Monday, June 22, 2009

Catholic schools or home schooling?

William Fahey, President Thomas More College of Liberal Arts had praise and advice for homeschooling mothers at a recent homeschooling conference in Massachusetts, and caused some controversy. "'Home schooling puts an almost unmanageable strain on mothers, he said.
Home-schooling mothers are expected to be several things at once: mothers, homemakers, teachers, disciplinarians, wives and, for some, wage earners, too.
If home schooling seems like too much, he said, it’s because it is. We are political creatures, in the Socratic sense, and students learn best with other students. Schools are the best alternative for teaching children,' he said."

The editors of the Register covered both sides of this often contentious issue in the article below. Having lived on both sides of the fence, I find myself in a unique position to comment on the debate.

I homeschooled my two oldest daughters for ten years. I was asked to do so by my husband right after our honeymoon, and I thought he was asking a lot. I am a certified teacher (K-12 English as a Second Language, and I knew how much work was involved) Mr Fahey agrees that asking a mom to homeschool her children is a herculean task, especially when coupled with her other responsibilities. In my case, this meant helping to support my family.
I swung between years of structure (Seton), semi-structure (Catholic Heritage Curriculum) and do it yourself curriculum when the budget was low, and I used books donated by friends. I enjoyed the company of my three girls, and the extraordinarily close relationship they forged. I enjoyed the various homeschool groups which we joined and the close friendships we forged. I saw my girls grow in their reading and writing skills, math facts, knowledge of nature and history, and most importantly their Catholic faith. It was a wonderful experience in many ways, and I miss it. Having my girls home for the summer is as close as we get now to that family togetherness we once shared.

But it was not perfect. Having to work part time and having my youngest child, Christina with Down syndrome, meant we missed many opportunities to socialize with other homeschoolers, due to work and therapy commitments. Sometimes this left us feeling out of the loop, an misunderstood by more affluent homeschoolers who had more free time. Homeschooling is not possible for those without the luxury of a full time stay at home mother. Not that these families were swimming in luxury; most of these mothers make heroic sacrifices to be able to stay home, they drive old vans, wear hand me down clothing, live in overcrowded, outdated homes and prepare their own simple meals, rarely going out to eat or on vacation, still, with all these sacrifices, if a mom must contribute to the family income as I do, homeshooling may not be an option.

Another problem was that many Catholic homeschool groups at least on Long Island, where we lived at the time, were temporary. We belonged to nine groups which lasted from one to three years. While me met a variety of people, it was discouraging to see groups disband so often. Homeschoolers by nature are an independent bunch; and often these groups split over ideological or personality differences, some of which were painful and divisive, forcing bystanders to take sides or lose friends.

Another problem was that very few of these groups (four) had leadership from a priest, and this led to women taking overly strong leadership roles in these groups by default. This is not natural in the Catholic Church, where women's roles as nurturer and teacher are treasured, and the priest's role in ministry is central. Our children had little time to become involved in actual church activities. Some of this was not our fault, we homeschoolers were looking for a more traditional take on our faith, and it can be hard to find. We often travelled far and wide to attend more traditional Masses. What we did find were some young priests who shared our love for the Latin Mass, and homeschoolers formed the basis for many of these fledgling Masses; as attendees, altar boys, and schola singers. We enjoy being the leaders of the return to tradition in many areas; living the liturgical year, reading classic literature, learning Latin and Gregorian Chant. This is something I continue to enjoy whenever my visits home give me an opportunity to attend the Latin Mass near my old home. I am very proud of the support the homeschooling community has given to this movement of the Holy Spirit within the Church.

Another issue is discipline. I taught English at some homeschool co-ops and enjoyed working with children other than my own. I taught a literature-based writing class in which four girls won diocesan awards for their creative writing on pro-life themes. There were times, however, when a mother's over protectiveness meant that certain students, mostly adolescent boys, were disruptive and rude, making it nearly impossible to teach. Homeschooling can easily become too much of a shelter, keeping mothers from seeing the truth about some of their children's faults. I was not immune to this with my own children, and often asked for feedback from moms who taught them in cooperative learning situations about their behavior when in groups. Children who have mom's undivided attention at home, can easily become adverse to taking turns, and allowing others to be the center of attention in a homeschool, making transition to the classroom painful for both student and teacher. For this reason, homeschoolers are often viewed as odd by even devout Catholic school teachers.

