Homeschoolers educate parents about school at home options for fall

BERRIEN COUNTY — As the fall approaches with school administrators continuing to work out the details to provide a safe class environment amidst COVID-19 concerns and mandates, there are some parents who have already taken education into their own hands.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, as of 2012, 3.4 percent of children in the U.S. were homeschooled.

“With all this going on, we have had more interest in the program,” said Sharon Haynes, program director for the Berrien Springs Parent Partnership. The Berrien Springs Parent Partnership is a project-based learning program. The program serves district schools and homeschool students in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

For Niles residents Lori Loucks and Jennifer Cook, homeschooling makes sense for their families. Both homeschooling parents use the programming at the partnership to supplement their home curriculums.

Both public and private schools are working to release schedules with new safety protocols regarding students returning to the classroom in a pandemic. Loucks and Cook both have years of experience homeschooling their own children and see the opportunity to educate others curious to see what homeschooling is like.

For Cook, a mother of an incoming seventh grader and a ninth grader, homeschooling this fall makes more sense than paying a tuition to a private school with blended at-home curriculums.

“With COVID-19, seeing how all the schools were closing [in March], we decided in fourth quarter to take the kids out of school so we didn’t have to deal with e-learning,” Cook said. “We could have our own schedules. I still had so many resources and free resources from those learning from home.”

With the mandatory masks in Michigan and social distancing guidelines, she sees her children missing out on the social aspect of attending school if they returned in the fall. The private school where her children were attending laid out plans where learning would be a blend of at-home and in-class scheduling.

“It’s expensive to be there, and then we were just going to have to help teach them anyway,” Cook said. “We thought, ‘we’re just going to do it all.’ We are just going to do it ourselves.”

Cook homeschooled her two children for preschool, had her children attend private school for a few years in elementary grades before taking them back out to homeschool. She felt this gave her children more attention to their individual learning needs.

Cook’s children went back to brick-and-mortar schools for sixth and eighth grade before COVID-19 cut the school year short.

Homeschooling is not simply sitting at home for hours poring over books, according to Cook. They utilize instruction from the Berrien Springs Parent Partnership/Virtual Academy.

Loucks and her eight children have worked on their core education at home, but also utilize extracurricular classes and programs the Berrien Springs Parent Partnership/Virtual Academy provide. With four of her children already graduated and enrolled in post-secondary programs, Loucks still has four children at home she is homeschooling.

“Our youngest one is 11 years old,” Loucks said. “So, I still have a few more years in this business.”

With students enrolled part-time with the Berrien Springs Parent Partnership, the school can submit their names and receive a partial state reimbursement back into the program, as well as Berrien Springs Public Schools.

The extracurricular classes from the academy often bring with them interaction with fellow classmates, and unique skills like sewing, cooking, art, glassblowing and swimming.

Homeschooling made sense to Loucks since the beginning.

“I really enjoyed being the one to teach them and have that connection with them,” Loucks said. “I wanted them to be able to go with their own pace, whether that was a little slower or faster, but still productive, because I understand very clearly that the school systems cannot do that individually with their children.”

Loucks has worked with different curriculums and sat in on therapy to learn what her children’s different learning challenges required. Due to the hours she has spent learning how to work with specific learning difficulties, she finds she is now able to help other children and parents struggling with learning challenges, like dyslexia.

Loucks and Cook are now fielding questions from parents curious about home schooling as an option with back to school dates on the horizon.

“There’s a couple of Facebook groups. One is Michiana Homeschoolers,” Loucks said. “We have had a flood of people who are asking how to get started.”

She said home schooling can look different for every family. Finding what works best can be a challenge, but also understanding how the educational environment varies from brick-and-mortar schools.

“You can accomplish the same amount of learning in much less of a time period,” she said. “Don’t plan a 6-hour time period at home. It’s too much for everybody.”

Due to the one-on-one instruction, Loucks said children are able to learn faster at the level appropriate for them.

If staying home full-time is not an option, but going back to school is not ideal, Berrien Springs Virtual Academy Partnership and other area school systems have options for a more tailored, distance-learning approach. Buchanan Community Schools, Brandywine Community Schools and Niles Community Schools all have a virtual academy offering, in addition to what may be offered to the general student population. Families can build their social circles as large or as small as they like, through extracurricular activities, homeschooling co-ops, church groups and sports.

“Every home is going to look a little different,” Loucks said. “You have to be willing to say, ‘that didn’t work’ and be willing to try something different. I still do that year to year.”

For Cook, she sees her children gaining a love for acquiring knowledge.

“As the kids gets older, your goal is independence,” she said. “For me, I’m teaching a love for learning, so I’m teaching them so they can teach themselves eventually, is the goal.”

Cook’s children take courses from instructors in subjects like biology and science.

“[The virtual academy] has a great support staff,” Cook said.

As August approaches, Cook has had friends ask about home school curriculums. She is happy to speak with others about options and what she has found works.

“I really love homeschooling and so do my kids,” she said. “We enjoy it.”

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