On the second day of school, all of Alex Turner’s five kids except Huckleberry, the baby, sat down and practiced writing letters. Not letters as in “A,” “B” and “C,” but letters as in the things people wrote to communicate before email and texting.
“My kids didn’t know how to address a letter,” Turner said.
So she taught them. As one of Kodiak’s newest homeschooling parents, that’s something she can do during school. Homeschooling means freedom and flexibility. That could mean learning to write letters. Or it could mean her kids help build a cabin, as Turner’s kid will do this school year, for part of their math and physical education requirements.
She’s aware that all this sounds too good to be true. After all, it’s only been two days.
“We’re two days in and we’re probably really naive to all this but we’re really excited and the kids are doing great,” she said.
Lisa Cavan calls the first few weeks of homeschooling the honeymoon period.
Cavan is the K-12 Homeschool Coordinator for AKTeach, the homeschooling program facilitated by the Kodiak Island Borough School District. Every year, she sees new families jump into homeschooling. The first few weeks often go great. Then it gets tricky.
“I’ll get a call a little while later that is like, ‘Oh this is so hard. We’re not getting concepts,’” Cavan said.
Even though school has started in person this week, uncertainty still swirls. Could the whole district still go online? Could COVID-19 spread in the school? Some parents did not want their kids to have to wonder about these questions. They’ve turned to homeschooling in droves.
Last year, there were 105 students in the AKTeach program. This year, there are 247. Cavan has had to add two new people to her staff to handle the influx. And that’s just the homeschoolers who do it through the district’s program. There are other, independent programs as well.
Turner said she and her husband Casey, who together run Ardingers Fine Furniture and Alexandra’s Salon, had considered homeschooling before, but never too seriously.
But her kids did not do well in online school last spring, and she didn’t want to risk doing that again, she said. So she decided to pull them out of Kodiak Christian School and teach them with her husband.
“We just wanted the kids to have consistency this year,” she said.
Cavan said it takes a few months of homeschooling for families to know if it’s right for them. That’s what she tells the new homeschool parents who wake up and find it to be much harder than it was a few weeks earlier.
“Usually I say, ‘Relax. Keep going. It’s not the end of the world,’” she said. “It takes six to eight weeks for kids to get into that routine and get used to the roles. To understand that the parent is now the teacher.”
Veteran homeschool parents understand. Many of them have gotten call after call asking for advice and help.
“It’s been an interesting summer. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about homeschool quite this much before,” said Jennifer Hagen, who has homeschooled her daughter for four years.
Many concerns orbit around a single question: Am I going to mess up my kid? The answer, in almost every case, is no.
“And I say just relax. You’re not going to ruin them,” Hagen said.
The pressure can feel like a lot sometimes, as parents try to create and execute lesson plans, field trips and social events themselves.
“I probably would have been kinder to myself, allowing myself to be OK if something didn’t work out,” Beate Daly, who has also homeschooled her daughter for four years, said about what she’d do differently starting out.
“And to just keep moving and try something else and not have the big worry if a certain curriculum didn’t work out for my kid and I had to go back to the drawing board.”
Another big question concerns curriculum, or trying to decide what materials parents will actually use to teach their kids.
The district gives homeschool parents money for every child they teach: $2,000 for kindergarten through third grade, $2,400 for fourth through eighth and $2,600 for high school. That can be used for everything from textbooks to software to museum tickets.
The choices can be overwhelming. The district has samples that parents can view, but there are dozens out there. The key, longtime homeschool parents say, is flexibility. Daly said curriculums are like socks. Parents have to be willing to slip in and out of them as needed.
“You just have to try them on and see if they work,” she said.
“It’s more trial and error than anything,” said Jessica Hecht, who teaches her kids aged 12, 10, 7 and 5. “Not every curriculum is going to fit every kid.”
For instance, Hecht used to use Saxon Math, one popular curriculum, when her kids were younger. As they’ve aged, she moved to Teaching Textbooks because it has a better grading system.
Routine is another issue. Should parents structure days like regular school?
Hagen doesn’t. She and her daughter do school year-round, with trips and vacations mixed in, and a much lighter schedule in the summer. That helps her daughter keep progressing in things like math, where skills often drop off without consistent practice.
There are other families who structure their days like school days, Cavan said, starting at 8 a.m. and going to 3 p.m. Others have one or two kids, and they’re done by lunchtime. Again, veterans emphasized trial and error and flexibility.
Finally, there is the whole question of socializing. There is a stereotypical image of a homeschooler who is locked inside the house 10 hours a day that floats around the popular imagination. Those students are in Kodiak, if they exist at all.
“That’s one misconception about homeschoolers in general, that they are socially isolated,” Daly said.
“Here in Kodiak, our homeschoolers are just everywhere in this community … You’re not just sitting at the kitchen table doing your homeschool work.”
There are homeschoolers on sports teams, at dance studios, at music lessons, at Kingfishers swim club and elsewhere. That has, of course, slowed with the onset of the pandemic, just as it has slowed down things for everyone.
Still, socializing isn’t a problem for homeschoolers in Kodiak. The homeschool community is so tightknit, and there is always something to do.
“Kodiak is one of the best communities to homeschool,” said Hagen, who moved here from Minnesota. “I couldn’t even imagine homeschooling anywhere else.”