Jen Nuntavong home schools her sons Jaden, 6, and Jet, 3, at their home on Ft. Belvoir in Alexandria, VA, on October 6. (Sheila Vemmer / Staff)
Making the choice
My gut tightened when my wife first floated the idea of home schooling six months ago.
Never mind that I work from home. Never mind that my wife is halfway through a demanding full-time grad-school program or that we moved to this far-too-expensive Seattle suburb specifically because it offers some of the best public schools in the country.
But over her fifth-grade year, our daughter Amelia had lost her love of learning, transforming from an enthusiastic student into a disinterested kid struggling to make Cs. Meanwhile, our 6-year-old Noah’s nightmares were getting worse — and his enthusiasm for violence increasing — with every blow-by-blow retelling of R-rated movies his first-grade classmates were watching at home and re-enacting at recess.
Could home schooling be the answer?
If I was wary, our daughter was downright horrified, convinced it would ruin her life. Our son was hot and cold but mostly thrilled with the idea of "not going to school anymore."
As we started to ask around this summer, we were surprised at how many of our friends and neighbors were thinking about home schooling — and even more surprised at how many had already jumped in.
One of those neighbors was David Guterson. Long before he wrote the best-selling novel "Snow Falling on Cedars," he’d been a teacher at our local high school. Turns out he wrote another book long before, "Family Matters — Why Homeschooling Makes Sense."
For reasons neither religious nor political, Guterson makes a convincing case for why he and his wife decided to home-school their boys.
Since that book was published in 1992, several studies have reinforced his central thesis that home-schooled kids typically do better — academically, developmentally and socially — than kids from "normal" schools.
So we’ve taken the plunge. More than a month into it, our daughter’s hostility has softened. "I still hate it," she just told me, but with a smile, not a sneer, as she works on a project. Noah has been a terror, first enthusiastic and later resisting every step of the way. But he’s slowly coming around to the idea that this just might be pretty cool.
My wife, now a full-time teacher and still a full-time student, is at times exhausted and at others exhilarated, but through it all remains fully determined. We’re going to give it a year and see how it goes. By then, hopefully, we’ll all have learned some valuable lessons.
— Jon R. Anderson
stay on track
For children who qualify to attend military-run schools in the U.S. or overseas, the Department of Defense Education Activity offers plenty of resources to help parents build their curriculum, providing textbooks, software, library and distance-learning access, and after-school activities.
Charlie Toth, DoDEA’s associate director for education, says it’s not uncommon for home-schooling children to attend some classes at on-base schools, particularly in the arts and sciences.
To help gauge their kids’ progress, parents take advantage of free standardized testing available through DoDEA and, often, their local public schools. Some states even require this. A variety of other nationally recognized tests are available to purchase.
Free online tutoring services are also available to all children of active-duty service members and military civilians. By logging on to www.tutor.com/military, students can get one-on-one help in math, science, social studies and English.
Jennifer Nuntavong is out in the rain with her two young boys, jumping in puddles at Fort Belvoir, Va. The family of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, they're on their way home to make lunch and then head to the bowling alley for the afternoon.
On the opposite coast, Army Lt. Col. James Rexford is home early from his job as a logistics officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. It's a beautiful day, so he and his wife, Ame, take their four kids to a nearby beach, where they collect shells and then gather on a blanket as Ame reads "Island of the Blue Dolphins" aloud.
For both families, it's just another day in the fastest-growing classroom in the U.S. — the one at home.
Experts estimate there are 2 million home-schoolers, with their numbers growing as much as 12 percent annually in recent years. And there is data to indicate that military families are home schooling at perhaps twice the national average.
That doesn't surprise the Rexfords, who have been home schooling for 10 years. "Home schooling fits the military lifestyle very well," James Rexford says. "When you move, the school goes with you. When you have time off, the kids can take time off with you."
Gone are the occasional sideways looks they sometimes got when their decision to home-school came up in conversation, he says.
"Now, the response is usually, ‘Oh, that's awesome. We're thinking about doing that, too.' Or, they already are."
As the number of home schoolers has grown, opposition, once fierce in some corners, has dwindled in recent years.
Laws severely restricting home schooling in California, for example, have been overturned. A spokesman for the state chapter of the National Education Association says the teachers union has no policy against home schooling but encourages home-schooling parents to become certified teachers.
One home-schooling veteran remembers when the brass in Europe tried to forbid home schooling there about 10 years ago. "That's all gone now," says Valerie Moon, who runs the website MilitaryHomeschoolers .com. "The military has become very supportive."
Home schooling in the military already had eclipsed that of the general population back when the home-schooling movement was just getting off the ground.
A 2001 Army survey found that 2.7 percent of those with school-age kids were home schooling, about twice the national average at the time. And in the decade since that study, the percentage of home-schoolers nationwide has risen dramatically, climbing from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.5 million in 2007, from 1.7 percent to 3 percent of all school-age children, according to the Education Department.
It wouldn't surprise Charlie Toth if military home-schoolers have made similar gains, though no new data is available.
Toth, now a top Department of Defense Education Activity administrator, was superintendent of nine U.S. schools in South Korea four years ago, when about 200 military families were home schooling, just under 6 percent of those with school-age kids stationed there.