As a homeschooling mother who made the decision to enroll her children in traditional Catholic schools, I am sometimes viewed as something of a traitor. Many homeschooling mothers see their second (or is it third?) vocation as a lifelong commitment, even extending into college. I saw it as a temporary option, rich in opportunity, to be re-evaluated each year as my children's needs changed. When my high school freshman expressed a desire to see her friends more, and an interest in nursing, I understood that a good Catholic convent school with a strong science program would better meet her needs. Gabbi found the transition taxing in terms of pure hours of her day; after six hours of schooling, she had 3-4 hours of homework. When she played sports, she was often up till midnight finishing her homework. Exams were times of great stress for her. There were many benefits, however, she enjoyed seeing her new friends on a daily basis, and taking part in school events; softball games, plays, concerts, field trips, and conferences. She made friends with international students, saw herself as part of a larger group, and got to know religious sisters. Gabbi made the honor roll two out of three semesters, taking honors classes, and was the star prosecutor in the moot court in her civics class. She heard her mother's values repeated by adults she respected, and gained the affection and respect of her instructors. We look forward to her college career with greater confidence because of her smooth transition to Catholic school.
My sixth grader, Isabella, was growing defiant to being taught at home, and expressed the greatest enthusiasm for our family move to Connecticut where we found truly Catholic schools where sisters in full habit taught catechism from the beautiful "Faith and Life" series from Ignatius Press. Bella's teachers were deeply devoted to their students and knowledgeable about their subjects, and Isabella has blossomed into a self-motivated, enthusiastic student who works on extra credit projects on her own, and chatters happily throughout the evening about events at school. Both girls have found wonderful Catholic girls for friends, some of whom have been homeschooled themselves.
I find some gaps in the Catholic character of the education in Catholic schools, where secular textbooks, especially those used for history and literature, could be replaced with some of the wonderful texts emerging from the Catholic presses. For example, I showed my pastor the textbooks from Ignatius Press for middle school history, "All Ye Lands" and he heartily agreed that they were far superior to the existing textbooks and moved to change them at once. The lay teacher who got the new books was thrilled that she no longer had to correct anti-Catholic elements of the textbook. As a substitute teacher in the school, I was able to introduce the children to some of the rich traditions we had time to celebrate as homeschoolers; the Jesse Tree, the O Antiphons, etc. I enjoyed attending First Friday Mass and Benediction with the class, as well as field day and the end of year concert and art show.
As I stay home most days and pursue my writing career, I thank God for the opportunity to home school my daughters when they were younger, feeling pride in our accomplishments academically, socially and in the faith. We have integrated our family into the larger Church as we support good Catholic schools and share the riches we gained in our Domestic Church.
Fr Josephy Fessio once told a group of EWTN supporters that homeschooling would be the salvation of the Church, and I agree; the richness of tradition which has been enjoying a revival in the Catholic homeschool has a lot to offer the Catholic educational community, if we are willing to learn from one another.
"Alongside the home-schooling movement are signs of renewal in Catholic schools. Parish schools are often the best in academics and discipline. Now, many dioceses are shoring up the faith content of their schools as well, using the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a standard for religious instruction texts.
Maybe the new interest in home schooling is part of a larger trend toward better schooling in general.
Maybe the rise in home schooling will cause schools to improve in order to compete. That would make home schooling a sign of hope for the future of education."

Read the entire article in the Register.


Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

You know I've been on both sides of this fence as well and your observations are right-on! I am so thankful for the years we had together homeschooling and people can see the effects in how close my kids are to each other and in their behavior, as well as how well they excel in school. It does take an extraordinary effort from the family and only they can make that decision if they can take the pressure. Soon I'll be in the position of being a "traitor" to Catholic school as well as I'll probably be putting my kids in my local public high school. Again only the parents can assess how they think their children will do in that particular environment. Thanks for your honest comments here.

+JMJ+ said...

I wonder if you have ever read, would read, or have views on the book, Designed to Fail - Catholic Education in America.

Leticia said...

I would like to read it if I have time. May I emphasize the fact that I had to leave Long Island, where I lived 45 years, to find Catholic schools which were orthodox. Sadly, they are the exception to the rule.
But Catholic school administrators please note;where schools are orthodox they are usually thriving.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Money drives everything and that is part of the problem. The Diocese of Rockville Center and its parish and regional schools can't afford to purchase Catholic textbooks and are forced to accept what the school districts will give them. Curriculums are also state-driven by NYS law.

Anonymous said...

There is a traditional school on LI - Saint Pius V School. Are you familiar with this school? They teach with sisters in full habit and they use the Baltimore Catechism.

Leticia said...

I have several friends who send their children to this school.
They LOOK Catholic. But they are missing the page of the Baltimore Catechism about the Pope being the successor of St Peter and Christ's promise that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against the papacy.
They are Sedevacantists who believe that Jesus made an empty promise to lead the Church, and the Holy Spirit abandoned us without a leader.