Tuesday, March 4, 2008 | Fed up with crowded classes, Rose Banks plucked her gifted granddaughter from her El Centro elementary school midway through the first grade, and started cobbling together a homeschool program. For Banks, who had never taught before, it was a bewildering task.

“Where do I go? What does the state require? I didn’t want to teach her at my whim,” Banks recalled. “I wanted her to graduate, to get credit for her classes and go on to college.”

Banks found guidance through a free, unconventional school that helps homeschoolers shape their education. Today, her 17-year-old granddaughter Stacy Banks is nearing graduation from Greater San Diego Academy, one of a growing crop of charter schools that caters to homeschoolers. It equips parents to be better teachers, wading through lessons in grammar and calculus; it helps students tackle lessons, and fortify their college applications.

Kids meet with a teacher twice weekly to go over assignments, then complete their work at home, guided by a parent. Parents attend regular meetings with credentialed teachers, who coach them in how to conquer tough subjects, and consult them on their child’s progress. Together, teachers and parents design individual plans, mapping out what students will learn, and how. Some kids opt to learn one subject at a time; others balance multiple classes. Each child’s education is completely different, depending on what parents and students want.

Its students include child athletes, disabled students, kids who bore of traditional classrooms, and even a professional rabbit-breeder. But if its clientele are unusual, its curriculum is squarely state-based, hewing to government standards. California has already laid out the essential things that students learn each year, said Nicole Schoolsky, the school’s assistant director.

“Why recreate the wheel?” she asked.

Twice a week, Stacy Banks stops into a small Jamul office bordering a hardware store, where she retrieves packets of worksheets and readings to take home. A decade ago, Stacy fidgeted in a big class where her teacher couldn’t keep her busy; now, she juggles karate, guitar, volunteering and college classes between her schoolwork.

“I wish I’d done this for my other children,” Rose Banks said. “I wish I’d had help.”

On a Tuesday morning, the Jamul office is abuzz with weekly elective classes — art for the middle schoolers, a biology lab for the high school kids. Teacher Michelle D’Augusta guides a cluster of kids making papier-mache masks, chatting easily with a sixth grader, Aryan Ramezani, about her recent trip to China and Japan. As a homeschooled student, Ramezani is free to travel often with her father, and now speaks Spanish, Farsi and Chinese.

Historically, homeschooling has been stigmatized as the Wild West of education, a loose network that includes child actors, religious objectors, and public school refugees of all stripes. In California, any parent can homeschool by filling out a private school affidavit, which exempts a child from attending public school. What happens then is up to the parent, who designs lessons on standard subjects as they please.

But amid a nationwide push to standardize schools — and a crunch for spots at California colleges — many homeschoolers are opting for more structure.

“My concern was, am I qualified to give my kids a quality education?” asked Lyn Burnes, whose two sons attend the Classical Academy, an Escondido charter school for homeschooled children. Burnes decided to quit the public school system because her son, a fast learner, felt lost in a large classroom. A self-described Christian, Burnes was also unnerved by the public schools’ take on U.S. history and evolution.

“I wanted the oversight of an established institution,” Burnes said, “and I wanted to reinforce that with my own values, at home.”

Charter schools are filling that niche, with more and more homeschool charters opening each year, said Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association. Publicly funded but independently run, charter schools enjoy greater flexibility and autonomy in designing programs, and operate with minimal oversight by school districts. They don’t charge tuition, and they don’t have to keep attendance the same way public schools do — based on the time students are sitting in a traditional classroom.

“That’s saying you can only learn within the confines of the classroom. But not all students do,” said Jeff Rice, director and founder of the Association of Personalized Learning Schools and Services, a network of 44 schools specializing in individually-tailored instruction. “So then what do you do?”

For some parents, such schools have put homeschooling within reach — and within budget. Robert McVickar, a father fresh out of the military, said textbook costs alone would price him out of homeschooling. A typical textbook can cost $75 or more. Greater San Diego Academy supplies books for free, and offers seminars on how to teach subjects such as mathematics, McVickar’s toughest subject.

“On our own, it would’ve been really, really hard,” McVickar said. He plans to return to his home state of Alabama — and when he gets there, to stop homeschooling. “There, they don’t have a system like this.”

In San Diego County, that system is changing the face of homeschooling. Fifteen of San Diego County’s 73 charter schools are independent study programs, and anecdotal reports suggest homeschool programs are growing.

Greater San Diego Academy started in 1999, and has expanded to four sites, scattered through the county. Dehesa Charter School followed in 2001; its enrollment has exploded from less than 100 students to more than 600. A third charter, the Classical Academies, began in 1999 as a single Escondido school with 220 students. Today, the charter operates three schools that collectively enroll more than 1,400 students, and just added 150 students to its waitlist.

“We dispel a lot of fear” about homeschooling, said Cameron Curry, chief business officer for the Classical Academies. “Parents really fear and question their own abilities. But who taught your child how to walk? How to tie their shoes? That was you.” And since the school was founded, perceptions of homeschooling have changed. “It went from ‘Ew, you homeschool?’ to ‘Tell me about that.’”

The phenomenon sparked the interest of Bob Collins, superintendent of the Grossmont Union High School District. For nearly two decades, Grossmont has sponsored its own Home Choice program, which offers online classes, independent study and electives to homeschooled students. In a district where dropping enrollment has cost schools millions in attendance funds, Home Choice keeps homeschooled students in the system, pumping state money into the schools.

But Collins believes the Home Choice program serves only a sliver of eligible families in El Cajon. Sixty-four students take Home Choice classes; Collins estimates that 900 El Cajon families choose to homeschool. Bent on bringing more families into Grossmont schools, Collins is promoting Home Choice more heavily this year, citing the same concerns that charter homeschools raise.

“Parents can handle teaching middle school pretty easily,” Collins said. “But I wouldn’t try to teach my child calculus. State law and graduation and college admission requirements have become more difficult. I’d hate to see a parent homeschool their youngster and leave something out.”

School rituals are also key for many homeschool charters fending off the stereotype that homeschooling stunts social growth. Dehesa prints a yearbook, fields an award-winning robotics team, and holds school-wide writing and art competitions; Greater San Diego Academy’s student government is mulling whether to host its first prom.

Those extras are reassuring to parents like Michelle Wetzel, a Jamul mother whose eighth-grade son attends Greater San Diego Academy. Her son struggled in traditional schools, pitching fits when classes grew hectic or disorganized, or when teachers criticized him. Homeschooling has helped him grow emotionally, she said. But it’s not her long-term plan.

“We want him to get back into the mainstream,” Wetzel said. “He needs to hear criticism from other folks. That’s reality.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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