Schooling at home has soared in Pima

Tucson's Hoffman Park is a center of activity where parents and kids involved with a Catholic program get together. The number of home-schooled children in Pima County has grown more than 500 percent in the past decade. That's faster than Marana - Arizona's fastest-growing city. Proponents of the expanding effort to keep the classroom at home praise Arizona's shedding of regulations in the mid-1990s that resulted in giving parents more choice in deciding how, and what, their children learn. They say Arizona is one of the best states in which to home-school children. However, critics say parent-teachers should be held to the same standards that apply to public schools, especially when it comes to student achievement testing. Until the mid-1990s, Arizona required standardized testing of its home-schooled students. Legislators did away with that under pressure from organized home-school parents. Pima County's numbers reflect that change. In 1992, Pima County counted 450 home-schooled children. By 1995, 1,401 students were home-schooled in Pima County. That number has ballooned again this year to 2,906, more than 545 percent in the last 10 years. By comparison, the number of home-schooled children in Pima County grew faster in the last decade than Marana's 520 percent growth rate, according to 2000 census data. There are more home-schooled children today in Pima County than students enrolled in the Tanque Verde School District this fall - 1,920. Tanque Verde consists of two elementary schools and one junior high school. "Arizona's one of the best states in the country for this because it trusts parents to educate their children properly," said Debbie Gubernick, who maintains a Web site for the Sonoran Desert Homeschoolers, a local support group. Arizona ranks with New Mexico, California and Nevada as having the least regulation, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. The national, nonprofit advocacy organization defends and advances the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children. It ranks New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island among the most heavily regulated home-school states. Their laws include requiring parental notification of intent to home-school, state-approved curriculum and achievement test scores. Arizona requires only that parents who want to home-school their children age 6 or older notify their county schools superintendent. "We appreciate the fact our curriculum isn't shoved down our throats," said Shannon Federoff, a former teacher who home-schools three of her six children. The other three aren't old enough. "I have a vision of where I want the kids to go, and I don't want to be told how to get there." Five Pima County home-school support groups offer parents guidance in establishing a curriculum, seeking legal advice and offering home-schooled children an avenue for interaction with other home-schooled students. Those support groups, and about 80 others across the state, have successfully made themselves heard in the Arizona Legislature. "Parents who make this choice are a very strong contingent in the Legislature," said Lorrane McPherson, an assistant superintendent for the Tucson Unified School District. With more than 62,000 students, TUSD is Tucson's largest school district. "There is no regulation" of home schooling today, she said. "There's no way to know how these kids are progressing." While McPherson said she respects the rights of parents to choose how to educate their children, she questions whether the state should hold parents to the same level of accountability as it does public schools. A public school in Arizona that earns a second consecutive underperforming label risks state intervention on an administrative level. Since Arizona bases a large part of its labeling system on results of the statewide AIMS achievement test and on whether students show one year's academic growth, home-schooled families don't face the same pressures and risks that public schools do. But decreasing regulation increases the number of education options available to parents, proponents say. "The lawmakers in Arizona have come to the conclusion that the more choices the parents have, the better it's going to be," said Jerry Mintz, director of the New York-based Alternative Education Resource Organization. Mintz founded the nonprofit organization in 1989 to further non-traditional educational approaches. "The way the public education system has gotten into trouble is overregulation," Mintz said. "Basically people can't teach anymore." Teachers are focusing classroom efforts on what's necessary for students to pass standardized tests. Yet across the country, home-schoolers continue to score in the 85th percentile on standardized tests, Mintz said. Last year, Pima County fifth-grade students had an average math score in the 56th percentile and an average reading score in the 36th percentile on the Stanford 9 - a national standardized test taken by Arizona students. Those percentiles mean that 44 percent of students nationwide scored higher in math and 64 percent did better in reading. Home-schooled children in Arizona are not required to take that standardized test or any other, disallowing a comparison. As public schools continue to fall short of national standards, alternative means of education such as charter schools and home schooling appear to be more viable solutions, Mintz said. The effects of the growing home-school movement are also hitting the wallets of Arizona schools, which receive state money based on the average daily student attendance. Schools are losing roughly $5,000 to $7,000 for each student not sitting in a public classroom. For Pima County, that amounts to between $14.5 million and $20.3 million each year. Federoff belongs to the Holy Family Home Educators - Diocese of Tucson. The home-school organization for Catholic families meets one Friday a month at Hoffman Park, near Niven Avenue and East Broadway. That is one of the many groups relied upon by home-schoolers for student interaction, including play dates, field trips and classroom discussions. Kaitlyn Torgerson, 12, one of more than 200 children from about 50 families participating in Holy Family Educators, said she enjoys the weekly get-togethers and learning at home. "You don't have to go to school as long and you get to be with your friends every Friday," said Kaitlyn, a home-schooled seventh-grader. "It's an easier load, but you still learn the same amount." Right now, Kaitlyn, who wants to be a paramedic and a mother, is studying life science - about pollution and mammals in particular. Children in the Holy Family Home Educators group recently visited the state Capitol - one of the group's members is a former senator. The group also has "Mom's Night Out," when one parent volunteers to baby-sit while the moms get together for some downtime. "I'd like to see more families get involved in support groups," Federoff said. "It makes the difference between successful home schooling and parents throwing up their hands in despair."