Guest Column

Why We Welcome Home Schoolers

by Bradley K. Barrett, superintendent, Gilbert, Ariz.

Ever since I took my first administrative position in the central office in Gilbert, Ariz., in the late 1970s, parents have become less timid about voicing their concerns to educators. Twenty years ago parents had few options other than hoping their local public school leaders could be influenced to accommodate their unique concept of elementary or secondary education.

We in education were confident in our efforts to resist any change, given our status as the only game in town. We were the experts and dismissed many parents as arrogant and unenlightened. We did it our way and the public could take it or leave it. In Arizona, parents were not necessarily encouraged to leave public education, but state politics made it easy to do.

In those days, family flight from the public schools was not a big concern for me and my colleagues in school district administration. First, I knew the vast majority of parents would stay loyal to their neighborhood school. And by all statistical measures their children were receiving a decent education with which no one could compete.

Permissive Laws
Then things changed. Under the charter school law passed in 1994, Arizona became known as the “education of choice” state. This distinction has resulted in 430 charter schools and more than 14,000 home-schoolers statewide. Arizona has made it painless for parents to home-school with little need to document their effectiveness or be held accountable for the progress of their students. In our state, public education flight is a reality and a concern.

As parent after parent asked for a type of education we felt was outside our philosophical ability to deliver, we allowed them one by one to leave our district to establish schools in garages, living rooms and rented office space. As they left I said goodbye to neighbors and many good friendships established over the years. Emotionally it was difficult to see them go. Intellectually I knew they would soon return to public education.

To my surprise, however, they didn’t come back. Instead they lobbied the state legislature for more liberal laws to accommodate their beliefs and their desire for greater influence in their children’s schooling. This continued for more than a decade until the 1990s when I left Gilbert to assume the superintendency in nearby Kyrene School District, which had been experiencing the same exodus of students to non-public education. Thousands of parents had given up on the public school system and were taking advantage of state laws to educate their children as they pleased. It is difficult to know how many students (and therefore how many dollars) are leaving a district because records of students being educated in alternative settings are not easily obtained.

After more than three decades in this profession, my views about the role public education should play in the lives of students changed. I became annoyed at the word “charter” because I believe the charter of educating America’s children belongs to the traditional public school and it is our charter to lose. Yet charter school parents and home-school parents alike pay taxes to maintain public education in the district of their residence. I now have come full circle and believe that public schools should reach out to families using alternative schooling, particularly home-schoolers, to offer whatever resources we have to better educate our students.

To that end, a few years ago I met with several home-schooling parents to explore how we might assist them in educating their children—assuming they could surmount their strong personal feelings about public education. We had educational resources to enrich the curriculum they were teaching and professional materials to increase their effectiveness at home as they struggled with some of the same issues we deal with in the public school classroom.

My feelings after that first meeting were mixed. Some parents chose to continue their distrust of public education. A few were excited about the possibility of enhancing their children’s education and their own teaching skills by partnering with the local school district.

At the time we happened to have an unused section of a newly built school. Eventually it would be filled but for a couple of years we could devote several classrooms to the home-school/public school partnership. We met with the home-school parents to determine what enrichment curriculum would be meaningful to them. We agreed their students could benefit from computers, foreign language, art, music and library access. We also invited them to look at our curriculum materials.

We informed the home-schooling parents all of this was available to them at no cost because the state would reimburse us for the time spent in our schools. We assured them their children did not have to associate with other students in the school but would have access to all of our equipment whenever they desired. We also developed a schedule to accommodate their needs.

The home-school partnership program began with 80 elementary students participating. As that number increased gradually, we added a second facility.

Relaxed Hard Line
I since have returned to Gilbert Public Schools as superintendent. This was the site where 20 years earlier as associate superintendent I first experienced student migration when my philosophy was not as accommodating. Knowing of our track record in Kyrene, home-schooling parents in Gilbert approached me upon my return. Consequently I met with the home-school community once again to determine the parents’ interest in partnering. As in Kyrene, we wanted to serve as a resource to parents and to assist with the professional issues of home-schooling their children. Many, not surprisingly, are interested in the opportunities we can offer.

My role as a superintendent is to provide a quality education to any student who wants to be part of the public school environment. At this point in my career I am confident in accommodating other educational philosophies that I might not choose for my own children and providing home-schooling parents with a quality public education at whatever level they desire. The benefits derived from this go beyond the enrichment experiences that home-schoolers experience in public schools.

Even those who do not take advantage of our services are softening their antagonism against public schools because of their interaction with home-schooled families who’ve had positive experiences in our schools. I only regret I came to this realization relatively late in my career.

Bradley Barrett is superintendent of the Gilbert Unified School District 41, 140 S. Gilbert Road, Gilbert, AZ 85296. E-mail: brad_barrett@gilbert.k12.az.us