If that's representative of the military as a whole — and assuming no growth in the four years since — it would mean about 70,000 military children are learning at home.
If you're among those thinking about making the switch, keep in mind these lessons military families have learned along the way:
Like many early home-schooling families, the Rexfords' decision to home-school was rooted in a desire to incorporate more of their Christian faith into their children's education.
"But really, we wanted to give our children a classic education," James Rexford says. "That is, not what to think, but how to think logically."
But living in a small apartment in Germany with three young kids, "I couldn't even conceive of it," Ame Rexford says.
That was until her oldest son Joshua — a first-grader at the time — came home from his on-base school at Mannheim with news that two of his classmates had done "the sex thing" over the weekend.
Meanwhile, his teacher was reluctant to put Joshua into an accelerated reading program that Ame knew he was ready for.
So the Rexfords decided to take the plunge.
"This is probably one of the most significant decisions parents can make regarding the educational foundation for their child," says Toth, DoDEA's associate director for education.
DoDEA is responsible for supporting the educational needs of the military community's 1.2 million school-age children, including home-schoolers.
Officially, DoDEA does not encourage or discourage home schooling. But Toth says it's hard to compete with the low student-to-teacher ratios inherent in home schooling.
However, parents should do their homework before taking the leap. Home-schooling laws vary from state to state.
In Alaska and Texas, it's simply a matter of pulling your kids out of school and getting started. Other states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, have loads of requirements.
"The biggest mistake military home-schoolers usually make is assuming they don't have to follow the state laws where they're stationed," says Moon, the wife of a now-retired command sergeant major who taught her kids at home through nearly a decade of assignments across Europe.
Just because the military member doesn't have to pay local or state taxes or get a local driver's license doesn't mean dependents are exempt, and the same goes for state schooling rules.
There are exceptions, though. In Germany, home schooling is illegal for locals, but command-sponsored U.S. citizens are permitted to teach their children at home.
Nuntavong didn't like the method her Fort Belvoir public school was using to teach her son Jaden how to read in kindergarten. So this year, as he began first grade, she decided to do the teaching herself.
Building Jaden's curriculum, while being mindful of a way to include her 3-year-old, Jet, has been one of the toughest challenges so far. "You jump on the Internet, and you can just get overwhelmed by everything that's out there," she says.
It's not cheap, either. Many home-schooling parents say it's easy to spend thousands of dollars a year buying textbooks, online coursework and other supplies.
Fort Belvoir's home-schooling co-op has helped ease the Nuntavongs' transition. They're among the latest of about 160 families who've joined the group in recent years, and the support has been critical, she says.
"There are women who have been doing this for five, 10, 15 years all over the country and the world," Nuntavong says. "I wouldn't have been able to do it without them."
With military families constantly on the move, home-schooling veterans say local co-ops, church groups and other home-schooling groups are indispensible. They help ensure the kids don't become overly cloistered and are able to socialize.
"Socialization is usually one of the first things people ask you about," says Rexford, "but that actually becomes one of their strengths." Rather than spending most of their day only around other kids their age, he says, all the home-schooled kids he's ever known have mixed among a variety of age groups, including more adults.
The Fort Belvoir co-op meets once a week, with parents volunteering to teach classes for those who want help in particular subject areas. A former Marine and now personal trainer, Nuntavong plans to help out with physical education classes.
For the subjects she has taken on at home, Nuntavong says, she's found a slew of on-base resources that have helped build her daily lessons, including regular offerings from Child and Youth Services and a faith-based home-schooling group at the post chapel.
"Every time you turn around, there's something new going on," she says.
Her recent puddle-splashing, rainy-day lessons included discussions on water and runoff. Later, at the bowling alley, the falling pins became a lesson in adding and subtracting.
"They didn't think of it as a math class. We were just having fun."
Probably one of the biggest downsides of military life for children — the constant moves and need to resettle into another school — can become one of the biggest benefits for home-schoolers. New opportunities for field trips and other learning opportunities get a fresh reboot with every move.
Some families integrate the reassignments themselves into the home-schooling experience, with on-the-go classes covering geography, financial planning and social studies.
When the Rexfords were moving from Lewis-McChord to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., a few years ago, they traveled the Oregon Trail in reverse. The lesson ended on post at Fort Leavenworth, where the kids got to see the wagon-wheel ruts that historians believe marked the trail's beginning.
For military parents on shift work, school hours can shift as well to help keep families more in sync. When James Rexford gets a four-day weekend or a day off, school is canceled and the whole family does something fun together.
To help provide some comic relief to all the stress of deployments, Moon suggests incorporating a block of study on the history of comedy in movies.
"You have permission to watch as many comedies as necessary to give you a good perspective of the development of movie comedy," she says. She even offers a list of suggestions on her website, conveniently broken out by year, to help build your lesson plan.
Regular moves have provided the Rexford kids with some surprising opportunities.
During a previous assignment, a new family friend who had worked in the television industry taught the kids how to write a screenplay. That experience inspired Joshua, now a senior, to write and direct a feature-length musical play for his church.
These days, as he drives by the local high school on his way to a historical park where he's being trained in blacksmithing, Joshua says, he feels bad for the kids stuck inside.
In addition to nearing his high-school graduation, he's also on track to earn a four-year college degree online through Thomas Edison State College, N.J., about the same time.