When Amber Ingram became a mom, home-schooling her children seemed like a natural next step to just about everyone but her. As a public school teacher in Colorado Springs, and married to another public school teacher, Ingram saw herself teaching at the head of a classroom, not the head of her kitchen table.
But that’s exactly where she found herself last fall and again this school year, along with many other newcomers to Colorado’s home-schooling landscape.
The footprint of home schooling in Colorado is expanding, with the number of kids formally designated as learning from home doubling from fall 2019 to fall 2020. The dramatic increase isn’t necessarily a surprise, home-school advocates and state education officials say, given how the pandemic has forced kids to learn at home instead of classrooms and pushed parents into the role of educator. But the face of home schooling is also changing, as new waves of parents become willing to accept the challenge of teaching at home if it means skipping the uncertainties of life in pandemic-shaken schools.
“They’re being forced to try it, and then as they’re being forced to try, they’re learning that they can do it,” said Stephen Craig, executive director of Christian Home Educators of Colorado, which helps families understand home-schooling options and offers advice to parent educators.
In fall 2020, about seven months into the pandemic, the state counted 15,773 home-schooled students, up from 7,880 the year before. They remain a tiny group compared to the more than 883,000 students enrolled in public schools across 178 districts.
But the growth in the state’s home-school population is expected to be long-lasting, said Bill Kottenstette, executive director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Schools of Choice Unit. He anticipates that the number of home-schooled students will remain higher than it was before the pandemic but that the growth will begin to taper off this school year. He expects fewer families to opt for home schooling this year compared with last year, when there was “less certainty as to how things were going to evolve.”
And he anticipates many families who turned to home schooling because of the coronavirus will transition back into public or private schools. “More parents have experienced home schooling for the first time,” he said. “That will result in some deciding that that’s not what they want to do.”
But the pandemic has made it easier for other parents to stick with it.
“There’s greater quality resources to support parents,” Kottenstette said. “Technology advances have made it easier for parents to provide home schooling and parents’ flexible work arrangements may make it more viable as well.”
The state will have a clearer idea of the number of kids who are home schooled this year when it counts all students in October, as it does every year.
There also is “a growing interest in a blend of home school and public school” in which students divide their time between them, Kottenstette said. Last fall, the state education department recorded 9,532 home-schooled students who were also taking classes part time in public schools, up from 8,744 students in fall 2019.
Craig, of Christian Home Educators of Colorado, said it’s “a pivotal moment for home schooling as a whole.”
As the home-school population expands, there’s an increasing variety in the types of concerns that led families to turn away from traditional schools, Craig said. He’s heard from parents of struggling students who want a more tailored approach to learning. Others complained their children were bullied and that schools didn’t do enough to protect them. Opposition to mask requirements has contributed to the boom — along with the familiar conflicts over lesson plans in topics like history and sex education.
“They’re just looking for options,” Craig said.
“All over the map”
Barbara West, a Colorado Springs resident who has home-schooled five children, has seen interest explode among all kinds of families — including families with different religious backgrounds, parents who support the use of vaccines and others who oppose them, and families with a single parent. The complexion of home schooling is much broader than in the past, when it was primarily composed of two-parent families in which one parent, often the mother, would stay home to take the lead in educating, West said.
“It’s all over the map,” she said. “It is so diversified.”
West, who sits on the boards of a few home-schooling organizations and who runs a Facebook group titled Homeschooling Colorado, said many parents are reimagining education and experimenting with when, where and how their children learn. She called it a throwback to a time when educating children was less formal.
“I think parents are seeing maybe some areas where they can really help their children to understand concepts in education, to love learning, and they see learning outside of the school building,” West said.
Ingrid Welch is taking that idea and running with it — all the way across the country. Welch, who lives in Jefferson County, began home-schooling her daughter last year as she entered sixth grade. The family is continuing home-schooling this year but with a twist as they try out “road-schooling.”
Last week, Welch, her partner and her daughter revved up two vehicles and a fifth wheel camper that will be their new base for home schooling over the next year as they travel thousands of miles.
The family’s first stop: Antelope Island in Utah, where they will talk about environmental concerns like water conservation. From there, they will make their way to Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park and then onward with a goal to visit the lower 48 states.
The pandemic nudged Welch into home schooling for her daughter. The girl was bullied in school and had a hard time retaining her lessons given online by a private company.
“(The pandemic) gave me courage to do something a little bit out of the box because everybody at that point was doing something out of the box,” Welch said.
Welch, who went to school for teaching but never became a teacher, home-schooled her older daughter when the family was between schools while moving back to the U.S. from the Bahamas. She never envisioned home-schooling her younger daughter.
“It just didn’t seem doable for our life at that point,” she said, particularly as she worked as a medical support specialist in a short-term crisis center for adolescents.
She changed her mind after the start of the pandemic, feeling that her daughter’s school wasn’t providing adequate support. While she taught her daughter in the afternoons after work last year, this next school year will bring more flexibility on the open road and, with it, more confidence for her daughter.
She’s already seen a change in her daughter, who used to often wear hoodies over her head and try to hide herself at school.
“It’s given us an opportunity to do all these things we wouldn’t have been able to do before,” Welch said. “I think my daughter has thrived with it. I think she’s more confident.”
The pandemic also pulled Ingram, of Colorado Springs, into home schooling — a deviation from her family’s plans to educate their three children in public schools. A combination of concerns about some of the lessons being taught to their young children on topics like gender identity, frustrations with at least one of their children not being challenged enough in school and COVID-19 restrictions, like masking, solidified their decision to school the kids at home.
Now, Ingram uses “a hodgepodge” of materials to teach her kids and outlines a daily schedule for them to learn all together and individually. For about three to four hours a day, she sits with them to pray together, work on handwriting, read, memorize poetry and Bible verses, focus on grammar and spelling, and practice critical thinking skills and math. Her teaching puts an emphasis on history, science, music and art throughout the week. As much as she tries to keep her kids in a routine and plot out chunks of time for lessons, her kids often run over time, she said, just as excited to learn as she is to teach them. Once a week, they get together with other home-schooled children to learn and socialize.
The switch has altered Ingram’s perception of home schooling. She once viewed home-school students as lacking social skills and taking an “archaic” approach to education.
Others, like West, have battled a stigma against families who home-school their children as people view them as “kind of dowdy” and assume they wear jeans for “five days straight.”
“I think I had put it in a box that was limited,” Ingram said. “I didn’t realize all the opportunities that home school can open up.”