The Homeschooling Option
Some families are taking a break from the traditional academic model. Here's why.
“Middle school is eminently skippable, don’t you think?” Tim Jungr says, offering a lighthearted explanation for his decision to pull his son, Mirek, out of school from sixth to eighth grade. During that time, the Arlington father and son spent three years traveling and living in 33 countries, from South America to Scandinavia, Africa to Asia.
The truth is, Mirek’s international education was the realization of a dream deferred. Mirek’s mom, Carolyn, had grown up the daughter of Czech and German refugee parents in London and eventually worked for the World Bank. She and Tim had envisioned a lifetime of travel that would expose their son to a multitude of languages and cultures. But then Carolyn died suddenly of a heart attack when Mirek was just 4 years old.
Devastated, Tim at first opted for stability over adventure: “He’d already been through a huge amount of upheaval. I decided that we’d stay here through elementary school, and then we’d reevaluate.”
By the time Mirek graduated from Arlington Science Focus School, however, it was clear the boy was globally minded. (“In second grade, he asked his teacher what she thought of the Mexican election,” Tim recalls.) So when Mirek was 10, Tim put their Lyon Village house up for rent and the two used that income to travel the world, immersing themselves in the architecture, art, food, economics, politics and culture of each temporary home.
“We’d go to a grocery store in Rome and talk about how it’s different from the ones in Paris, or in Arlington,” says Tim, a writer who was raised in a small town in Minnesota. “It wasn’t so much teaching as it was having conversations and putting our observations into a larger context.”
Mirek helped with the research and planning—finding apartments, booking flights and reading up on each new destination. “I wanted him to see more of the world and know that there was more than just Arlington,” Tim explains. “Some people homeschool because they want to shelter their kids; I wanted to expose mine to as much as possible.”
In the fall of 2017, the Jungrs returned to Arlington and Mirek started ninth grade at H-B Woodlawn. “I’m very glad that I did it,” Mirek says. “I have a more global understanding and perspective than some of my classmates, simply because of my experience.”
Homeschooling—or “unschooling,” as Mirek’s experience could be called—has surged in recent years. Statewide, the number of students receiving home instruction rose from roughly 20,250 a decade ago to nearly 34,000 in the 2016-2017 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education. While home-taught students still account for less than 1 percent of Arlington’s student population, their numbers have steadily increased, from 117 to 168 over the same time period.The uptick has been fueled, in part, by a proliferation of online resources and local teaching co-ops—self-governing groups of homeschooling families that find each other by word of mouth, or with a little internet-ing.
Once the province of students claiming religious exemption from public education, homeschooling has become a viable option for families who want to escape the constraints of a school-year calendar, sidestep standardized testing culture, or who are seeking an alternative to the traditional classroom—particularly when they feel that the mainstream school system has failed them.
A 2016 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found 34 percent of homeschooling families citing “concern about the school environment, such as safety, drugs or negative peer pressure” as the rationale for their decision to educate at home, and 17 percent expressing dissatisfaction with academic instruction.
Timi (whose parents asked that their last name not be used) was in first grade when he took a standardized reading assessment that showed he was reading at a sixth-grade level. “His teacher said, ‘I didn’t even know he could read,’” says his mom, Ifeoluwa. That’s when she started noticing other ways that her son, in her opinion, was being overlooked.
“I found that there was a lower expectation for [him] than some of the other kids in his class,” says the Arlington mom. “I wholeheartedly believe that it was because he was African.” (Here, she points to a recent Johns Hopkins University study and other research showing how inherent racial bias can slip into classrooms with even the most well-meaning teachers, resulting in a long-term negative impact on kids of color.)
When it came time for Timi to enter third grade, his parents decided to try homeschooling—which, for him, meant a pastiche of martial arts and music classes; home-taught lessons in history, science and literature; and co-op study with other homeschooled elementary-age students.
Ifeoluwa, an engineer, changed her work schedule so that she could be home with Timi for the first half of the day. Her husband shifted his job responsibilities to be at home in the afternoons and on Fridays. “I didn’t want [our son] to get the impression that [his public-school experience] was what education was about,” she says. “I wanted him to keep that love of learning and that excitement alive.”