On a typical Monday, school starts with an hour of davening for Shari Rosenman’s two children. They next spend two hours with a music teacher and work with online grammar and math curricula before unwinding with lunch and recess at a local park. Swim team practice and an art history DVD round out the evening, with Rosenman and her husband joining their kids on the couch to share in the learning.
After sending her children to traditional day school for years, Rosenman — and a growing number of Jewish parents in Los Angeles — now believe home schooling is the only way to go.
Rosenman and her family are members of L.A. Jewish Homeschoolers, a network of about 30 home-schooling families who share resources and tips for giving their children a strong Jewish education outside classroom walls. Home-schooling parents say the method allows kids to pursue their academic strengths in a way that traditional, “on the clock” schooling can’t accommodate — all while fortifying family bonds.
“Children can go at whatever pace works best for them,” said Martine Porter-Zasada, who began home schooling her four children 14 years ago. “Siblings can grow up together and be best friends, and children can have their parents in their lives longer. They can truly grow up in the slow lane.”
Parents who home school their children rely on an array of online curricula, private tutors, books and DVDs to provide an educational experience they believe rivals or even surpasses that offered in a traditional school environment. Incorporating field trips and group workshops also keeps the material fresher and more relevant, they say.
Some 1.5 million children across the country are home schooled currently, according to the U.S. Department of Education, up 74 percent from 1999. The trend is only now catching on among Jewish families in the Southland, members of L.A. Jewish Homeschoolers say, creating a sense of vast educational possibility as participants navigate the still-new terrain of home-based Jewish learning.
Parents can “discover their children’s passions” when they set up an environment where kids are free to explore what they love, said Leat Silvera, who home schools her four boys, ages 11, 9, 7 and 3.
“Once you give them that freedom, you’ll see how much they grow and how much they will find themselves,” Silvera said. “There’s a love of learning that develops in home schooling that will make them excel.”
Kids often learn more and at a faster pace at home, Porter-Zasada believes. Students can spend more time delving into areas of strength, rather than rushing from period to period to cram in a set list of subjects per day. They can also “take the time to explore the joy of davening” beyond reciting the text of prayers by rote in class, she said.
Taking kids out of day school doesn’t mean they have to forgo Jewish studies — members of L.A. Jewish Homeschoolers have hired local rabbis and Hebrew school teachers to tutor their children and also sign up for sessions with LimmudLA. Parents can split the cost of tutors through group learning sessions, and most supplement classes by having their children attend synagogue programs geared toward kids and teens.
Going to school at home takes the stress out of the learning process, many parents said. Children who are bullied in class or who don’t thrive in a rigidly structured curriculum heavy on tests can blossom if they’re no longer nervous about learning.
Shari Rosenman’s daughter, Maya, 12, said she used to feel pressured by all the tests in day school, and she has enjoyed the chance to delve into unusual topics since her parents started home schooling her last fall.
“It’s amazing. I’m free to pursue whatever I want,” such as learning Chinese, Maya said. Home schooling has not kept the preteen confined to the house — she belongs to a choir, a swim team and a Girl Scout troop. She said she would recommend home schooling to anyone who is “independent and loves to learn.”
More parents are turning to home schooling amid the recession as a lower-cost alternative to paying tuition at Jewish day schools, Porter-Zasada said. The cost of home schooling a child varies by curriculum, but parents can take advantage of free resources — such as the local library — to keep expenses low. Some of the basic costs include paying for tutors for specialized subjects, such as Hebrew and music, and for books and other educational materials.
With the money she saves on day school tuition, which can range from a few thousand dollars annually to well over $20,000, Porter-Zasada said she can provide more enrichment activities, such as film workshops and gymnastics.
But, at the same time, home schooling is more demanding on families’ schedules and the educating parent might find it hard to hold even a part-time job, some said. Getting “off the grid,” therefore, might not be an option for families in which both parents have to work, Rosenman said.
Many parents also fear they could deny their children important social opportunities by taking them out of the classroom.
One woman at an informational meeting March 30 said she believes home schooling might benefit her 8-year-old daughter, who is dyslexic and often has trouble keeping up in class. But she had concerns the limited social environment could foster “only-child syndrome.”
“Who would she talk to?” asked the mother, who did not want her name used. “I’m not a good classmate.”
Members of L.A. Jewish Homeschoolers say they hold group activities so children can learn and socialize together. Families in the network organize holiday parties, field trips to the California Science Center and the Aquarium of the Pacific, and workshops in drama and writing where kids collaborate on projects and form friendships.
“In the home schooling of 2009, it doesn’t have to be an isolating experience,” Porter-Zasada said.
Children also develop closer relationships with their families through home schooling, parents said. Rosenman, a former history teacher at Maimonides Academy, said she used to be a “militaristic” mother, pushing her kids out the door for school, but household tensions eased once she stopped playing the role of drill sergeant. “My daughter now says I’m her best friend,” Rosenman said.
For many prospective home-schooling families, the biggest fear holding parents back is that they lack the knowledge or temperament to teach their kids. Many say they feel inadequately prepared to step into the teacher role, and that making the switch depends, in large part, on letting go of the mindset that children need a traditional, school-model education for proper development.
“It’s a tough thing to pull yourself away from,” said Kerrie Zamanzadeh, a Westwood mother who is considering home schooling her four sons. “I don’t know anything else but this. How do I get over the fear that we’re messing up our kids?”
Rosenman urges parents not to shy away from the move simply because they are not educators by trade. “You do not have to be a teacher to do this,” she said, adding that she sees herself more as a facilitator who coordinates lessons than a teacher in the traditional sense. When she talks to parents thinking of giving home schooling a shot, she said she stresses that no one knows a child’s learning needs better than his or her mother and father.
“As a parent, you can customize your child’s entire learning experience to his or her specific learning style,” she said. “No one could possibly provide your child with a better education than you can. And I tell [other parents] that my year of home schooling with my children was the best year of my life, and it’s only getting better.”