From the Homefront: Back to School

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

Back to school for many families is marked by new backpacks and school supplies, plotting bus routes and waiting to hear the names of new teachers. But for others, it means preparing curricula, sorting out the daily schedule and planning events with like-minded families who teach from home.

These four Coast Guard families are part of the thousands of military families who choose to homeschool.

It is estimated that about 6 percent of military families homeschool, which is nearly double the national average of 3.4 percent.

Nationally, parents choose to homeschool often because they are concerned about the instruction or environment in the schools in their area, or because they want to incorporate more religious instruction.

Incorporate the community in learning

From left, Chief Petty Officer Giovanni Beltran, sons Anthony and Giovanni, and his wife, Amanda. Amanda has been homeschooling their sons since last year. Photo courtesy of Amanda Beltran.

From left, Chief Petty Officer Giovanni Beltran, sons Anthony and Giovanni, and his wife, Amanda. Amanda has been homeschooling their sons since last year. Photo courtesy of Amanda Beltran.

Although Amanda Beltran intended to homeschool for years, even before she had children, it took until her son was in 7th grade to make it work for them. She has a degree in education and teaches, so she knew the value of focused instruction.

The tipping point came when her son enrolled in an accelerated math program in Florida. But the program instructors placed a priority on getting the students to do well on a standardized test required by the state, and her son was not learning the math they had expected. After complaining several times, she had her son finish out the year.

“I was frustrated for him and for myself,” Beltran said.

But they had a plan — together.

Her son preferred learning from home, but Beltran wanted to be sure it was the right decision for them. She had him write an essay laying out why he wanted to be homeschooled. His arguments were sound. So then she had him think about what he would miss most about school and how they could fill whatever that void would be. He argued that they could find a soccer team for him somewhere. (Which they did: A homeschool team.)

“He did it, and it was very good. He did his part, so I did mine,” she said.

So for their first year, she ordered a program to redo the math that hadn’t worked out at school. Her son wanted to learn about oceanography for science and the Civil War for social studies, so they used those as their foundations. English was added into the reading and writing about the Civil War.

Homeschooling can be a challenge financially, Beltran said. She managed to work part-time at their last duty station and that worked with the homeschool schedule she had set. But since their move, she is looking for other work-at-home opportunities.

There were a lot of homeschool education opportunities in Florida, she said. For example, there were field courses in oceanography that allowed her son to learn about snorkeling, dissection, and tagging, among others.

She also taught him cursive and had him take a boater safety license class online. She said it seems like there is room for more education when learning from home.

“I love the freedom. I feel like the kids have time to learn more,” she said. “There is so much out there.”

Beltran said she likes to make sure her kids are progressing, so she had them evaluated in a standardized test at the end of the school year in Florida.

Each state has different standards and requirements for assessment requirements, state-mandated subjects, and vaccinations. State departments of education will have the specifics on requirements. For example, Florida requires students provide written notice to the school district, maintain an educational portfolio, and provide an annual education evaluation. Alaska has no requirements beyond ensuring that if a child is not in school, then he or she is being educated in some way.

A challenge of homeschooling has been a great motivator for the Beltran family. The kids can get bored easily if they are studying at home all the time. So to battle that boredom, Beltran makes sure they get out into the community as much as possible. They do hands-on activities or meet with other families to do outdoor lessons. When her son was learning about dentistry, he spent two days observing his orthodontist’s office. He started volunteering, which broadened his social skills and work ethic.

“Join groups, talk to other homeschool parents,” she said. “We don’t all homeschool the same. There are so many varieties of homeschool. We can all learn from each other,” said Beltran.

Family tradition of unschooling

Lydia Stumpf has homeschooled all of her five children, and two are now in college. From left, Kayti, Alissa, Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Stumpf, Lydia, Emily, Benjamin and Sariah. Photo courtesy of Lydia Stumpf.

Lydia Stumpf has homeschooled all of her five children, and two are now in college. From left, Kayti, Alissa, Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Stumpf, Lydia, Emily, Benjamin and Sariah. Photo courtesy of Lydia Stumpf.

It was equal parts family tradition and her children’s learning styles that convinced Lydia Stumpf that homeschooling was the right choice for her family about 20 years ago.

While Stumpf was in high school, her mother decided to take her younger siblings out of school to teach them at home. Her younger brother had special needs, and in one year out of traditional public school, he raised two grade levels.

“It gave me a lot of confidence,” Stumpf said. “Always as a homeschool mom, I am always trusting myself.”

Since then, she has educated her five children. Two are in college, one has recently finished high school and is preparing for a mission trip, and two more are still at home.

Her children learn best in more active, hands-on ways, which is another reason Stumpf chose homeschooling.

“ Kids learn all different ways, but in public school, you have to be able to sit still and pay attention to learn,” she said. “Not all kids can do that. It makes it difficult for them.”

As a result, the best learning strategy for her family has been unschooling, she said. This is a philosophy that allows children schooled at home to lead their learning. For example, Stumpf said her daughter did not want to continue studying math around the fourth grade, so they moved on to another subject. However, when her daughter needed an ACT score to apply for college, she decided to go back to studying math. She took the ACT, and she now attends college.

