The National Home Education Research Institute estimates the homeschool population to be 2.3 million, with projected growth of 2 to 8 percent per year
VANCOUVER — Home-based education is the fastest growing form of education in the United States, according to a recent report from the US Department of Education (USDE), and Clark County is abounding with proof of such growth.
In September 2019, the USDE’s National Center for Education Statistics published a report on School Choice and found the number of full-time homeschoolers almost doubled between 1999 and 2016, from 850,000 to 1.7 million.
Today, the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimates the homeschool population to be 2.3 million, with projected growth of 2 to 8 percent per year. While the number of homeschool students remains relatively low compared to that of public and private school populations, the USDE called the growth significant. By comparison, public school enrollment increased by just 1 percent during the same period and private school enrollment declined by 4 percent.
For homeschoolers in Clark County, this comes as no surprise. Evidence is all around. From co-ops and “Friday Schools,” to one-room schoolhouse gatherings in the Historic Covington House and resource centers brimming with enthusiastic students and parents, the homeschool landscape in Clark County is becoming a homeschooler’s paradise.
Michelle Skundrick, a Vancouver homeschool parent of four, has witnessed this “phenomenal growth in homeschooling.” Skundrick serves as a Support Representative (SR) to local homeschoolers following a classical, Christian education program called Classical Conversations (CC). When she began her role as SR four years ago, the Southwest Washington Region of CC had three groups meeting regularly to support kindergarten through high school homeschool students.
Today, the region has eight CC communities, with over 90 in the state of Washington. CC students and parents gather weekly to review shared curriculum content in small classroom settings, conduct hands-on science experiments, celebrate fine arts, and practice public speaking. They also use their numbers to host free summer seminars for homeschooling parents and schedule field trips for special events at the Oregon Symphony, Ashland Shakespeare Festival, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
According to Skundrick, “More families are looking at their children as souls to be nurtured rather than products to be measured. Parents are choosing to walk alongside their children and teach them according to their natural abilities and passions God has given them.”
Multiple resources created
As the number of CC communities nearly tripled in Clark County, multiple resources dedicated to homeschoolers also sprang up. Glen’s Gizmos, founded by Joel and Roxanna Thomas in 2016, is a tutoring service specializing in Science Technology Engineering Art and Math (STEAM). They began as a mobile unit traveling to homeschool co-ops and events in Oregon and Washington, but demand for their services eventually led them to settle into a Vancouver storefront on East Evergreen Blvd.
From 24 students last November to 160 enrollments this fall, Joel Thomas observed, “The homeschool movement is a fast growing movement, with families choosing to homeschool for a wide range of reasons.” So rapid is the growth, in fact, the Thomases plan to open a second Homeschool Hub in Newberg, Oregon in fall 2020.
Families currently travel to the Vancouver HUB from Newberg, Hillsboro, and St. Helens, Oregon, as well as Kelso and Longview, Washington to help meet the academic and social needs of their children.
“The HUB is a tutor center bringing encouragement, inspiration, expertise and resources which would otherwise be out of reach for many families,” said Joel Thomas. With thousands of dollars worth of donated equipment, preserved specimens, and eight hand-picked tutors, parents agree.
Vancouver resident Susan Eyk has been homeschooling her son for six years and has enrolled him in science classes with the Thomases every term since she discovered their services two years ago. “We are so pleased with the content and atmosphere at Glen’s Gizmos. They meet a need for us by offering wonderful science classes with experiments and expertise that we simply are not able to provide at home. Furthermore, they give our son the opportunity to experience the benefits of a classroom environment — building friendships, learning in community, discovering how to be a healthy part of a group environment — while still enjoying the advantages of homeschooling.”
At just $12-16 per tutor session, homeschooled students at Glen’s Gizmos may take watercolor lessons from an accomplished children’s book artist, experienced art teacher, and homeschool parent, Kim Tener. Similarly, junior high and high school-aged students can enroll in a hands-on chemistry class with Dr. Bonnie Surmi, a passionate teacher and homeschool mother of three, who specializes in biology and chemistry.
Additional support available
But STEAM tutors are not the only support available to local homeschoolers. The Firmly Planted Homeschool Resource Center (FPHRC) is a 27,000-square-foot facility that opened its doors off NE 112th Street in October 2017, thanks to the generosity of local businessman David Madore, owner of US Digital. Since that time, attendance has surged as parents drive from as far away as Salem, Hood River and Longview to take advantage of homeschool counseling, special events and a wide range of classes Monday through Friday, for parents and homeschoolers of all ages.
