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Home schooling oversight debate revived in N.H.

  • Nick Spencer raises his hand to answer a question in Laurie Taupin’s Mosaic Explore food science program, where students tasted a mock apple pie at the Educational Center of Brookside Church in Manchester on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Thirteen-year-olds Olivia Morisson (left) and Ella Koelb laugh as David Gonthier reads aloud, interpreting the text as lyrics to a melody, during an English and public speaking program at Mosaic Explore, which met at the Educational Center of Brookside Church in Manchester on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Students watch an educational video as tasks run on their computer screens during a Raspberry Pi computer programming class at Mosaic Explore, which met at the Educational Center of Brookside Church in Manchester on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • David Gonthier talks to students during an English and public speaking program at Mosaic Explore, which met at the Educational Center of Brookside Church in Manchester on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Students in Mosaic Explore programs take a lunch break at the Educational Center of Brookside Church in Manchester on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Abby Higgins, 13, talks about home schooling life during a Mosaic Explore lunch break at the Educational Center of Brookside Church in Manchester on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, February 07, 2018

In a downstairs room at the Brookside Congregational Church in Manchester, Nick Spencer chewed on a piece of no-apple apple pie.

At the front of the room, Laurie Taupin, the class’s instructor, quizzed Spencer and the other elementary school-age students: “Do you know what the magic ingredient of this is?” Many guessed – correctly – that sugar is part of the mix. But it was cream of tartar, she explained, that gave the fruit-free pastry its sour, appley taste.

Meanwhile, in a room upstairs, a group of teens reviewed a recent public speaking presentation. Next door, another group watched a YouTube video about how computer monitors work as their mini Raspberry Pi computers – which they assembled last class – upgraded their software.

Despite the classroom setting, these students weren’t traditional school pupils. They’re home-schoolers – and part of a community in New Hampshire that’s likely about 6,000 strong.

That group of parents and children made their presence known last month, swarming the State House in the hundreds to protest a piece of legislation – House Bill 1263 – aimed at returning some oversight to the largely unregulated field.

Sitting in a hallway at the Brookside Church last week, three home-schooling mothers discussed the bill. Only one, Cristina Drondoe of Bedford – who founded the home-schooling enrichment program Mosaic Explore, which rents space at the church – attended the bill’s hearing. But all three agreed: They don’t want to start submitting annual evaluations of their children’s progress over to a third party.

“I think it’s intrusive,” said Susan Burke of Manchester, a nurse who has home-educated her 14-year-old daughter since she started school.

New Hampshire once required extensive oversight over home-schooling families, asking that parents submit their curriculum plans and annual evidence of a child’s learning. But in a state that still has a defiant streak about government oversight, those requirements have been slowly chipped away, leaving some of the most lax regulations in the country.

Families still have to keep a portfolio of their children’s work and do annual evaluations. But they aren’t required to show that documentation to anybody. And while they need to tell somebody – either the state, their local district or a private school – once they’ve started to home-school, that notification doesn’t need to be renewed annually.

“I like it the way it is now,” said Kristin Wenger of Manchester, a former special education teacher who home-schools two of her three sons. “I understand why they might want to have a little more oversight. But I think, overall, the majority of people take it very seriously.”

‘Concierge-level’ education

Home-schoolers are not monolithic. But parents like Drondoe, Burke and Wenger represent an increasingly visible group of home educators as the practice becomes more mainstream: middle or upper-middle class professionals who decided to give what Burke refers to as a “concierge-level” education to their children.

Burke decided to home-school before her daughter started school. Her family lived in Massachusetts at the time, and their local, high-poverty district had a poor reputation; Burke’s nephew also had a bad first year in school.

Drondoe, a former software engineer, opted to home-educate when she decided the Montessori school her daughter – then in second grade – attended wasn’t implementing its curriculum correctly. Finding many of the parent-led co-ops didn’t quite offer the quality of instruction she wanted, she began the enrichment program at the church, with instructors credentialed in their field.

Wenger began home-schooling after her youngest son fell behind in Manchester schools.

“The teachers were great,” Wenger said, but they couldn’t give her son enough attention because of class size. When she offered her middle child the chance to pull out too, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I’m so bored,” she recalled him saying.

For them, the idea that schools should oversee them is an odd proposition.

“I feel like the public school system has all it can handle on its plate right now,” Burke said, chuckling.

They concede that some parents might not be giving their kids the best education. But putting those kids back in public school is no guarantee of their future success, Drondoe argued.

“Even in public school, you have kids that are failing. And they’re passed along,” she said.

And even so, Burke said – it’s just not the government’s business.

“The onus is on the parents. In my mind, it is not the government’s responsibility. It is not our Education Department’s responsibility. It is the parents’ responsibility,” she said.

New Hampshire’s patchy record-keeping regarding home-schoolers makes it impossible to know how many people currently home-educate in the state. Because of changes to reporting requirements, the state has stopped trying to keep track, saying any data they collected would be unreliable. The last published report by the Department of Education, in 2014, counted 5,914 home-schoolers in total.

With such strong opposition and a school choice-friendly Republican majority at the State House, the home-schooling oversight bill – HB 1263 – is unlikely to become law. But in an era, nationwide, of increasingly few regulations for home-schoolers, it’s revived a debate about parental rights and the state’s role in caring for children.

Public concerns

The bill was filed at the request of Corinne Cascadden, superintendent of the school district in Berlin. It would require home-schoolers to show annual documentation of their child’s progress to a third party – either the state, their local district or a private school principal.

That third party could put parents on a one-year probation if the child is found to be falling behind. If at the end of that probation the home-schooler doesn’t catch up and the program is terminated, parents could appeal to the state Department of Education.

The state’s current system of requiring parents to keep documentation of their children’s progress while allowing them to keep those records completely private makes no sense, Cascadden said.

“It’s like putting up a speed limit – but no one ever checks the highway,” she said.

In an interview last October, Cascadden said the number of children in Berlin being home-schooled has ballooned since 2012, when lawmakers rolled back most home-school oversight.

“Word is obviously out that it’s an easy thing to do. That you just write a letter,” she said.

Many home-schoolers get a great education, Cascadden repeatedly said throughout her interview. But she said she was actively concerned that at least a dozen of the 80-plus home-schooled children in her district weren’t being educated at all.

“The state still needs to take accountability for these children. Maybe that’s overstepping parental rights. And I understand that’s the argument against that,” she said.

Nationally, some have started to advocate for greater oversight. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education was launched in 2013 by home-school alumni to do just that. The organization maintains a database of home-school abuse cases, and advocates for annual notifications that a parent is home-schooling, and evaluations every year by a mandatory reporter.

Rachel Coleman, its executive director, said it’s by design that the CRHE is staffed by home-school graduates. Too often, she said, home-schooling groups are staffed by parents – and solely focused on parental rights.

“There’s nobody saying: What about the perspective of the home-school child, or the interest of the home-school child?” Coleman said. “Instead, it’s about parents who don’t want to do paperwork, or the parents who think that the school district’s intrusive – and not about somebody making sure the needs of the child are being met.”

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)