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The CNC produces journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties for about a dozen media partners including newspapers, radio and television stations and magazines.

Home-schooling parents in Manatee and Sarasota find a niche that works for them

Girl and boy playing a violin with a woman at a piano
Catherine Hicks
Community News Collaborative
Samantha Robarts, 9, working with her violin instructor as the teacher’s assistant

Since spiking during pandemic, numbers of home-schooled children remain consistent.

Home schooling grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, but since switching gears during an extraordinary time, some families continue to find their newfound approach to education more appealing than a traditional classroom.

In the last five years, the number of Florida students in home education has increased by 58.6%, according to the state Department of Education.

In Sarasota County during the last completed school year, 2,810 students were home-schooled, state records show, compared with about 44,000 in public schools. In the 2018-19 school year, 1,621 home-schooled children were reported in Sarasota County.

ALSO READ: Home schooling is growing across the nation, especially in the Tampa Bay area

In Manatee County during the last completed school year, 2,612 students were home-schooled compared to 50,248 in public schools. The home-school total in 2018-19 was 1,661.

DeSoto County’s home-school figures rose from 231 in 2018-19 to 406 in the last completed school year.

“Home-schooling was experiencing a sustained gradual growth for years before the pandemic,” said Erika Moyer, operations manager and teacher at SparkALC, a Bradenton private school that’s roots are formed in home-schooling and still assists parents. “All of a sudden it became a viable option for people that may have not even considered it before, and once they experienced it, realized the viability of it, and how well it worked, it just has continued to grow.”

For Mary Gordon-Berman, a stay-at-home mother in Sarasota, the decision to home-school their second-grade son became obvious.

“After volunteering and subbing in the public school system, it was clear to me that (the systems in place) were not what we wanted for our son,” she said. “(There are so many) things being taken out of education, and they don’t have the time to spend on any subject for students to understand the concept. They’ve removed basics like phonics and sound blends … and give too much homework for kindergarten and first grade. Kids still need to be kids.”

Catherine Robarts, of Sarasota, experienced a similar struggle.

“I remember we lasted a week, one solid week before I said ‘I’m done,’ ” she said. “Her poor teacher … she had maybe 12 kids in online classes, and six or seven kids in-person for socially distanced classes … She was trying to regulate them and help everyone at the same time, and it was so stressful, it wasn’t learning … so I withdrew her because I knew I could do better myself.”

Both Gordon-Berman and Robarts have used a home-schooling social media community to connect with other home-schooling families for socialization and extracurricular activities.

Girl behind a seat belt holding a crocheted craft
Catherine Hicks
Community News Collaborative
Samantha Robarts, 9, chose crocheting as her extracurricular activity, or enrichment activity, to learn this school year.

“I let her pick her extracurriculars, for example, she's doing crochet and drawing. One year, she did botany and engineering as a class, which was the coolest thing,” Robarts said. “It's almost like you're a little college student. You're in third grade. But you're picking all of these but the core (areas); language arts and the math, the reading and the writing stays the same.”

Gordon-Berman, though new to home-schooling, has connected with a home-school martial arts group and is looking to join a co-op in the future to provide further learning and socialization.

For the majority of families, the motivation for choosing home school is as simple as “freedom, 100%. It really can be encompassed in that,” Moyer said.

Spark ALC now operates as a full-time school, but has “roots in the home-school community,” according to Moyer. Created as a home-school enrichment program by Dawn Leonard, a former public school educator, Spark ALC started as a science-nature journaling group of home-schooling students that met once a week.

“I think it encompasses a lot of different aspects of freedom, there’s the simple educational freedom of curriculum choice, (but also) learning pace for your own children, philosophical and religious freedom, individualized attention, the freedom to be able to tailor-make a program for your own child with flexible schedules… it’s empowering, for parents,” Moyer said.

As the Spark ALC program grew, it evolved into a home-school enrichment program of roughly 15 students, until 2018, when an influx of families caused brought growth.

“We are now a full-time private school, but we still have a lot of opportunities for the home-school community,” Moyer said.

Girl at a desk writing with a pen
Catherine Hicks
Community News Collaborative
Samantha Robarts’ mother, Catherine, uses a free online curriculum recommended by other homeschooling parents.

Spark ALC arranges group events such as teen dances and game nights to provide social experiences, as well as other clubs, such as Dungeons and Dragons, book clubs, and speech and debate clubs. They also allow home-school students to participate in theater classes.

Florida has taken steps to expand funding for home-school and private school opportunities, such as the newly expanded Family Empowerment Scholarship, which offers qualifying parents approximately $8,000 a school year to provide funding for “expenses including therapists, specialists, curriculum, private school, a college savings account and more,’’ according to a state website.

Florida parents are required to notify their school district of their intent to home-school; maintain of a portfolio of the student’s work; and have students assessed on an annual basis, either by portfolio or standardized test. A portfolio review is the most common.

For many home-schooling parents, the scholarship funding is attractive, but accepting the money brings with it a requirement for annual standardized testing.

“I believe there’s been a little bit of restraint from families,” said Moyer, “Mostly because of the testing requirements. A lot of people choose (home-schooling) because they want freedom, and for a lot of people, part of that is being free from standardized testing.”

Catherine Hicks is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. She can be reached at chicks@cncfl.org.

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