The scene is anything but the stereotypical awkward homeschool crowd. Parents enjoy a cup of coffee and visit at the Raft Coffeehouse or discuss curriculum at the Headwaters Bookstore while their children enjoy a variety of affordable core classes such as math, biology, chemistry, writing and history as well as interactive music, dance and theater lessons, elementary and high school choirs, or physical education, among others. Private lesson space allows students to learn in a safe environment with experienced teachers who offer piano, violin, guitar and drum lessons, at competitive rates.
According to its co-founder, Heidi St. John, a homeschool mother of seven, speaker, author and popular podcaster, the nonprofit and faith-based organization of Firmly Planted Family started more than 15 years ago. Originally operating as First Class Homeschool Ministries, Jay and Heidi St. John started local co-ops to encourage and equip homeschoolers, which quickly grew to an affiliation of sixty co-ops around the country.
“I have witnessed the tremendous rise in independent homeschooling since my husband and I started homeschooling 21 years ago,” said Heidi St. John, “especially in regions where parents find their input dwindling in public school curriculum and methodology. Parents are frustrated and searching for solutions.”
FPHRC fulfills a long-held dream of the St. Johns and provides a place for homeschoolers to find both instructional support and friends.
“Every single day, parents enter the Homeschool Resource Center who are pulling their kids out of public school and looking for help,” said Heidi. “When they walk through the doors, they find classes, coffee and community- but more than that, they find hope. We are helping put parents back into the driver’s seat of their child’s education.”
On Jan. 18, 2020 FPHRC hosted an “All About Homeschooling Conference” in which parents could attend several workshops like “Homeschooling 101” or “Thinking About Homeschooling,” with Curriculum Table Talks available throughout the day.
The massive success of this cafeteria-style resource offering is likely why the city of Vancouver’s Firstenburg Community Center opened up registration to a secular homeschool co-op this September. Already into their third session of the year, homeschoolers at Firstenburg can choose from a variety of class options on Mondays and Thursdays, including Spanish, soccer, journalistic writing, and speech.
For more information about Firmly Planted Family, go to FirmlyPlantedFamily.org.
Benefits of homeschool services
The benefits of such a plethora of homeschool services extend beyond assistance for students and parents. Nadia Nelson, a May 2019 graduate of Warner Pacific University in Portland, has found full-time employment sharing her passion and musical talent with the next generation. A homeschool graduate herself, Nelson offers private music lessons as well as group instruction at the Firmly Planted Homeschool Resource Center, Firstenburg Community Center co-op, and a private school in Camas.
“Not only am I using my degree in music, which many said was unlikely, but I believe teaching is something I was born to do. I am grateful for the opportunity to do what I love and empower the next generation of musicians,” said Nelson.
In reference to her own upbringing as a homeschooled student in the Pacific Northwest, Nelson explained, “Homeschooling is all about thinking outside the box. Even though my sisters and I were homeschooled, we rarely stayed at home. We studied at the library, explored local museums, and went grocery shopping as a math exercise. I attended a few co-ops, where I met people who are still my best friends today, more than a decade later. Teaching at a co-op brings back wonderful memories.”
So, who can afford to homeschool or take advantage of such specialized resources and why do they choose to educate their children on their own? According to the USDE’s report, homeschooling grew steadily across all income levels, labor force categories, and ethnic groups since 1999. It also grew across all school ages, from kindergarten through high school, but especially for high school students. And, it grew among students with disabilities. 34 percent of parents cited “concerns about school environment” as their reason for homeschooling, followed by a “dissatisfaction with instruction” and a “desire for religious instruction.”
The decision to homeschool is not without financial cost or sacrifice, however. The NHERI estimates homeschool families spend an average of $600 per student annually for their education, not including the sometimes total or partial loss of income to remain available for home-based education. Class and supply expenses are not tax-deductible for homeschool parents in most states. Yet home-based education likely saves the American taxpayers over $27 billion annually. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates taxpayers spend an average of $11,762 per student per year in public schools.
Clark County homeschoolers continue to find new and inexpensive or cost-free ways to gather for friendship, education, and adventure. A group called School at Home Adventures schedules field trips that are open to all local homeschool families. Regular game nights and forest hiking adventures are organized through Facebook groups and next month, a Vancouver chapter of Wild & Free will launch, as part of a larger, global network, which will facilitate free outdoor meetups for homeschoolers and nature lovers, regardless of age, religion, or curriculum.
If the thriving homeschool communities and resources in Clark County are any indicator, home-based education, and the savings it offers American taxpayers, will continue to skyrocket.
Jessica Hofer Wilkinson is a freelance writer, home educator and mother of three, and nursing home chaplain. She resides in Clark County.