Once the alternative, homeschooling could become mainstream | Wender Mind Kids

Once the alternative, homeschooling could become mainstream

Two 9 year olds were playing tag and chasing each other at the playground in Commons Park in Royal Palm Beach on a Friday morning.

“What’s special about it is that every day is a pajama day,” said Nathaniel Trzasko.

“Oh yes!” his friend Matthew Gilbert replied. “You could just spend the whole day in your pajamas — unless you go outside.”

In this case, they were outside, and it wasn’t “pajama day” — it was “park day” for the Palm Beach County Homeschoolers homeschooling cooperative.

Nathaniel, who calls himself Owl, has always been homeschooled. His parents chose this educational alternative for him long before the COVID-19 pandemic gave many families a taste of what learning from anywhere might look like — at home, in the park, even on the coast.

“Sailing lessons at the Palm Beach Sailing Club, jiu-jitsu, soccer and basketball,” said Owl’s mom, Cheryl Trzasko, listing the activities that would be easier to fit into her son’s homeschooling schedule. “He can’t sit for hours because he’s 9 years old and active.”

Trzasko has led the Palm Beach County Homeschoolers since 2009. She also started a statewide Facebook group, Homeschooling Florida Style, during the pandemic. It has grown to more than 10,000 members.

Nearly 8,000 more students are now being homeschooled in South Florida than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a WLRN analysis of school district data. The shift, also reflected nationally, means more flexibility for some families but fewer students and resources for traditional public schools.

“Homeschooling to steal a friend’s tenure is a space of freedom that many people never knew existed,” said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, an Oregon-based nonprofit.

This freedom is becoming more and more attractive for parents. According to Ray, the number of homeschooled students across the country has increased from 2.5 million in 2019 to 3.7 million today.

“After trying some of the benefits of home schooling, many parents — not all — have said, ‘We like it. It’s good for our kids. It’s good for our family,’” Ray said.

School districts are funded on an enrollment basis. So when students leave traditional public schools, the schools lose money. That means fewer resources for the students who stay. Representatives from all four South Florida school districts — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe County — would disagree with interviews about how the growth of homeschooling has impacted their bottom line.

Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco is concerned about the tax implications. Shrinking public school enrollments are threatening teachers’ salaries, as well as staffing positions such as teaching assistants, counselors and cafeteria workers, she said. Also at stake are electives such as music, foreign languages ​​and culinary arts.

“If the funding isn’t there, it affects every little piece in the schools and in the school district,” she said.

In September 2021, she said she went door-to-door with other Broward teachers to persuade parents who had left the district to send their children back.

“We wanted them to know it’s safe to come back,” she said.

“It’s Just So Free”: Why Families Are Choosing Homeschooling

Hope Walsh joined the Palm Beach County Homeschoolers group last year. She began homeschooling her first grader partly because public schools were dealing with COVID-19.

“The lifting of the mask requirement has made both me and my husband very uncomfortable,” she said. “My husband was actually a school teacher and also stopped teaching because of the pandemic, among other things.”

The group ensures that children experience many things that they would experience at a traditional school, such as a science fair, geography fair, talent show and yearbook. And of course “Park Days” like the recent one in Royal Palm Beach offer the opportunity to socialize and make friends.

“I think it’s just so free and you can do whatever you want,” said Matthew Gilbert, one of the 9-year-olds, who said he’d become “great friends” with Nathaniel Trzasko through the group.

“You can just relax and go to school and just take your time,” Matthew said. “My parents give me the books and I teach it myself.”

“Of course we’ll come by if he needs help,” added his mother Idania Gilbert, “but he’s usually quite fine on his own.”

Nathaniel’s mother, Cheryl Trzasko, who runs the group, also started a nationwide Facebook group called Homeschooling Florida style during the pandemic – and it’s grown to nearly 10,000 people. She shares information about homeschooling rules, paperwork, and curriculum.

“Homeschooling is a very individual thing,” Trzasko said. “Some people go out and buy books and use them to teach their kids. Some people find programs online. Some people have teamed up with some other families and joined forces and traded who is teaching, or maybe even hired a teacher.”

In Florida, homeschooling is loosely regulated. There are no educational or certification requirements for teachers, no list of required subjects, and no set schedule or required number of hours students must spend studying.

Students must be assessed each year by a certified teacher, either by taking a standardized test or submitting a portfolio for review.

COVID-19 isn’t the only reason parents are leaving public schools

John Edelson has watched homeschooling grow in popularity not just over the past two years, but over the past two decades. He founded the online homeschool program Time4Learning in Fort Lauderdale in 2004.

“Today everyone knows homeschoolers. It’s no longer sleazy. You are no longer a pirate. It’s a mainstream thing. Shucks, homeschooling is really trendy right now,” Edelson said.

This trend is reflected across the country and in South Florida. In Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, nearly 8,000 students transitioned to homeschooling and did not return to traditional schools during the pandemic, according to public records obtained and analyzed by WLRN.

Homeschoolers now make up between 3% and 4% of the total student body in Broward and Palm Beach counties. In Miami-Dade, homeschooling used to be under 1% and is now closer to 2%.

Although these percentages may seem small, they represent a significant number of students since South Florida is home to some of the largest school districts in the state. In total, there are now more than 22,000 homeschooled students in the three largest counties.

In the Florida Keys, a much smaller district with unique geographic challenges, homeschoolers now make up more than 6% of all students. The number of home-based learners in Monroe County has doubled since the pandemic began.

“Today, the demographics of homeschoolers look very similar to the demographics of the country,” Edelson said. “It’s urban. It’s suburban and rural…African Americans and Hispanics are now homeschooling in proportional numbers.

Nearly 200,000 students are now enrolled in Edelson’s online homeschool program, and he says the pandemic is just one of several reasons parents are leaving public schools in droves. Others include changes in vaccine requirements and fears of high-stakes testing.

“It’s often unfortunate and I don’t really like to quote it. But of course school violence scared a lot of parents,” he said. “And all those active shooter drills scared a lot of kids and made them study at home.”

Homeschool isn’t necessarily forever

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel

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Melissa Limonte with her son Kaleb and daughter Ellie

Melissa Limonte’s fifth grader, Ellie, is enrolled in Edelson’s online homeschool program in math, language arts, social studies, and science. It costs about $25 a month.

The program tracks their grades and archives paperwork at Broward County Public Schools, the county where they live.

Her son Kaleb is in the eighth grade and enrolled at Florida Virtual School. Enrollment in virtual schools has also steadily increased across the country since the pandemic.

The Limontes moved to South Florida from Virginia about a year ago and have lived in RV parks in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

“We live in the RV,” she said. “We homeschool because I can’t find an area where I’m okay with the school system and the cost of housing. So let’s do it our way.”

She says physical education the Limonte way is “hike, bike, boat or paddle.”

“We can paddle up the Oleta River or cross the Okeechobee,” she said.

Kaleb Limonte loves that he can go outside whenever he wants.

“You can quickly take a break, go for a run and come back with a fresh mind,” he said, “and it’s a lot easier and less stressful to use.”

The Limontes move around a lot, so it was difficult for the children to make new friends. Ellie, 10, said she would like to eventually go back to a traditional public school so she can see her friends more. Kaleb said he wanted to try high school.

“Maybe I’ll even stay there until graduation,” he said. “But until then, I’m homeschooling.”

Jessica Bakeman, senior news editor at WLRN, provided coverage for this story.