Home Schooling

Homeschooling trends in Illinois during and after COVID are hard to see due to limited data

When researchers at the Chicago-based education advocacy group Advance Illinois were drafting its annual report last year, they encountered a puzzle. While it was clear that overall enrollment in Illinois public schools had trended downward, it was less clear where those students had gone. According to that report, the enrollment drop was particularly significant among white, rural students.

“Typically it’s been more urban students, more students of color. (We) looked at it every which way: Is this just general population decline, could it be explained away? No,” president Robin Steans said. “Is it going to be kids going to private school? No. The one thing we couldn’t answer was homeschool.”

The September 2022 report analyzed enrollment trends from 2018 to the 2020-21 school year and found that rural school districts lost nearly 5% of their enrollments, compared to 4% and 3% for suburban and urban districts.

“When you’re talking about a more rural population, anecdotally we heard some stories that more kids were being homeschooled. But we don’t keep good records of that as a state, so we just can’t speak to that,” Steans said.

Illinois is among a handful of states that does not require families to formally register with the government if they intend to homeschool. Parents can, voluntarily, choose to notify their Regional Office of Education, and administrators do have the ability to log an “exit code” that notes students leaving a district are doing so for homeschooling reasons, if they are aware.

No centralized, comprehensive data on how many children are homeschooled in Illinois exists — a boon for families who favor little-to-no-state oversight and a complication for those attempting quantitative research.

“Let’s assume that (homeschooling) is happening. What we don’t know yet is, is that going to be a permanent decision by those families to keep their kids home? Or is that a ‘We were doing this during the height of the pandemic for health and safety reasons, for frustration reasons, for economic reasons?'” Steans said. “We just don’t know yet.”

Federal data is old

There is data that suggests a quantifiable uptick, but what is available is somewhat dated and some of it determined unreliable by researchers. The federal Department of Education periodically conducts a National Household Education Survey Program and, within that, collects data about homeschooling.

The most recent survey result analysis is from 2019 — and it looks at data from 2016. The survey indicated about 1.7 million students were homeschoolers, or about 3.3% of all students. White and Hispanic students were the highest percentage of homeschool students; rural students comprised a higher percentage of the homeschool population than both cities and suburban areas.

More recently, the Census Bureau issued its own “Household Pulse Survey” that suggested the number of families who pivoted to homeschool during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic had doubled during the fall of 2020. Other surveys by other, non-government entities were done as well, also indicating a surge in the number of homeschoolers.

Indiana University professor and homeschool scholar Robert Kunzman, however, suggests a truly accurate picture of homeschooling today is yet to be compiled.

“The surveys that were done during the pandemic, following the pandemic, I have very little faith in, methodologically, in terms of revealing how many families are actually homeschooling,” Kunzman said. That’s “in part because at least some of those surveys didn’t really do a good job of distinguishing between families who were schooling their children at home even while they were still enrolled in public schools compared to those who were what we would consider more conventionally homeschooling their children apart from enrollment in an institutional school.”

An example: During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when public schools were closed and classes online, Jeannie Nystrom of Normal offered to help out working parents. Already the head of a homeschooling family, Nystrom took in children whose parents still had to go to work despite schools physically closing.

“I had 13 kids on laptops in my house. I had a big table here, open all the way,” she said in an interview. “My kids were just doing whatever homeschool stuff because we weren’t doing that. That was a challenging 2-3 months because all the parents didn’t know what to do.”

“I think it is a question that will be even harder to sift through, moving forward, as the options just continued to proliferate.”

Robert Kunzman, Indiana University

That’s the kind of situation that Kunzman said could have skewed pandemic-era survey results on just how big of a boost in at-home education has had. Further complications may multiply as online learning options do the same.

“If they’re putting them into an online program, do we count that as homeschooling? Do we count it as homeschooling if they take a class or two at the local school, but then they’re doing online stuff?” Kunzman said. “Do we count it as homeschooling when they are enrolled in community college courses? How much do they need to be at home, working with their parents, to count as homeschooling? I think it is a question that will be even harder to sift through, moving forward, as the options just continued to proliferate.”

Although a well-founded estimate that represents the true scope of American homeschooling might not yet exist, Kunzman said there is one thing that appears to be true: to some degree, there has been an uptick.

“I’m pretty confident that we’ve seen a rise in homeschooling in part because we do have some partial data from states that do collect homeschool enrollment data — and those show increases,” he said. “But how much of an increase and how much of that remains post-pandemic and will remain … I think is a really open question.”

McLean County homeschooling landscape

Although there is no legal compulsion for families to register as planning to homeschool, parents — in particular those who are withdrawing a student from public school — may decide to voluntarily register with their Regional Office of Education — the idea being to avoid the district classifying the child as truant.

