Creating Community in the Homeschool World
Without the built-in society of the classroom, homeschooling families must try harder to build friendships. But the work is wondrously worthwhile.
Community came effortlessly when I lived and worked in the dense neighborhoods of Manhattan and when my three children attended school in the suburbs of Connecticut. But now, as we homeschool in the isolated mountains of rural Vermont, never has community been more important to me — or harder to create.
I miss the simplicity of showing up to work or our children's small and vibrant preschool and finding peers we like, who challenge us intellectually, make us laugh, and with whom we can share the minutia of our days. For community happens most easily when a group of like-minded people are together day in and day out. However, I am discovering that with their independent nature and their widely differing educational philosophies and value systems, and because there are few collective homeschool spaces, homeschoolers often miss out on this phenomenon.
However, many homeschoolers desire community as I do and seek it out or create it wherever they are. Laurie Doig, who homeschools her three children in Stamford, Connecticut, finds community to be a vital element in her life because it "gives a sense of belonging to the world and of being part of something bigger than one's family or immediate circle." She finds that the "connection naturally drives one to care more about the world."
Finding Community Where You Are
As Laurie's family does, many homeschooling children and parents weave themselves into the local fabric and create community there. You can find homeschoolers volunteering at soup kitchens, producing Shakespearean puppet shows at the local library, supervising voting booths, giving and attending art classes at the community center, running the bases on the Little League field, and helping in a myriad of ways at their church, temple, or local non-profit organization.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, Gail Henderson-Belsito, homeschooling mother of two, actively nourishes community at her international church. She has found close friendships for herself and her children in her family-friendly neighborhood. Additionally, she and her family maintain a long distance community with friends who live far and wide and with whom her family stays in touch via telephone, email, snail mail, and occasional visits. Because they are "close in spirit," the connection to these distant friends is "a very important part of her community."
Connecting with a Homeschool Group
Many homeschooling families find connection through a peer group. Often the best way to find a local homeschool group is ask at your library. The children's librarian is sure to know of one, if not many, contacts in the area. Also, most state departments of education have a homeschool arm that keeps a current list of statewide homeschool programs and centers.
As more and more homeschool centers or local groups create an Internet presence, they are becoming easier to find. Many have a Yahoo! Group; some have Web sites. Since homeschoolers espouse a wide variety of educational philosophies, it may be tricky to locate a group that matches your needs. Instead, you may find value in a virtual group, exchanging emails and message postings with like-minded parents both near and far.
Simplifying with a Homeschool Center
Classes for homeschooled children usually run for only an hour or two at various facilities, leading to more driving and organizational time for parents. That translates into less time for socializing. Homeschool centers, or groups that offer day-long classes on a regular basis at a consistent location, provide an attractive remedy.
Homeschool centers exist nationwide in various shapes and sizes. Some are affiliated with churches, others secular. Some are free but require parent participation. Others charge a fee but allow parents to drop off their children, giving them time to pay the bills, clean the house, run errands, or just sit and have a well deserved cup of tea.
At many centers, students can choose semester-long classes in many disciplines on an "a la carte" basis, the better to serve disparate needs, interests, and skill levels. In addition to these classes, centers may offer outdoor explorations, field trips, holiday events, book clubs and swaps, small libraries, curriculum advice, resources or help with state homeschool policies, potluck meals, and open time to play and socialize. Students can visit one or a few days per week, leaving the rest of their time free for other interests.
To get the most out of such a center, "every member needs to actively share in the responsibilities that go with it," says Steve Heintzel, a homeschooling father of two who helps run a cooperative homeschool group in East Montpelier, Vermont. Ideally, common responsibilities such as facility upkeep, class scheduling, teaching, and overseeing free play rotate among the parents and students. Otherwise, the group must pay someone to take on these responsibilities, and pass the cost on to participants.
But that raises another challenge: Some families don't have the money to be as involved as they'd like to be. They can become "overwhelmed by the daily grind of raising children, homeschooling, cooking, and cleaning, usually with little or no respite," says Laurie, noting that homeschoolers typically live on one income. To alleviate this pressure, some communities create scholarship funds, or tuition-free cooperative centers where all the families share in the work, or a blend of both.
Making Community at Home
Still, to Didi O'Brien, a Connecticut mother of six, and many other homeschoolers, the bonds within the immediate family are most essential. Didi places a high value on time alone as a family, ensuring that she and her kids have plenty of uninterrupted days together. She is also fortunate in having a large, supportive extended family nearby. Her children's community is a joyful pack of cousins, siblings, and grandparents.
I wonder in amazement at the closeness of my own little family. When our pediatrician asks our children, "Who is your best friend?" my stomach clenches for a minute as I think through the very short list of friends we have here in Vermont. And then, when they answer, "My sister," or "My brother," I am swept with emotion. Of course they have other friends, but their relationship with each other makes them members of a lifetime micro-community yielding tremendous comfort and joy.
I am in the process of creating a homeschool center where families can claim their independence yet have one central, safe, and friendly location to share in some of their learning and eating and playing. I envision this as a place where we can all find friends with common interests, share our stories, get a break from the grind, and support each other in our endeavors. Our family will still participate and volunteer in the greater community, and find comfort in our family micro-community. But we hope that this center will allow us to create new friendships and support in our work as homeschoolers. As Gail Henderson-Belsito advises, "If we don't make the effort, we will never have the community we say we want."
After years in international television news in New York City, Amy Thornton-Kelly decided to homeschool her three children in rural Vermont.