Most parents in the county are preparing this month for their children to return to school. For the hundreds of families in Sonoma County who choose to home educate their children, learning is a year-round adventure and “back to school” time is simply a continuation of the learning already happening on a daily basis.
Homeschooling as an alternative to traditional school has been on the rise over the last several decades. While the numbers can be difficult to track because there are now so many different types of home education opportunities parents can choose from, statistics have shown a steady increase in families choosing this alternative.
“What you have is a very interesting conglomeration of educational choices in any given county,” says Cheryl Townsend, Principal of Pathways, a public charter school based in Rohnert Park that operates under the model of independent study. “You can do a headcount through the County Office of Education of how many kids they serve but what that doesn’t tell you is how many students are in charter schools. Then you also have private opportunities, and you have students whose parents choose to file the R-4 form, which is the private school affidavit and releases the state of liability for educating the child. As far as any given number in a county or region or area, it really varies, also taking into consideration independent study programs in traditional school districts. For example, Rancho Cotate High School, and most high schools, have independent study options for students.”
Research from the Department of Education shows that as of 2016 an estimated 1.69 million school-age children were homeschooled in the United States, representing 3.3 percent of all school-age children. While the overall school-age population in the United States grew by about 2.0 percent from spring 2012 to spring 2016, data from 16 states from all four major regions of the nation showed that homeschooling grew by an average of about 25 percent in those states.
There are many varied reasons why parents and students choose to homeschool, ranging from the ability to tailor curriculum and learning to the child, to giving students more time to pursue outside interests such as volunteering, sports, acting, or music, to supporting a learning disabled child, to making a change from a negative school environment. As more options to homeschool became available over the past two decades, so to has this option become more mainstream.
“The California Charter Schools Act of 1992 provided for public, home based learning options,” says Townsend. “There were very limited options only within traditional school districts prior to public independent study charter schools.”
Today, options range from independent study programs at traditional schools, online programs, independent study charter schools, and private school affidavits, to name a few. Having the support of an accredited school not only gives homeschool families resources and support, but also aids in legitimizing documentation such as transcripts.
“I think people look for affiliation with schools for the curriculum, supplies and whatever other services they can receive,” says Townsend. “For our high school population, our school is fully accredited meaning that colleges accept our transcripts. We also have a complete a-g course program whereby if students complete this course series they are eligible to apply to University of California or California State Universities their senior year in high school.”
Pathways Charter School, which serves Sonoma, Marin, Solano and Napa counties, acts as a type of hybrid program where students do most of their academic work at home, but have the opportunity to take classes on-site at the school once or several times a week. Students also receive continual support and resources, tutoring and other services.
“People choose Pathways for the support services like Learning Center classes and strong levels of teacher support,” says Townsend. “Most of our teachers have been with the school since its inception in 2002.”
Last year Pathways had 225 students enrolled in Sonoma County, with a continual wait list of up to approximately 25 students, and an additional 195 students in Marin and Solano counties. They expect similar numbers this year, when the school officially starts on Sept. 3.
“There is more awareness today of educational options,” says Townsend. “Education in California is no longer a one-size-fits-all. Today you have things like home based learning or even schools that have completely different educational delivery models. You have things like expeditionary learning schools, or project-based learning schools. Parents are more aware and have choices now.”