Our Kids Don’t Belong in School
More and more of Boston’s smartest families are opting out of the education system to homeschool their children. Is this the new model for creating elite kids?
When Milva McDonald sent her oldest daughter to Newton public school kindergarten in 1990, she was disturbed by what she saw. The kids were being tracked, even at that young age. And then there were the endless hours the small children spent sitting at their desks. It felt unnatural. In the real world, you wouldn’t be stuck in a room with people all the same ages with one person directing them, she thought.
During that single year her daughter was in the school system, McDonald saw enough to convince her that she could do better on her own. That would be no small feat: Newton’s public schools have long been rated as among the best in the state. (In our Greater Boston rankings this year, they’re 10th.) But she’d always worked part time—she’s now an online editor—and she was fortunate that she could maintain a flexible schedule. So she yanked her daughter out of school, and over the next two decades homeschooled all four of her children—including her youngest, Abigail Dickson, who’s now 16.
McDonald’s first homeschool rule was to throw out the book and let her children guide their learning, at their own pace. In lieu of a curriculum or published guides, McDonald improvised, taking advantage of the homeschooling village that had sprouted up around her. One mother ran a theater group, a dad ran a math group, and McDonald oversaw a creative-writing club. Their children took supplementary classes at the Harvard Extension School and Bunker Hill Community College. “I wanted them to be in charge of their own education and decide what they were interested in, and not have someone else telling them what to do and what they were good at,” she says.
Back in the ’90s, McDonald was considered a homeschooling pioneer; now she’s joined by a growing movement of parents who are abstaining from traditional schooling, not on religious grounds but because of another strong belief: that they can educate their kids better than the system can. Though far from mainstream (an estimated 2.2 million students are home-educated in the U.S.), secular homeschooling is trending up. Last year, 277 children were homeschooled in Boston, more than double the total from 2004; in Cambridge the number was 46. (In surrounding towns, the numbers are growing, too: During the 2013–2014 school year, Arlington had 55; Somerville, 36; Winthrop, 5; Brookline, 11; Natick, 36; Newton, 33; and Watertown, 24.)
There’s enough momentum that major cultural institutions—from the Franklin Park Zoo and the New England Aquarium to the Museum of Fine Arts and MIT’s Edgerton Center—now regularly offer classes for homeschoolers. Tellingly, even public school systems are becoming more accommodating. In Cambridge, for example, homeschoolers have the option to attend individual classes in the district’s schools. Some take math or science classes and participate in sports—last year, one homeschooler took music and piano lessons. Carolyn Turk, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning at Cambridge Public Schools, says she’s seeing more of this “hybrid” approach than in the past. “In Cambridge we look at homeschooling as a choice,” she says. “Cambridge is a city of choice.”