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Natural Awakenings Fairfield County/Housatonic Valley, CT

Back-to-School 2020: Education Outside the Box

Jul 29, 2020 01:46PM ● By Ariana Rawls Fine

To say we are living in unprecedented times is an understatement. Parents who expected to be sending their children to school in the fall are facing dilemmas in terms of both school safety and restrictions. The reasons run the gamut from apprehension about virus transmission to distance learning not working well to concerns about masking children all day to the frequent use of harsher cleaning supplies to sanitize schools. Due to this, the number of parents investigating homeschooling as an option is growing exponentially every day, and more guidelines are being released by school districts as the new school year approaches. The good news is that Connecticut is a great state for homeschooling families, whether it was a planned choice or something being considered now simply because of the current situation. 

It is important to remember that homeschooling is flexible by nature; parents or guardians can adapt homeschooling to better fit their individual children’s learning styles, attention spans, interests, family traveling needs, parental work constraints, religious traditions and other aspects. There are also helpful options for supplemental education. 

Start by “Deschooling”
One of the first pieces of advice a veteran homeschooler will give those contemplating homeschooling is to start out with “deschooling”. In the homeschooling world, the term refers to giving children (and parents) time to phase out of traditional schooling’s way of thinking and routines. It is generally recommended that parents deschool one month for every year of traditional schooling. It allows children pressure-free time to pursue their own interests, for parents to observe how they learn and for taking family trips that can lay the foundation for a vibrant, engaging homeschool life for the whole family.
“If you are coming out of the school system, be gentle. Start slowly, have a period of deschooling, ease into studies,” says Diane Connors, a founder of the Connecticut Homeschool Network (CHN). With the current urgent interest in homeschooling, the top concern she is observing is about time management. 

“People need to realize it doesn’t take six hours a day to homeschool. A key thing to keep in mind when planning your homeschool lifestyle is that there are supposed to be 180 days of schooling out of 365 days. We as homeschoolers have seven days a week to choose from, so 180 days really comes to 15 days a month,” says Connors. “We can have consistent ongoing learning that allows for family time, parents that work, extra activities outside the home and more.”

Withdrawal Logistics

Once the decision has been made to homeschool, the first logistical step is to withdraw the student from conventional school. Connecticut General Statute 10-184 (find out more legal information at CTHomeschoolNetwork.org/Home-Schooling/Link-Legal  covers what subjects the child’s guardian is supposed to cover. Other than that, Connecticut homeschoolers benefit from freedom from government oversight to find the best learning fit for each child.

If the student is already registered in a public school system, a letter of withdrawal must be sent to the local school district’s superintendent, according to CHN. It is highly recommended that the letter is sent as certified mail with a return receipt requested so that there is a signed receipt for the parents/guardians’ records. The child is subject to truancy laws until they are officially withdrawn. A school district may ask for a Notice of Intent to be signed; however, this is not a statutory requirement but rather a suggested procedure, explains Connors. The majority of parents withdrawing their children do not file the Notice of Intent nor do they submit an annual portfolio of student work for review; these are suggested practices but are not requirements (the link above includes reasons). If a child is transferring from another district, they need to be withdrawn from that district but do not need to file with the new school district. If a child has never been enrolled in a school district, no withdrawal paperwork is required.

Curriculum

Veteran homeschoolers advise not buying an expensive curriculum right away. Get a feel for how each child learns best. They may be a grade ahead in one subject and challenged in another, making a set-grade curriculum an inadequate investment. The deschooling process grants adults the time to figure out a child’s interests as well as figuring out how each child best learns. By taking the time to observe, challenge and offer various learning opportunities to children before deciding on a curriculum, parents/guardians can find a collection of learning resources that fits each child.

Additionally, free or low-cost field trips can be incorporated based on subject lessons or a child’s interests. Many museums, centers, art studios and businesses have been open to creating classes. Common Ground (New Haven), Sticks and Stones Farm (Newtown), Mystic Seaport (Mystic), The Connecticut Historical Society (Hartford), Connecticut Science Center (Hartford), Old Sturbridge Village (Sturbridge, MA) and The Connecticut Audubon Society have held homeschool days or courses. Some are open to teaching classes to homeschool groups organized by parents. These excursions and classes have been an integral part of many homeschooling families’ school year. During this unusual time, check in with these places as they may have restrictions on how and what they are able to offer for Fall 2020.

Costs

The annual cost of homeschooling can vary greatly based on curriculum choices, memberships, learning and crafting materials and even travel. Once a curriculum has been chosen, check state and even regional/national homeschooling groups’ used-curriculum marketplaces first. CHN, for instance, has a marketplace group on Facebook where used resources are being sold by other parents. Vendors also will offer discounts on new curriculum.

Although borrowing materials from the library is a bit different now due to COVID-19-related safety measures, it is possible. The local library and the state book borrowing system are invaluable resources for homeschooling families as they offer free resources and books to supplement any curriculum. Audiobooks and DVDs can be beneficial for challenged readers or for more audiovisual learners. And audiobooks are great for learning while traveling in the car.

