The Homeschooling Option
Some families are taking a break from the traditional academic model. Here's why.
For Ryan Bhojwani, now 15, the classroom presented a different kind of challenge. While his grades and test scores were always strong, his performance in class didn’t seem to match his intellect. “His elementary school teachers noticed that he would write answers down on tests with no problem,” says his mom, Brandi, “but when they asked him a question in class, he couldn’t answer.” Instead he would freeze up.
Eventually Ryan was diagnosed with nonverbal language disorder and a processing disorder. By the time he entered Swanson Middle School, the instructional format was posing a significant hurdle. “He’s a very quiet kid and hard to get specifics out of,” Brandi says. “In sixth grade he was happy-go-lucky, but in seventh and eighth grade he just seemed down.”
Ryan ultimately decided to take a gap year before high school. He enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College’s Extended Learning Institute (ELI), an online study program that allowed him to take college courses—subjects ranging from math and physics to English and history—from his home in Ballston, all the while maintaining friendships with peers his age through travel baseball and other activities. “It was stunning how quickly and how well he learned the material,” his mom says. “When he’s being lectured to, he can’t process [the verbal] information fast enough, but this was all visual. It made a huge difference.”
Working at his own pace, Ryan completed a two-year associate degree before enrolling at Bishop O’Connell High School as a freshman in the fall of 2017.
“The decision to homeschool wasn’t obvious, but it’s the best thing we ever did,” says Brandi, a former tutor. (His dad, Roger, is an assistant professor of radiology at The George Washington University School of Medicine.) “Public schools do everything they can and teachers care about the kids, but they just can’t meet the needs of every single child in an overcrowded classroom. You can’t teach in 18 different ways. Parents need to work in partnership with the teachers. We have to be advocates for our kids.”
Sometimes it’s not academics, but social dynamics that propel families toward home instruction. Karen Bate, an Arlington mom of three girls (now grown), still remembers when her oldest daughter, Cassie, began to withdraw as a first-grader at McKinley Elementary. “She would go to the clinic all the time and tell them that she didn’t feel well,” Karen says. “She needed a break from all the crowds, the cliques, the constant activity. There was a group of girls…who said if you wanted to be in their group, you had to wear a skirt, not pants. Cassie was friends with them, but I would hear these girls saying really mean things to each other. It was awful.”
After conferring with a friend who had taken her own daughter out of public school, the Bates decided to give homeschooling a shot—starting when Cassie was entering fourth grade. Their two younger daughters soon followed suit, seeing how their sister was thriving in her newfound freedom.
As their traditional-school peers fumbled with locker combinations and fretted about report cards, the Bate girls took advantage of low-cost Kennedy Center matinees and attended open events at local universities. They flew to visit friends abroad and took practical-math field trips to Costco with their dad, Frank, a former restaurateur, now a legal jobs recruiter in D.C. The entire Bate crew even spent a season helping run the family apple orchard in upstate New York.
When Cassie was 12, her mom took a group of kids on a field trip to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where they observed a live open-heart surgery.
“Our world got larger, not smaller,” says Karen, an Arlington-based PR and marketing consultant who now lives near the East Falls Church Metro. “They had so many opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise had in the classroom.”
Homeschooling wasn’t the reclusive, antisocial existence that many imagine it to be, she adds. The girls kept up friendships through softball and Girl Scouts, and Karen stayed involved with their neighborhood school community. So it was fairly seamless when all three daughters eventually transitioned back to a conventional school setting. Today, Cassie works at a museum in D.C. Her younger sisters are gainfully employed at an international PR firm and an international travel firm, respectively, in New York City.
Looking back, Karen says she knew pretty early on that they’d made the right choice for their family.
“A few months after I started homeschooling [Cassie], we were driving somewhere when she finally told me that when she was in school she felt invisible. Her friends would say, ‘You’re so nice—that’s so stupid.’ She started sobbing, and I had to pull off the road to comfort her,” Karen says, choking up at the memory. “She finally felt comfortable and free enough to admit how she actually felt—or it might be that she didn’t even know how bad it felt until she wasn’t in it anymore.”