Numbers from the Bloomington-based Regional Office of Education #17, which covers McLean, DeWitt, Livingston and Logan counties, show a significant drop from the 2020-21 school year to now, falling from 291 in 2021 to, as of last Friday, 135 currently homeschooling. The numbers suggest a falloff from the pandemic’s height, but because they are voluntary, they are preliminary figures at best.

Parents who’ve been part of the homeschooling scene in the Twin Cities for years, however, say their ranks have grown — they’ve seen it. When the other children Nystrom watched during the pandemic eventually headed back into the public schools, her children did not. They remained a homeschooling family. She had three other children prior, now grown, who went through public school in California. When they grew up, she explained, “there was no such thing as homeschool.”

But after moving to Bloomington-Normal in 2006, Nystrom said she realized there were options, here, and decided to raise her younger children accordingly.

“I love it. I truly feel blessed to be able to work and raise my kids at the same time, as well as teach them,” she said. The local homeschool community “just seemed to grow after ’06 and it’s just growing bigger and bigger.”

Nystrom suggested that may be due, in part, to how accessible the internet has made homeschooling resources, like curriculum.

Crossroads Area Home School Association

It’s also facilitated the ability for homeschool families to network with each other: The Crossroads Area Home School Association may be the most well-known example of this locally. CAHSA connects myriad homeschool groups and families in the Bloomington-Normal area with each other and serves people within 45 miles of the Twin Cities, according to volunteer administrator Denise Cale. Cale joined the group in 2010 when she began homeschooling her own children.

“There have been different periods of growth,” Cale said. “One period of growth was definitely when the lockdown happened. There more interested families in our CAHSA Facebook group. We saw that, in a period of years, double from about 500 families. So that’s 1,000 families who are in the group now.”

Cale noted that CAHSA does not require families to update administrators or anyone if they stop homeschooling at any point, so while the group’s numbers have doubled, it’s not certain which families came to it during the pandemic and remained with it. That the pandemic ushered in a new era of remote or at-home work, Cale said, may mean more families do end up sticking with homeschool.

“With so many employers allowing employees to work virtually, the ability to homeschool their kids has changed — whether that is more or less,” she said. “I guess the reasons to homeschool have actually probably changed more in the last couple of years than they had previously.”

“It’s just a personal preference. I’m no better than someone who sends their kids to public school. That’s their choice.”

Jeannie Nystrom, homeschool advocate from Normal

For Bloomington mom Sara Almaraz, working her way to the ability to work-from-home is the main reason she’s able to homeschool three children now — a kindergartner, a middle schooler and a high schooler. She’s structured it so she gets the first half of a shift done right as they’re ready to start school.

“I’ve always had, kind of, a love of learning — whereas curriculums weren’t necessarily aligned with always learning, or maybe not necessarily accurate history,” she said. “I felt, when my kids were in public school, it felt more like restricted learning in a kind of environment that they didn’t really see themselves in.”

Almaraz and her children are of color; her son is also neurodivergent. She switched to homeschool after she “didn’t feel that my kids were being properly served in the public school setting.”

Her son, academically gifted, “was more in trouble, than anything. He wasn’t necessarily fitting the mold of what students should look like a public school setting. His giftedness wasn’t really supported — it was more punished, in many ways,” she said.

Almaraz looked into homeschooling and the research she saw indicated “most of it was like … white families, religious, maybe they have 20, 15 kids,” but that turned out to be the opposite of her local experience.

“The local community is pretty diverse. I am connected to a pretty good homeschool group that’s more secular and not at all religious (and is) much more diverse and inclusive. So it’s where my kids are able to make connections with all types of people, every walk of life, every style of family, probably more so than I’ve seen in public school settings — especially in leadership.”

Whether the pandemic-era uptick in homeschooling families plateaus or plunges remains to be seen: Cale, Almaraz and Nystrom agree that, in this community, the homeschooling networks that have been built up over the past couple of decades will continue, regardless of the fluctuation.

“I’ve convinced a lot of people to homeschool,” Nystrom said. “Most of the people love it, they stick with it. But I do know some people that just can’t. It’s just a personal preference. I’m no better than someone who sends their kids to public school. That’s their choice.”

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This story has been updated to attribute statements to Robin Steans, president of Advance Illinois. A previous version attributed statements to an Advance Illinois policy director.

“When you’re talking about a more rural population, anecdotally we heard some stories that more kids were being homeschooled. But we don’t keep good records of that as a state, so we just can’t speak to that,” Steans said.

Source: https://www.wglt.org/local-news/2023-05-08/homeschooling-trends-during-and-after-covid-are-hard-to-see-due-to-limited-data

Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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