Progress Illinois takes a closer look at how some parents are seeing homeschooling as an alternative to Chicago public schools in the wake of the district's controversial plan to close, consolidate and turnaround more than 50 schools.
Nina Stoner, a 37 year-old mother of four students enrolled in West Pullman Elementary School, said she no longer trusts the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to educate her children.
“I can teach my kids better than them,” she said. “The solutions they’re coming up with for a budget deficit or whatever, they’re not right for my kids.”
West Pullman Elementary, at 11941 South Parnell Ave. on Chicago’s Far South Side, is one of 50 schools that are slated to close after the Chicago Board of Education's controversial vote last week. Her children, along with approximately 300 other students enrolled in the school, will be welcomed at Alex Haley Elementary Academy when West Pullman closes in June.
But Stoner said the neighborhood is too dangerous and the longer commute from West Pullman to Haley puts students and parents’ “lives at stake.” She called the district’s Safe Passage proposal, which will provide students with a guided route to and from school by faith-based or community leaders, a “joke.”
Gang wars and neighborhood violence will make the transition a “bloodbath,” she said.
“West Pullman Elementary is a beacon of activity for our neighborhood,” said Stoner. “Closing that building will be the death of our area.”
Stoner said she plans to join forces with other West Pullman parents to homeschool their children. The plan is in its preliminary phases, but Stoner intends to use her local church’s fellowship hall for the educational instruction for a maximum of 20 students. She has a meeting scheduled with the pastor at the New Vision of Faith Ministries, at 447 West 120th St., for next week and has five parents who have expressed interest in working with her.
“Somebody has to stand up and do something,” she said, predicting that at least half of West Pullman’s students would drop out instead of go to Haley. “Closing our school is going to affect the whole community, but CPS doesn’t care.”
Enrollment for the nearly 30,000 students displaced by school closures began last week, just one day after the board of education’s vote, and runs until May 31. Enrollment fairs are being hosted across the city and schools have extended their hours to help parents navigate the enrollment process.
Nonetheless, Stoner is one of several parents from across the district who now doubt CPS’ ability to provide a quality education to their child, says Wendy Katten, executive director for the Raise Your Hand coalition of parents and community organizations.
“Most people feel the options they’ve been given are not safe options,” she said. “People are feeling like they’ve been put in a tough situation, and may be forced to look at an alternative option to their public school, such as homeschooling.”
The state considers homeschooling to be a form of private education if “the teacher were competent, the required subjects were taught, and the student received an education at least equivalent to public schooling,” according to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).
The required subjects include language arts; mathematics; biological and physical sciences; social sciences; fine arts; and physical development and health. Parents have the freedom to determine the curriculum, schedule and materials used for education. Illinois does not require testing for homeschooled students and parents may determine when students have met graduation requirements and are eligible for a high school diploma.
“Homeschooling provides parents the opportunity to give children an education precisely tailored to their needs, their desires, their aptitudes,” said Scott Woodruff, senior counsel at the Home School Legal Defense Association. “Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, which is what you have to do in a classroom of 30 students, with homeschooling you can give a child the exact curriculum that suits them best.”
Students who are homeschooled in Illinois do not have to be registered with the ISBE and as such, the state does not track the number of children being educated in that manner, said ISBE spokesperson Mary Fergus. There are more than 2 million students enrolled in both public and private schools across the state, according to the ISBE 2012-2013 data.
Of the country’s 2010 population of 54.1 million school-aged (ages five to 17) individuals, a 2011 study from the National Home Education Research Institute estimated that 3.8 percent were homeschooled, an increase from 2.9 percent in 2007.
There were an estimated 2 million kindergarten through 12th grade homeschooled students nationwide in 2010, according to the report.
Woodruff said the popularity of homeschooling is growing by “leaps and bounds” and “these kids are getting a fabulous education.”
He cited a 2009 nationwide study by the National Home Education Research Institute in which 11,739 homeschooled students from all 50 states were found to score, on average, 37 percentile points higher than public school students on standardized achievement tests. The Home School Legal Defense Association commissioned the study.
Woodruff warned that enforcement mechanisms exist in each state to ensure students are receiving a proper education.
“Parents need to provide legitimate good faith education,” he said. “If they fall short, they can be taken before a judge.”
According to the ISBE, the regional superintendent of schools for the student’s county of residence is responsible for investigating reports of school code violations for homeschooled students. Regional superintendents may request that parents produce documentation showing their homeschooled student is being provided “instruction that is at least commensurate with the standards established for public schools.”
Parents are required to make a staggering investment in resources and time to homeschool a child, according to Victoria Chou, dean of education for the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“If they don’t do research on it and realize what a big investment it is, they’re going to be shocked,” she said. “They should consider if they have what it takes to really provide a comparable or superior education at home.”
Chou also questioned the potentially isolating effects of homeschooling and the loss of social development that occurs in public schools.
“Unless you have a large cluster of kids, the learning that can come from peer-to-peer contact is going to be absent in homeschooling,” she said. “Peers are more influential than adults in many circumstances and can be a powerful vehicle for learning.”
Even still, Brandon Johnson, an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), said a decrease in CPS’ enrollment is very likely next year.
“This is going to be a mess, thousands of students are being shuffled around the system,” he said. “Students are going to get lost in this process and where those students end up is unpredictable. Whether they get transferred to private school or homeschooled, I think parents are considering all possibilities.”
CPS is attributing the need to shutter 50 schools across the district to a reported $1 billion deficit and a “utilization crisis” of nearly 140 half-empty schools. According to CPS officials, the plan will save the district more than $400 million.
The Chicago Board of Education approved the plan in a sweeping roll-call vote last week, sparing only four schools from closure and one school from being a turnaround; they also opted to elongate the closure of one school through a phase out. The only school that saw a split vote (4-2) was Von Humboldt Elementary.
Johnson was quick to note his kindergartener’s neighborhood school, the West Side’s Francis Scott Key Elementary School, is slated for closure. Instead of sending his student to CPS’ welcoming school, Edward Ellington Elementary School, he has pursued enrollment at a lottery school on the North Side, Ole A. Thorp Elementary Scholastic Academy.
“There are thousands of parents who are dissatisfied with how CPS is treating them,” he said. “They’re being forced to find alternative ways to make sure their children get the best quality education.”
He said an “overwhelming pullout” of students in the district is “very likely.”
A representative from CPS could not be reached for comment for this story.
“We must come together, begin to look forward and prepare for the next school year on behalf of our children,” CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. “The sooner principals can identify student enrollment, the better prepared they will be to support all student needs on the first day of school.”
Meanwhile, Stoner said she has not yet pursued enrollment at any other school for her West Pullman Elementary students. She said she’s “still weighing options” and doesn’t care about the May 31 deadline.
“CPS has taken away my children’s love for education,” she said. “I’m just frustrated all the way around.”
In preparation for her homeschooling plan, Stoner is contacting homeschool organizations and support groups, such as Illinois HOUSE, for assistance. As a self-employed house cleaner, Stoner says her schedule allows her the opportunity to personally take on her children’s education.
“We pleaded, I mean constantly pleaded, with CPS to keep our school open,” she said. “So now we need to figure out some other way to educate our kids. I don’t trust CPS, period.”