For many East County families, school is where your home is.
When David Martin’s oldest child Sara was in kindergarten, she brought home a picture of a dog she colored in school. Disheartened, she told her father she wanted to make the dog look fluffier, but was scolded when she colored outside of the lines.
“She was told, ‘You need to stay inside the lines,’” Martin recalls. “I could just see the spark and curiosity starting to dwindle.”
That’s when Martin, a Heritage Harbour resident, noticed his daughter’s nonconformist approach to learning; the way in which she immersed herself in a topic when it wasn’t forced upon her, the way she’d stress over the teacher’s color-coded behavior charts and fixate on the kids who didn’t fall into line.
One day she asked her parents to put tape over her mouth so she wouldn’t talk out of turn in class.
“We’d ask her how her day was and all she could remember was who got in trouble,” Martin says. “I thought to myself, this isn’t learning, this is creating an environment that’s not allowing her to learn because she’s so worried about behavior and doing what she’s told.”
Martin, who owns Brighter Technologies, a web development and IT services company, was already on the fence about public school. When Sara was still in preschool, he combed the internet for hours researching home-school options and tracking down local resources for families who opt out of brick-and-mortar institutions. He and his wife, Jamie, an on-call occupational therapist, eventually settled on the elementary school in their zone. It was close enough to get to by golf cart, and Sara’s best friend would be there.
“We had all these reasons why we wanted it to work,” Martin says. “We didn’t want to quit in the middle of the year, but it got to a point where she was so unhappy.”
They pulled Sara, now 10, out of kindergarten following winter break and rolled out a plan for her education that included participation in co-ops, enrichment groups and home-schooling meet-ups. In addition, they let her “strew,” which is home-school slang for placing things of interest in a kid’s environment for them to discover independently.
“If you look at self-determination theory, it makes a lot of sense,” Martin says. “None of us want to be controlled or forced. If we can get the same results without having to coerce a child, why wouldn’t we do it this way?”
A lot of families are doing it this way. Home-schooling parents are no longer outliers quietly educating their kids at the kitchen table. A growing number of families in Sarasota and Manatee counties are bucking the system and taking education out of the classroom and into their own hands.
In Manatee County, home-school registrations have increased from 1,127 to 1,329 since the 2013-2014 school year. Sarasota County’s numbers have jumped even more in the past five years — from 1,180 to 1,485, according to the Florida Department of Education. That’s more than 500 new home-school students in five years. Throughout Florida, more than 84,000 students are registered home-schoolers.
“I started home-schooling our children two years ago, and I tried to replicate school as I knew it at home,” says Dawn Leonard, a former Manatee County elementary school teacher whose children are now 5, 8 and 10. “It didn’t work. It wasn’t how my children wanted to naturally learn.”
When Leonard, an East County resident, attempted to fill a day with traditional math, reading, science and social studies lessons, her oldest son, Eli, balked. A math whiz, Eli was completely disinterested in reading. She came to the conclusion that most conventional educational curriculums and schedules are overly restrictive and counterintuitive, not just for teachers, but also for students.
“We’d have times of intense frustration and tears,” says Leonard, who in turn loosened the reins on her teaching methods in favor of a more self-directed approach inspired by real-life activities, such as using math to bake a cake or play Monopoly. “If I just watched and followed his lead, learning would happen naturally without all that tension. When you’re really tapped into the kids’ interests and how they’re intrinsically motivated, there’s no stopping them.”
Leonard isn’t the only home-schooling parent who says self-directed and experiential learning works. More than three dozen Agile Learning Centers scattered across the country cater exactly to this school of thought, including Real Life ALC in Tampa.
After touring and listening psychologist Peter Gray, founder of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, discuss how play leads to natural learning, Leonard decided to open Spark ALC out of her Bradenton home.
Using input from children and not adults, Leonard created a series of stations geared toward self-directed learning, including an outdoor mud kitchen. The drop-in center lightens the load on home-schooling parents, many of whom work from home or stepped away from careers to teach their children. Now in its second year, Spark is maxed out, prompting Leonard to look for another structure to house the program.
“I believe there’s no separation between school and real life,” says Martin, whose daughter and 3-year-old son, Ryan, just wrapped up a year at Spark. “We look at it all as valuable or educational. (At Spark), the kids make choices about what they’re going to learn. My daughter’s favorite response when I ask her how her day was at Spark is, ‘Epic!’”
Like Leonard, Martin sees a need to better serve and connect the area’s growing home-school movement. Since taking Sara out of kindergarten, he has become one of the area’s most vocal home-school proponents, managing the popular Facebook group Sarasota-Manatee VillageLearners, in addition to launching Brighter Schooling, a home-schooling, unschooling and alternative education consulting business. Together, these resources offer tips, support, extracurricular activities and advice to a combined 3,000 followers, a number that is growing.
When Martin recently polled his VillageLearners to find out why they were opting out of traditional schools, the reasons included a desire for more freedom and family time, concerns over negative social interactions and a dissatisfaction with curriculum and standardized tests.
Home-school-based events and programs are on the rise, with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium and South Florida Museum adding programs in recent years. Two years ago, The Players Centre for Performing Arts in Sarasota started offering home-school musical theater and jazz dance classes. Logan Junkins, head of the theater’s children’s program, says the loose nature of the students’ schedules has enhanced the quality of the program. “It’s changed the way I teach,” Junkins says. “We can really take the time to teach the basics, rather than just preparing for a performance.”
Home-schooling parents say social opportunities are everywhere.
Lakewood Ranch mother-of-three Amy Korenman would like to quash the misconception that home-schooled children are socially stunted.
Korenman, who also sends her kids to Spark, says ALCs and other educational programs provide mixed-aged environments so kids of all ages can socialize, which has been a vital improvement to the home-school experience.
“In society, you socialize with everyone, all different ages,” says Korenman, whose kids are involved in dance and BMX biking. “My kids go everywhere with me, and they love to chat … with the checkout person at Publix, with the bank teller … My kids have their Spark ALC friends, their dance friends and their neighborhood friends. That’s three groups right there.”
When planning her 6-year-old’s birthday party, Korenman invited 28 kids. Twenty-three showed up. “That’s a lot of kids for a kid who’s home-schooled,” says Korenman.
A second misconception Korenman would like to clear up is the notion that home-schooled students won’t be prepared for the rigors of college.
Martin and Korenman say colleges, and for that matter the economy, are evolving in a way that suits a home-school education. The University of Florida has admissions administrators assigned to home-school applicants, many of whom are viewed as self-starters who think outside of the box.
Martin sees home schooling as common sense training for what is now being referred to as a “gig economy” — a shifting business environment in which digital, highly mobile, short-term jobs will be the norm.
“I feel like it’s going to be really important to be flexible,” Martin says. “With the increase of automation, there are going to be a lot of jobs that cease to exist. People are going to have to find other ways to make money. Being able to learn on your own will be invaluable. Emotional intelligence and independence is what will make you the most successful.”