BELFAST, Maine — Babette Cohen-Solal, 15, may seem young to be a teacher.
But don’t tell that to the teenagers who followed her lead as she sang and signed energetically to the song “Yellow Submarine” during an American Sign Language class held at the First Baptist Church in Belfast.
It was clear from the other teens’ focus and enthusiasm for the task at hand that Babette, who recently moved to Swanville from New York with her family, is a good teacher. She’s also a home-schooled student, just as they are. The busy social scene at the church is a far cry from the idea that home-schooled students toil alone at their kitchen tables with only a harried parent and a pile of books for company.
Parents who belong to the Belfast-based Waldo County home-school cooperative group rent space in the church a couple of days per week and take turns teaching classes to their children. On Thursday, in addition to the sign language class, older students worked on such diverse subjects as screenwriting, sewing and sex education.
Jasmine Fowler of Morrill is a mother of three home-schooled children, ages 12, 10 and 5, and has been part of the organization since it began five years ago. Back then, there were only three home schooling families that got together to share ideas and a “little bit of structured learning.” Now the group includes many families and about 70 children — it was part of what drew Babette’s family to Maine this fall.
“I’m just so grateful that this community exists in this area,” Fowler said. “I don’t think I’d feel so supported in the idea of taking on home schooling without it.”
In Maine, where 5,025 students were registered as home-schoolers in the 2013-2014 academic year, according to the Department of Education, many say interest in and resources for home schooling are on the rise. While the numbers of home-schooled students are dwarfed by the numbers of students enrolled in public schools in Maine — about 185,767 in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the department — public school enrollment has been on the decline since the 1970s because of a decreasing birthrate.
But home schooling has grown nationally by 2 to 8 percent per year for the past few years, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. That growth means there is a continuing need for help and resources, according to Kathy Green of Homeschoolers of Maine, a statewide organization that aims to support all Maine home-schoolers. She and her husband, Ed Green, founded the organization in 1990 as a nonprofit ministry after they began home schooling their four daughters starting in the early 1980s.
“There weren’t any other home-schoolers we knew. We were on our own,” Green said. “It’s hard to be isolated these days, but in the early ’80s, you were really alone.”
That’s why she’s so happy to help support home schooling families. These days, there are many home schooling co-ops, organizations, Facebook groups and other resources in Maine that work to help parents feel like they don’t have to know it all and do it all when they are teaching their children at home.
“I would say Maine is a comfortable place to home-school these days,” Green said. “It’s about having a good support system around you. It’s also about knowing where to go for resources and knowing where to find the answers. You don’t have to know everything. You do have to know where to find the answers. A support network is just crucial to your success.”
Finding the home schooling ‘tribe’
Many Maine parents who choose to home-school have one thing in common: the desire to take their children out of public schools. But their reasons for doing so are wildly diverse, according to Green and others, and may include religion, educational philosophy, the wish to spend more time with their children and a preference for a flexible schedule. And the ways they go about home schooling can be as numerous as their reasons for choosing this kind of education in the first place.
Some parents are certified teachers who structure class time at home while others seek out tutors or learning centers to supplement or largely provide their kids’ education. At the far end of the spectrum are parents who choose what they call “unschooling,” in which they allow their kids to seek their own education.
Another Maine mother, Amy Beth Brochu-Krikken of Windham, said she is interested in starting another secular resource group for the state’s home-schoolers. Her Facebook page, Maine Homeschool Field Trips, has 330 members and is a way to help home schooling families get out and do cool things, such as the recent trip to the Body Worlds exhibit at the Portland Science Center.
“When you’re a new home-schooler, you need somebody to hold your hand, because you’re like a deer in the headlights,” she said.
When Brochu-Krikken and her husband decided their three boys weren’t being academically challenged at public school and would do better learning at home, she wasn’t sure where to find other like-minded people.
“I needed to find my tribe,” she said. “It’s very important to find your tribe because this is a very big responsibility. You’ve got to find the moms who have gone before.”
In addition to the resource group, Brochu-Krikken has her sights on starting a “micro school” in the Portland area that has a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. The school would help students gain needed skills in those subjects and be a way to ease some of the educational responsibilities of the parents. But it would not be like a public school, she said.
“Basically a micro-school is a one-room school house of the 21st century,” she said. “We take the best available to us, in terms of teachers and the technology we employ, and try it out.”
Having just a small number of students would mean that personalized education is possible.
“It is hard to invent the wheel every day,” she said. “To make sure your kids are engaged and working toward your passion. That’s hard. That’s why I’m so motivated to get this school started. The idea of school is awesome, but the current implementation is not working.”
Having a different interpretation of school is something that Debby Bell-Smith of Orono has been striving to do for about 10 years with her Wassookeag Learning Community. Originally, Wassookeag was an alternative, parent-run school in Dexter, where Bell-Smith had taught. After it closed, she reopened it in Bangor as a private alternative school.
“We found we weren’t really getting alternative families. We had families looking for more of a prep school experience or kids with behavior problems,” she said. “We thought, ‘Who are our people?’ And we realized they were all home schooling.”
In its current permutation, Wassookeag — relocated again to Mill Street in Orono — has been greatly downsized. It’s a place where Bell-Smith acts as a private tutor for kids who are home-schooled. While some home schooling parents rely on her to provide all the education for their children, others send their children to her for a day or two for socialization and extra academic help in subjects such as math or writing.
It’s less expensive for parents than a private school and allows the flexibility and creativity many home schooling families desire. On a normal day, Bell-Smith works with 10 to 13 children, ages 6 to 14, who learn and play together.
“We provide a very collaborative environment,” she said. “What is delightful is they are like a big family. At recess they’re all out together. The 14-year-old plays with the 6-year-old. It’s really lovely.”