, on the liberal side. … I think it’s great that [the Liberal Home Schoolers] started the group, and I hope it’s more successful. … It’s pretty rare. I say, ‘More power to ’em.’ I wish them success.”

A member of one of the Christian-based homeschooling groups in Northern Nevada was concerned that liberals who joined Kerns’s group didn’t feel included.

“We don’t exclude anybody,” said Irene Rushing, vice chair of Home Educators of Faith. “We do have a Christian board. We’re Christian-led. … More power to whoever wants to homeschool. I don’t know of anybody who has felt excluded because they were liberal.”

State law allows parents to teach their children at home, a provision that parents of about 1,000 students in Washoe County took advantage of last school year. Washoe County School District communications director Steve Mulvenon says the district supports parents who opt out of the traditional educational system.

“We work with them closely to make sure they understand what sort of bureaucratic hoops you have jump through … and it’s pretty minimal,” he said. He explained that the district’s “only interest from a public-policy perspective is to make sure that the parent has a well-thought out plan. … [The advantage is] that a good parent that really believes in homeschooling and knows their child can tailor the instructional style and the material to the way their child learns. … That’s not impossible for a regular classroom teacher to do, but if you’ve got 25 or 30 kids, it’s a challenge to individualize your instruction.”

But there are challenges, also, for homeschoolers. Both Rushing and Poston said finances are a big concern. And Mulvenon listed a few other problems.

“It becomes more difficult for parents to deal with the more advanced topics that kids start running into in high school: foreign languages, calculus, chemistry, etcetera. Sometimes you hear the concern expressed among educators that children that are homeschooled miss out on all the other things that go along with school: socialization … how to convince others of your point of view, how to learn from others’ perspectives. Understand, you’re talking to a dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue supporter of public schools. I think one of the strengths of the public school system is … the melting pot or the stew that gets created when we bring kids of all economic backgrounds, all races, all points of view, all religions together in one environment to deal with common issues. That I think would be very difficult to create in a homeschooling environment.”

Others disagree with the value of the melting pot in the public school system. One of them is Dr. Jim Reed, a psychologist who helped Nevada homeschooling parents deal with the educational intricacies of moving their children between the home and the public school environments.

“We pretend in the public school setting that everybody’s included,” Reed said. “That’s a lie. … There are hundreds upon thousands of kids that are treated as outcasts within their own public school setting, simply because they’re different. Within the homeschool setting, at least they realize that they’re not totally different. There’s a whole group of other kids who are similar to them. … There’s this extreme desire on the part of parents to not let their children be victimized by behaviors within the public school setting. … [What bothers parents] is the possibility that their children are going to wind up being rejected, tormented, bullied, taught about drugs, raped.”

Whether their children learn appropriate socialization skills is an issue some homeschooling parents come across frequently. Heather Mayorga, a member of the liberal support group, described a typical situation.

At a party a few weeks ago, several people were discussing their 14-year-olds beginning high school. When asked where she was going to attend high school, Mayorga’s daughter said she is homeschooled. The group grew silent. “One of the ladies that was in the group [whispered to me], ‘She looks so normal,'” Mayorga recounted, “without even thinking that she’d said anything wrong.”

Homeschooling parents often mention other advantages they see to their educational preference, including flexibility to tailor schooling to match the children’s strengths, interests, learning styles. And no matter the advantages and disadvantages, homeschooling parents often rave about their choice.

“He did the learning,” Sorenson said. “I didn’t teach him…I see myself as a facilitator of his learning, which I think is an important difference. I don’t think people are a cup that you just pour learning into. If you’re active and engaged, you’re going to learn whether Mom is helping you or you’re alone at the library.”

To that, another member of the liberal group answered, “Amen, sister.”