Move Over, Miss Snodgrass

There are almost as many reasons to homeschool as there are homeschoolers. Some families do it for religious reasons, some because they don’t agree with the schools’ teaching methods. But when singers choose to homeschool, it’s more often so that families can travel together.

“We decided to homeschool for a variety of reasons,” says Stephanie Sundine, a traveling singer-turned-director/coach whose husband, conductor Victor di Renzi, also spends a great deal of time on the road. “Some of it was because of our travels; some was just because, considering the state of the schools, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

Their daughter, Francesca, has been homeschooled for 11 years, and is currently working at a high school sophomore level; she has never attended school. “Early on there was sometimes resistance,” says Sundine, “but we told her, ‘We all choose to homeschool; if you don’t choose to, we’ll look for other alternatives.’” Sundine and di Renzi didn’t use a set curriculum, but created their own, using carefully vetted textbooks. Today, says Sundine, Francesca does most of the work on her own, with the exception of some math. “I do an hour here, an hour there, but I’m just the organizer now.”

Homeschoolers always find themselves fielding questions about legal aspects, socialization and their own qualifications to teach. “Francesca has suggested having a tee-shirt made that reads, ‘Yes, I have friends; yes, it’s legal; no, my mom’s not a certified teacher,’” says Sundine. “She’s always had many friends of all ages and a very full social life. When she was younger, I worked hard at setting up play dates. It hasn’t been an issue, partly because she took ballet and art classes on a short-term basis.” She reports no problems with family, but occasionally “some raised eyebrows” from friends. “Some people feel that homeschoolers are trying to keep their kids away from the world–and that that’s a bad thing. But it’s not true, and when I point out that our daughter has traveled the world and is not cloistered, they back down right away.”

Soprano Sheryl Woods plans to homeschool her 12-year-old daughter Kirsten for one more year, and then send her to high school, “pretty much by mutual agreement.” They are presently considering an all-girl public school, a Protestant high school, and a Roman Catholic parochial school. Woods and her husband, “a full-time Mr. Mom/house-husband,” have traveled together since Kirsten was five months old. They decided to homeschool because it was the only way they could travel and be together as a family.

Like Sundine, Woods tried a regular curriculum–both tried the Calvert School of Baltimore, which ships a complete year’s textbooks and workbooks, along with all school supplies right down to pencils–and found that it didn’t completely suit her family’s needs. “We have friends who had done homeschooling, and they gave us advice,” says Woods. “It all fell together, and we found things we liked. We’ve got a good homeschooling network, and there’s a lot of useful information on the Internet. When we’re home, we’ve done co-ops with other homeschooling families.” Now that her daughter is older, there’s less work involved for Woods, “At this point, I’m mostly going over papers, correcting them, asking questions.”

Woods likes the way homeschooled students tend to turn out. “Generally speaking, homeschooled kids do better with peer pressure than others do. They know who they are. If you look at life, it’s much more realistic to be socialized with homogeneous strata.”
Tenor Philip Webb and his wife are homeschooling their two older children, a girl and boy, ages nine and ten, respectively; they also have a brand-new baby boy who will remain exempt for a while. “I’ve been singing for four years; two years ago, when my schedule got heavy, we decided to pull them out of school. I’m not sure how this will work long-term, but I ask them frequently if they think this is right for them, and they always answer yes.”

Webb’s wife is a medical transcriptionist, which turns out to be the ideal adjunct to a traveling singer’s career. “She works for a national company, and they don’t mind if she travels; right now, she’s doing transcriptions for a company in Boston, so it would be long-distance anyway. It’s flexible work, and can be scheduled around the kids. She’s not tied down at all.” She does most of the teaching, but Webb “pretty much takes over when I’m home.” The whole family goes along when the job is operatic, but not usually for symphonic gigs.

Is homeschooling something you should try? “You need to really set aside the time to do it, and really understand where the child is with it and how they comprehend things,” says Philip Webb. “And keep ‘em involved in [activities] somewhere.”

“Be realistic about what you can do,” advises Sheryl Woods. “I think you have to have someone traveling with you. And it definitely helps if the child understands the work ethic, and that schooling is important to you.”

“I think people who homeschool need to be very well-organized and have a good vision of the year’s plan–not that it has to be a regimen that’s stuck to for 10 or 12 months,” counsels Stephanie Sundine. “If you let your kids lie around and watch TV all day long, you’re not doing anything for them. But you can set them free within the context of life to explore, as opposed to spending 20 minutes a day on math and 45 minutes on reading.”
Where do you start? There are many resources on the Internet, from schools with which one can associate to other homeschooling parents. Sundine suggests “Growing Without Schooling,” a newsletter based on the philosophy of John Holt, who wrote “Why Johnny Can’t Read” four decades ago. (For more information, write them at 2269 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 01214.)

Another name to bear in mind is the Clonlara School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For very reasonable fees, you can be affiliated with Clonlara (useful in states with strict homeschooling laws), receive advice on curriculum and have a ready source for teaching materials, and, when parental authority is an issue, have another teacher to review your child’s work.

“Consider the world your child’s classroom; you can’t tie your child to a chair!” says Sundine. “We have a fluid schedule and lots of books–and homeschooling is just a joy and very easy compared to what our lives would have been like if we’d put her into a boarding school. When you homeschool, you’ve got a big horizon, lots of opportunities, and you’re not tied to someone else’s agenda.”
YES, BUT IS IT LEGAL?The laws on homeschooling vary widely from state to state; check with local authorities (or local homeschoolers) for information on your own state. Illinois is wide open, with no requirements beyond advising the local superintendent of schools that you intend to teach your child yourself.“The law is pretty strict in New York,” says Stephanie Sundine. Parents are obliged to notify school officials in July that they intend to homeschool the following school year. The authorities will send a packet with the rules, and the homeschooler must send back a copy of their study plans with the materials they plan to use; after that, they have to send in quarterly reports. Students are supposed to be given standardized tests in grades 5, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 12, although plenty of parents are in noncompliance; “It’s a philosophical issue for many homeschoolers,” says Sundine, who is non-compliant herself.Pennsylvania requires standardized testing in 3rd, 5th and 8th grades, says Sheryl Woods. An affidavit of intent to homeschool is due by August 1, a folder of work by June 30, and an evaluation by a psychologist or certified teacher.