Virginia’s home-school population continues to grow

Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 4:53 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Stephen Yokeley is excited for and nervous about this school year. Maybe more so than his children.

“We feel great about it, but at the same time nervous,” he said. “Are we gonna mess up, you know as parents? So you do have that feeling.”

Yokeley is seated at his kitchen table, his Bible in front of him. It will serve as one of the main pieces of the home-school curriculum he has planned for his children this year.

“We want to teach truthful life,” he explained. “You are who you are. In our sense, you are you who are Biblically. We want to stick to those truths.”

Yokeley said he and his wife have considered home-schooling their children before. They tried in the past with their eldest daughter, but struggled to find the right structure for her and for them.

While the home-schooling thrust upon them by the pandemic wasn’t the sole reason for the switch from public school, it did play a part.

“I think more people are opting for homeschool, wanting to home-school,” he said. “I think with the pandemic they found out, hey, we can actually do this.”

Yokeley’s family is among many in Virginia whose appetites for home-schooling seem to be growing.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, the 2020 - 2021 school year recorded 59,638 home-schoolers, a 56% increase over the previous year. Another several thousand transferred from public schools to private schools.

While the numbers dipped for the 2021-2022 school year, they still remained above pre-pandemic levels at 55,769. This represents a more-than-40% increase since 2019.

A May 2022 report from the Virginia Department of Education highlighted the rise in homeschooling, writing that thousands of families had “voted with their feet” in leaving public schools. Jillian Balow, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, used this to support the argument that Virginia’s schools had long-neglected achievement gaps and lowered standards.

“I think parents found out that they could do just as good a job as what they were seeing presented for their children,” said Yvonne Bunn, the Director of Homeschool Support and Government Affairs for the Home Educators Association of Virginia, or HEAV, based in Richmond.

Bunn said HEAV is dedicated to supporting Virginia’s home-school families with free services and annual conventions.

“Parents really want choices,” she said. “They really want to know, what can we do? It’s not just public or private school any longer.”

While the number of home-school students is generally highest in areas where the overall population is higher, southwest Virginia school districts report among the highest rates of home-schoolers in the state.

For the 2021-2022 school year, 17% of Bedford County’s students opted for home instruction, including those with religious exemptions.

The rate was higher in Franklin County, where 18 percent of the district was reported as home-schooling. It was even higher in Highland County, where 18.5 percent of its 178 students were home-schooled.

“We’re seeing those parents who want that choice, really put in the time and effort themselves to make it happen and finding like-minded parents who want to do the same thing,” Bunn said. “And so you’ll find that in every area of the state.”

The apparent rise also presents a potential problem for Virginia’s public schools. Enrollment has a direct effect on the number of state dollars allocated to a district through a complex formula known as the Average Daily Membership. Essentially, fewer students means less funding for the district.

A January 2022 study conducted by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, which provides VDOE with school-age population estimates, found enrollment in Virginia public schools had been expected to decline with Virginia’s declining birth rates. Private and home-school growth was found to have outpaced public school growth from 2010 - 2019. The study suggests the pandemic may have permanently boosted the share of students educated privately in the Commonwealth, stating enrollment gains seen in the 2010s have been erased.

“If homeschoolers in Virginia made up a school division,” said a 2019 study, “it would be the fastest growing division, expanding by 48 percent in the last ten years, and seventh largest of Virginia’s 133 school divisions.”

“Maybe not necessarily just our particular school,” said Yokeley, “but overall [there] is a trend of a lack of a cracked foundation within the public schooling system.”

Yokeley said while his family had a good experience with their public school teachers, other factors left them looking for alternatives.

“Like some of the music that was shared like on the school bus and stuff like that was not appropriate music,” he said. “So we found ourselves, just even with the socializing of the school, that we were having to deconstruct some of those things out.”

Yokeley said he feels the public education system in general is losing moral values, and that concerns from families go unacknowledged.

“There are people out there who don’t agree, whether people like it or not, that don’t agree with what’s going on,” he said.

He said he feels schools shouldn’t be babysitters for students or the sole source of their education.

“We have a sense that we know what we want our children to learn,” he said, adding, “...we want to do our part in taking responsibility that belongs to us. I think everything in life is based off the family.”

Bunn said many of the parents who made the switch have expressed concerns about bullying, anxiety and safety in Virginia’s public schools. The types of questions she answers most often have to do with the law.

“They don’t want to be lawbreakers and we would never want them to be law breakers,” Bunn explained. “We want them to comply with the home-school law. And Virginia has a moderate law and we talk to them about filing a notice of intent to homeschool and the requirement of proving the results of a standardized achievement test or assessment by August 1 the following year. So that’s where they usually get started, because we want them to know what the law requires, the law is their protection.”

Bunn said parents can choose to home-school at any point in the year and can change curriculum as they see fit. Virginia’s accountability law requires home-school students to take and submit scores for a standardized achievement test each year of their home-schooling.

“Home-schoolers have to be tested with a standardized achievement test every year of homeschool in order to continue to home-school and they need to be in the fourth stanine or higher,” Bunn explained.

Data from a June 2020 report by ACT, the standardized testing for college enrollment, found that ACT composite scores for home-schooled students trended upwards from 2013 to 2018 and have been consistently higher than those of public school students. Those scores, however, still remained below those of private school students.

“Compared to students enrolled in private schools, homeschooled students have scored lower since 2003, with the gap incrementally widening to 1.3 points by 2019,” the report went on to say. “All three groups have experienced declines in mean ACT Composite score since 2017, marking the first time that scores dropped for all three groups.”

Virginia Tech University’s data on home-school student enrollment also reflect a slight boost from the home-school population.

Over the last five years, enrollment of home-schooled students had peaked at 196 students in 2018 until 2022, during which 207 students who had been home-schooled were enrolled.

But home-schooling, according to Bunn and Yokeley, has changed a lot in the last several years.

“The idea of a parent sitting at the kitchen table and doing all the work from kindergarten through high school for their students, you know, four to six hours a day, isn’t what homeschooling is any longer,” Bunn explained. “It’s really a trend that we’re seeing that parents are stepping up. If there’s not a co-op in their area or if there’s not a learning pod or a micro-school, then we’re seeing parents develop those things and they’re working together.”

That’s part of what Yokeley said drew his family back to home-schooling. They liked the option of a hybrid home-school curriculum, which means their children will spend part of their week in a small classroom with other home-schooled children.

Yokeley said the idea that students can still socialize with peers and participate in sports is likely encouraging other parents in the same direction.

“They see that they can do it. They can do it with the help of others,” he explained. “Their kids don’t have to miss out, then they’re gonna say, ‘yeah we’ll do this.’”

Balow, the Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, committed in the May 2022 report to raise expectations for students and schools, support them and hold them accountable for results, among other far-reaching goals. This along with what she said would be historic investments in education and collaboration with all stakeholders.

Bunn says HEAV will continue to support and advocate for Virginia’s home-school families.

“I’d like to encourage parents that they can do this. There are many resources out there to help, there are many different ways to homeschool,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for out-of-the-box learning.”

While the first day of home-school is yet to come for Yokeley’s children and they await the books and curriculum guides, he is focused on the big goals he has for his children’s education.

“My hopes, one, is to build a foundation with the family and take that foundation and allow it to flourish in theirs,” he said. “Another hope that I have, in our realm, so when we get that foundation and learn to be together and they get their education and also for us, for them to learn who Christ is. It is for them to get that Biblical education along with the secular education.”

While families can choose to home-school at any point in the year, they are encouraged to submit a letter of intent by August 15 to their school district. Families must also present evidence of academic progress at the end of the school year, by August 1.

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