Home schools don’t fit stereotype
Spencer Kolssak, 16, and brothers Logan (left), 12, and Nathanael, 8, are home-schooled by their mom Hillary at their home in Winnetka on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2012. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 13, 2012 3:12PM
NORTHBROOK — While many home-schoolers are cruelly stereotyped as the unsocialized products of ultra-religious households, there are many reasons parents choose the alternative to public and parochial education.
When the National Center for Education Statistics asked their reasons for home-schooling, 36 percent of parents said the primary reason was to provide religious or moral instruction. Yet, another 21 percent were concerned about the school environment, and 17 percent were dissatisfied with the academic instruction in their local schools.
Joan Matthews, a Northbrook mother of three, began home schooling her now 24-year-old son, James Williams, after realizing that the public school system couldn’t meet his needs.
“He is a high functioning autistic, and there wasn’t a lot of awareness about his problems at the time,” Matthews said. “He was seen as having behavioral rather than sensory problems, and was treated accordingly. He started deteriorating.”
Since then, James has written two books about his condition and travels the country educating others about his challenges.
Joan had so much success with James that when her elder daughter, Lauren Williams, now 20, wanted to spend more time on music, she began home schooling her, too. Lauren, who was named a Presidential Scholar, is now studying the oboe at The Juilliard School of music.
Impressed by results
Likewise, when her younger daughter, Julia Williams, 10, wanted more time to study art, Matthews’ home school gained another pupil.
Hillary and Louis Kolssak III, of Winnetka, made the home school decision after being impressed by their friends’ home-schooled son.
“He was very polite and had a very mature outlook on life,” Louis said.
Since then, they have home-schooled their four boys: Duncan, 18; Spencer, 16; Logan, 12; and Nathanael, 8.
Hillary uses a home school curriculum with reading material and work sheets to educate the boys.
With Duncan just graduating from high school and spending a “gap year” in Texas to study emergency response training before considering college, the Kolssaks said they don’t know yet if home schooling has helped him find his calling.
“But the real question is not ‘Has home schooling prepared him for college?’ It’s ‘Has it prepared him for life?’” Louis said.
Hillary noted that she also uses cooperatives and support groups to learn how to home school, as well as consulting other home schooling parents. However, there aren’t a lot of moms on the North Shore who are home-schooling, so she has to go to Evanston, Skokie, Arlington Heights, and Barrington, to network.
Spencer, who has been home-schooled since second grade, is studying chemistry, advanced placement world history and literature, as well as the Bible, and participates in speech and debate programs. The only complaint he has is the distance he must travel to engage in extracurricular activities.
To assist home school educators, there are institutions like American School, which provides “curriculum in a box” for high schoolers unable to attend school for a myriad of reasons — illness, location, dissatisfaction with local school options, and so forth.
Founded more than a century ago and now headquartered in Lansing, Ill., American School issues an accredited high-school diploma to about 3,000 students a year across the world, spokesman Jeff Cox said.
“Students really like the ability to work at their own pace,” he said. “They’re not going to be slowed down by a traditional classroom.”
Cox said Illinois is home to many of the institution’s pupils but was unable to provide an exact figure. It’s impossible to keep good statistics because the state maintains a hands-off stance on home schooling.
Regardless of the reasons, Illinois is a friendly place for parents wishing to home school their children.
While some states require parents to use a state-approved curriculum or provide test results, Illinois allows parents to decide what to teach, when to teach it – and whether to let the child’s curiosity lead the way, a philosophy known as “un-schooling.”
Parents also are free to decide when a high-school-aged student has met the requirements for a diploma.
Under the state’s compulsory attendance law, parents may be asked to provide evidence that the child is being taught the same subjects as public school children of the same age.
Technically, parents who aren’t offering age-appropriate instruction in the English language in six subjects – language arts, math, biology and physical science, social science, fine arts, and physical development and health – are violating the law.
Parents aren’t required to register their schools, which the state views as private school by virtue of a 1950 Illinois Supreme Court ruling. According to the State Board of Education, only 684 home schools representing 810 children registered for the 2011-12 school year.
Of the few parents that registered, 185 were from Cook County, while another 27 were from Lake County and 14 from McHenry County.
However, when the National Center for Education Statistics last reported on home schooling in its 2009 Condition of Education report, the number was pegged at 1.5 million students, or 2.9 percent of all youngsters between five and 17. If the national ratio holds true for Illinois, the number of home schooled children in the state would be closer to 66,800.
Regional school superintendents are charged with investigating reports that a family is in violation of the school attendance law.
If the superintendent has evidence the home school isn’t in compliance, he or she can ask a truant officer from the local school district to investigate the home school. The district could take the parents to court.
Parents found in violation of the compulsory attendance law would be guilty of a Class “C” misdemeanor.