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Homeschool Parents Tackle #1 Question: What About Socialization?

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA
One of the classes at PALS is fantasy baseball math, which uses the Pirates and baseball as a means to teach math.

Every Wednesday, at a former Catholic school building in Brookline, more than 100 children gather for “People are Always Learning Something” or PALS, enrichment – a weekly co-op. The families there homeschool their children, and pretty much everyone said they’d been asked by one or more people how their children socialize if they are homeschooled.

“I think that’s probably the number one thing that most homeschool parents hear from people in the community,” said PALS Community Liaison Elizabeth Erikson, “and I think what that means is, ‘How do you make sure your kids aren’t weird?’”

Erikson has five children ranging in age from 10 to 17. All are homeschooled, and while the two oldest attended pre-school, that’s the extent of their “public education.”

“Pretty much every year I ask them, ‘Well what do you think? Do you want to go to school?’ and it’s always, ‘Nope! No way!’ They have no real desire to attend school,” said Erikson. “Not because they have terribly negative ideas about schooling, but they feel like they really don’t want to devote so much of their day to going to an institution away from home and having less choice.”

Not being in a school building all day opens her kids up to a variety of activities and the community as a whole, Erikson said. And she pointed out that homeschooling doesn’t mean everything happens only at home.

“Socialization happens organically when you go out in the community, and people have a perception that homeschool families spend all of their time at home, sitting at their kitchen table, filling out worksheets, and that really is not the experience of the majority of homeschool families,” Erikson said.

PALS is a non-religious co-op that offers a space for babies and toddlers and programs for those up to age 17. Once a week, parents bring their children and they have a choice of which classes they can take.  The classes are not traditional math, science and English classes. Most of them are not broken into specific age and grade groups and all subjects were voted on, so kids decide the curriculum.

Offerings this term include fantasy baseball math, which uses the Pirates and baseball as a means to teach math; American Girl Theater, which uses dolls to teach about history and martial arts. The plague class is taught by a nurse, and all other classes are taught either by parents or outside experts in a field.

Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
In addition to classes, PALS offers free time activities such as Lego club. The students in the background are playing a role playing game developed by students.

PALS is only one of many programs in the region which offer schooling outside of the home for homeschool families.

“We are out in the community taking classes, going to the museum, coming here to the co-op, we go to the grocery store, our children have a really wide variety of interactions with all kinds of people of all ages,” said Erikson.

But, that isn’t the experience for everyone.

“There are people who homeschool to keep their kids insulated, either safe or, frankly, to keep them from learning things they don’t believe in,” said PALS board member Catherine Aceto.

But PALS parents say that is becoming more and more rare. While PALS is secular, the Pittsburgh area has several groups geared toward religious homeschoolers, and there are numerous other specialized co-ops and groups. Every homeschool family is different, and Rachel Coleman with the Coalition for Responsible Homeschooling cautioned that though many parents don’t worry about socialization, that doesn’t mean it’s a topic that should be ignored.

“Even though the research suggests that homeschool children can be well-socialized, it is something that deserves attention and effort on the part of the parents and sort of brushing it off like it’s unimportant makes it easy to overlook those times when homeschool children simply are lonely because they need more social interaction than they’re getting,” said Coleman.

Coleman said that’s where co-ops can be key, and she added that it’s ultimately up the parent to ensure their child gets out into the world and learns to be social. The PALS parents said while public education is valuable and critical, it just wasn’t right for their children. That was the case for Celishia Rent, whose son tried a more traditional learning environment for pre-school.

“My son went and he was being socialized, and it wasn’t the kind of social skills I was hoping he would pick up,” said Rent. “And while he learned a lot and academically did very well, his social skills plummeted that year and we were like, we can’t do this, it’s too much.”

In terms of social opportunities for kids and resources for parents, there is no shortage in the Pittsburgh region.

“I mean I think there’s almost an over-abundance,” said Susan Spencer. “There’s times where we feel like we’re doing too much, we’re doing too many classes … and by him not being in school we also have time to do things like swim lessons and karate and all these other things that if he were in school all day long he’d be too tired, and we’d be too run down from our schedules.”

Social media has played a key role in coordinating events outside of things like the co-op or weekly gym time, and it’s not just for the kids’ benefit. It also helps parents plan events for each other.

“Just like a social outing for parents without the kids – because it’s pretty hard here for us parents to talk because we’re chasing kids,” said Spencer.  

One thing that is clear is that the term “homeschool” is a broad one. Within PALS, the parents have numerous ways in which they teach their children. Some have a set curriculum, some utilize cyber-charter schools, some do a mix of homeschooling and public schooling, and there are families who do what’s called “un-schooling,” which largely lets the child learn through play and dictate what is learned through their own interests. Plus, public school extracurricular activities such as sports and band are open to homeschooled students.

So when asked how their children make friends when they are homeschooled, Catherine Aceto summed it up:

“They make friends at the library, they make friends at other classes you take them to, they make friends with the friends of your friends, they actually have a lot of time for making friends and they make friends in the neighborhood obviously.”

Though once largely a religious population, the secular homeschool community continues to expand in Pittsburgh. And while already numerous, the number of opportunities for homeschool families is always on the rise.

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