“It still works, even if it is unconventional,” Stumpf said.

She has found some of her favorite educational resources online, which are listed below. But she also gets reciprocal museum memberships as a cost-effective way to visit many museums.

One interest her kids share is drama, so they joined a homeschool group focused on that. Finding a supportive homeschool group in which to participate is helpful, but it can be difficult to find. When they first moved, they had to be their own group, she said. Eventually, after attending events with area groups, they found the best fit for their family.

The days aren’t always perfect, and it can be frustrating, but it goes quickly. She said that is one of the greatest values of educating at home – the chance to spend so much of a fleeting childhood together.

“We have a really, really strong family unit,” Stumpf said, “and I think that’s from homeschooling.”

Don’t compare, don’t stereotype

Stacie Fox has been homeschooling since her daughters were in Kindergarten, they are now in 6th and 8th grades. From left: Jordan, Stacie, Chief Petty Officer Kevin Fox, and Kyla. Photo courtesy of Stacie Fox.

Stacie Fox has been homeschooling since her daughters were in Kindergarten, they are now in 6th and 8th grades. From left: Jordan, Stacie, Chief Petty Officer Kevin Fox, and Kyla. Photo courtesy of Stacie Fox.

The homeschooling seed was planted for Stacie Fox even before she had kids. She was a school photographer, which gave her the opportunity to visit a variety of school environments: public schools, private schools, and homeschool groups.

“The biggest thing that stuck with me was the character of the kids,” Fox said. “I was also able to speak to the parents of the homeschooled children, and I gained a lot of insight, and it made the idea of homeschooling my future children something I was capable of doing.”

It also posed a solution to one of the obstacles that comes from military family life – adjusting to every new school.

“I didn’t want to have to keep starting all over finding a good school district and making my children have to adapt to a new teacher or teaching style,” she said.

Fox began homeschooling when her daughters were in kindergarten, and they are now in 6th and 8th grades.

The stereotypes can be frustrating, she said. When she tells people she homeschools, she gets the same kinds of questions: “Are you ultra-religious?” “Do you ever leave your house?” “How do your kids get socialization?”

“If they took the time to get to know us, they would see that we are just like everyone else,” she said. “We are doing what we think is best for our family, just like they are.”

She said she would tell other families considering homeschooling to find other families who have been doing it for a while and talk to them, especially families whose kids are high school or college-aged. Consider the financial aspect – families will have to completely fund their children’s education. And don’t compare. Each family has a unique way of educating their kids.

“One of the best things about homeschooling is the ability to customize your children’s education,” Fox said. “They are unique individuals, and you have this amazing opportunity to navigate your child through their academic career. Key word is ‘their.’”

It may not be right for everyone

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Traditional school became such a stressor for one of Janet McDowell’s daughters that homeschool became the best solution.

McDowell, who has been educating her two children at home for five years, didn’t want her daughter’s memories of childhood to be just about stress and frustration. Her daughter, who has ADHD, was navigating social issues as well as a harsh schedule of taking medication at a certain time to get to sleep to wake at the right time. Adapting to school requirements was engulfing their lives.

“There was a lot of stress that revolved around trying to function on the school’s schedule and what the school required,” McDowell said.

Educating at their own pace, in the calm of their home environment, was the answer.

And that may not be the right answer for all families, McDowell said. She would tell others considering educating at home to look at the end goal and figure out how to get there. Maybe it’s the right solution for one year only. Maybe it’s an option for later. Maybe it’s not an option at all.

“It’s not like it’s the right thing for everybody or the right thing at the time,” she said. “But it is the right thing for us.”

One of the benefits of homeschool, beyond the flexibility, is the ability to tailor education to your child, McDowell said. Not only can you find the topics that capture their attention, but the way they absorb the information can be as individual as they are.

“You can use music, video, anything,” she said. “If you have a child who learns better when they stand on their head or spin in circles, it’s not disruptive to the 20 other students in the room.”

That’s not to say it is always perfect. Being home every day can be challenging for both kids and parents. But the end result can be worth the struggle.

“Sometimes we’d probably like a break, but I think long term we’ll have richer relationships and a greater appreciation for each other,” McDowell said. “I hope they will look back on these years later and see that it added an enrichment to their lives and helped them be the best people they can be.”

What resources have helped you as you homeschool? Share them below!

Resources:

State law requirements: The chart gives an overview of the states. While many websites offer a general idea of what the statutes say, the best bet is checking with the state’s department of education, and then the school district, to be sure families are in compliance.

Homeschool groups: Finding a homeschool group can be a way to learn more about group activities and instruction. There are many online, and they can be searched by local area or by interest. A few sites with national listings are Homeschool World, Homeschool Life, and Homeschool.com.

Reciprocal memberships: One museum membership can open the door to many if that museum is reciprocal with others. Check with local museums to see if they are partnered with any others. Zoos and aquariums have reciprocal memberships, too.

Home School Association for Military Families: This faith-based homeschool organization provides resources to military families.

Curricula: The spouses who contributed to this story recommended several online homeschool companies. They are:

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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