PELHAM — Toting her toddler, Joe, along to play groups around town more than a decade ago, Karen Cabral noticed something different about the home-schooled kids they met. They seemed to be more curious, well-mannered and intelligent than many of their peers. Cabral began to think that maybe she could be a home-school mom.
Twelve years and four kids later, she can’t imagine another way of life.
It is estimated that 1.5 million children, or 2.2 percent of the school-age population, are home-schooled in the United States today, up from 850,000 in 1999, according to the National Household Education Surveys program.
Once a way of life associated only with Christian fundamentalists and the anti-establishment crowd, home-schooling has steadily become a viable alternative for thousands of families looking to have the ultimate say over their children’s education.
“Home-schooling has become a lot more mainstream. When I first started, parents were still being thrown in jail on truancy charges,” Cabral said. “As my kids get older, I’m meeting a lot of parents my age with young children who did the career thing before having children and have now chosen home-schooling as a second career and an opportunity to spend quality time with their kids.”
Once an ambitious career woman working at Charles River Laboratories who was “never going to get married or have kids,” Cabral now spends her days home-schooling Kerry, 13, Nina, 11, Mitchell, 8, and Erin, 4. Joe, now 16, decided to attend public high school and is now a sophomore at Pelham High School.
“My job title now is head of manufacturing,” Cabral said, laughing. “I’m manufacturing civilized human beings.”
The Cabral kids are among at least 41 students who are home-schooled in Pelham, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education. The number of home-schooled students may be slightly higher than 41 because the state report takes into account only parents who report to their local superintendent of schools, and not those who report to private schools. More than 4,500 students learn at home statewide.
Cabral struggled through overwhelming feelings of self-doubt during her first year of teaching Joe at home. She found teaching him to read extremely difficult, but once he mastered reading, writing and basic math, learning became fun.
“We un-school here,” she said. “Schooling shouldn’t be so strictly structured, especially in the early years. We focus more on educational play.”
And they “play” throughout the year. Everyone out of bed by 8 a.m. and in bed by 9 p.m., the Cabrals work on a 52-week school year.
“Learning is lifelong and year-round, but we don’t have full school weeks all year-round,” Cabral said. “In the summertime there is so many educational opportunities outside and things to do.”
New Hampshire regulations require that home-schooled families notify their local school district of their intent to home-school and either have their children tested for grade-level proficiency at the end of each school year or keep a portfolio of all of their work to be evaluated by a certified teacher, who, based on the work provided, passes or fails the student in each subject.
Tammi Wilson was convinced that her husband was crazy when he came home from the library with an armful of books about home-schooling when their daughter, Sarah, was just 3.
“I really did think he was crazy, but I read the books and thought it was interesting,” she said.
Now 7, Sarah is in her second year of being home-schooled. The first year was the most difficult, because Wilson tried to run her home like a classroom.
“That didn’t work for us, so now we learn throughout the day and try to make everything we do a learning experience,” she said.
Sarah attends art classes with other home-schoolers in Windham, and participates in activities such as music classes at Pelham Elementary School.
Recently while in the school’s library, the Wilsons saw a model of a dog sled like the ones used in the Iditarod. They began reading about the legendary dog-sled race and the dogs involved. So on the weekend of Feb. 4, the family headed to Vermont to actually go dog-sledding.
Wilson and Cabral agree that the key to successful home-schooling is support. A secular home-schooling support group meets once a month at the Crossroads Baptist Church, giving members of the community a chance to meet each other and discuss educational issues they are facing.
“You can’t do this alone,” Wilson said. “It really helps to be able to talk to people who have been doing this longer than I have. It helps to wash away some of the self-doubt.”
Because a small minority of children are taught at home, outsiders often expect them to be socially awkward, a myth that a few minutes with Sarah Wilson or the Cabral kids is quickly dispelled.
“The kids spend a lot of time out in the world, so they are used to meeting and speaking with new people,” Cabral said.
“We don’t do this because we have a problem with the public schools. We do it because we love to learn together,” she added. “Sarah has friends of all ages and is always able to strike up a conversation with anyone she meets,” Tammi Wilson said.
Although they do use computer programs, such as the “Switch-On School” program, and various workbooks and textbooks to learn everything from English to physics, much of the education at the Cabral house is also guided by the specific interests of the kids.
“We are a very busy family,” declared Mitchell.
He’s not kidding. Every day of the family’s calendar is full of activities from karate and Boy Scouts to community theater and cheerleading.
Kerry has modeled professionally and is involved in competitive cheerleading. Mitchell has earned his brown belt in karate, while Nina, the artist of the family, hopes to join Cirque de Soleil someday and is not shy about showing off her body-bending ability to anybody who asks. An entire section of the family’s front room is populated by Nina’s various craft projects. A Mug root beer case has been transformed into a haunted house, while a giraffe has been fashioned out of a Dove soap box and a discarded necklace.
“An empty toilet paper roll is not safe in this family,” smiled Karen Cabral. “The kids absorb a lot and it is my job to take note of what they absorb and encourage their interests.”
The Cabrals fully supported Joe’s decision to enter the realm of public school for his high-school years.
“We let the kids make decisions about their upbringing as long as they are rational and healthy decisions,” Cabral said. “He had no problem fitting in socially, because he knew a lot of the kids at school through other activities he’s been involved in around town.”
Joe recently scored in the 90th percentile on the PSATs, without having studied for the test or participating in any structured learning and is taking classes at Northern Essex Community College to further his interest in health science and technology.
“We are used to shopping for education and not waiting for the school system to provide everything we need,” Karen Cabral added.
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