There are many ways to engage students in learning. Here are some of the possibilities:

• Purchasing a box curriculum with all materials included

• Buying a curriculum guide and then purchasing books and other resources separately 

• Doing unit studies to dig deep on specific topics of interest, which can incorporate math, English, science, social studies and other skill-building components into the learning

• Subscribing to online education resources—such as Time4Learning, Education.com  Khan Academy and others— in order to pick and choose workbook, game or online work sheet assignments according to each student’s level (and even attention span on a specific day) 

• Taking online video classes on a variety of subjects through sites such as Outschool.com or VarsityTutors.com

• Joining a local homeschool co-op or group where parents collaborate on the structure, time commitment, topics and more

“The first thing you need to do as a parent is to change your mindset about what it is to learn. What does that look like for you? We set ourselves up for parental failure when we judge ourselves against the school model. That is not what homeschooling is about. Learning can happen any time,” explains Connors. “You can be out and about in the world and see something in a museum that coincides with what a child learned about geography or history on Netflix. They are connecting real life to what they are learning.”

Many homeschooling resources can be found through the Connecticut Homeschool Network (CHN), a local homeschooling support organization for parents with up-to-date information. Visit CTHomeschoolNetwork.org for more information. The organization’s CT Parents Seeking Homeschool Info group on Facebook offers prospective homeschooling families more specific information from other parents.


Out, About, and Beyond Four Walls

Two local nature-education programs—Two Coyotes Wilderness School and Common Ground—offer homeschooling parents weekly options for outdoor science enrichment. For those who decide to send their children to school, parents can work with their school district to apply for approval for their children to attend both programs’ science and nature education program one day a week.

Two Coyotes Wilderness School

With locations in Granby, Killingworth and Newtown, Two Coyotes Wilderness School (TwoCoyotes.org) offers a 35-week program and seasonal trimester wilderness-based mentoring options for 5- to 12-year olds from homeschool and traditional school backgrounds. They also have a Firekeeper program for teenagers and Coyote Pups classes for smaller children and their caregivers. All programs are held outside, except in inclement weather.

Students are immersed in plant and animal identification, scouting techniques, playing nature games, stewardship of the land, and much more. While younger students focus on forest mysteries, games and crafts, older students learn more advanced survival techniques. Each program varies based on the age of the group and the instructor’s specialty. Students are encouraged to develop qualities such as leadership, team building, emotional intelligence, resilience, confidence, expression, service and integrity.

“We are a low-risk environment for COVID. We have adapted activities to be less ‘on top of each other’ and we wipe down the little amount of gear that kids may be sharing,” says Stephanie Niles, Two Coyotes’ program director.

Common Ground

For the Common Ground environmental education center in New Haven, its year-long NatureYear group sizes will be modified based upon Connecticut’s final group guidelines. As of July, there were more than 200 kids interested in the program, which usually serves 140 students. The science learning and outdoor play program is almost entirely conducted outside with students, says Rebecca Holcombe, Common Ground’s executive director. A key component of the program is giving children time for unstructured, independent exploration and play in nature.

The weekly Family Nature Club Class offers environmental enrichment to families of children from 5- to 12-years-old while the Seedlings class focuses on the younger children. In addition, they offer the Kids Unplugged! after-school program from 3:15 to 5:30 p.m., several days a week (homeschoolers are welcome). Some activities are mixed-age groups and others are divided by age.

Common Ground will publish a weekly email starting in September to support the community with lesson suggestions, videos, outdoor activities, suggested hikes of the week and more.

Connecticut Experiential Learning Center (CELC)

CELC (CTExperiential.org) in Branford, Connecticut, is a small program, by design, with a 1:6 teacher-to-student ratio that focuses on project-based learning and includes different teaching artists instructing in the classroom and remotely from places such as Guatemala. They are planning to have in-person classes in the fall as well as options for virtual learning, says co-founder Melinda Alcosser.

There are still spots available for their weekly, in-person summer program. CELC is hiring additional faculty to offer more parents the CELC schooling experience for this coming school year. In their new design for Fall 2020, students who do not feel comfortable coming in person or who live farther away can learn remotely with those in the classroom or participate in a hybrid in-person/online alternative. Other options include homeschool Monday classes where students sign up for a trimester. Although masks will be required indoors, CELC provides opportunities to get students outside, where activities will not necessarily require masks.

CELC also will offer support for parents looking for middle school curriculum guidance. They are looking to hold online Zoom workshops about content, curriculum ideas and more in addition to private consultations with parents.

Education Without Walls 

New Milford’s Education Without Walls (EWW) is a micro-school, mainly geared toward homeschoolers, that offers large spaces and a teacher-to-student ratio of about 3-to-1. They create areas where students socially distance but also have their own workstations so they can remove masks (when moving around, however, they need to wear them). Spaces are cleaned continuously. 

In addition, EWW (EducationWW.org) tries to create as many indoor/outdoor classes as possible, including yoga, stretching classes and movement outdoors. There are less than 24 enrolled in the high school program and fewer than 15 in the middle school program.

EWW offered online classes before the COVID-19 crisis, deploying Google Classroom to connect with students. Subject to changing guidelines, EWW will offer a mix of online and on-location classes. Options available for middle schoolers include core academics, cooperative education (co-op) and core academics/co-op bundle. Parents pick the types and numbers of classes with student input.

On the high-school level, EWW offers a plethora of subjects and accredited classes, transcripts and diplomas in addition to a dual-credit program with Post University. Students take the online classes at the New Milford location or with EWW teachers who are adjunct professors with the university.

Admission is rolling as space is available, and fees are calculated with a need-based sliding scale. Merit scholarships and incentive scholarships are available.

Workspace Education

Workspace Education (WorkspaceEducation.org) is a co-learning community comprised of families, educators and experts united to create the best personalized pathways for their children. In addition to a network of member families, community training and events and team-based competitions, it offers educational guidance to families with resources and trainings, tutors and specialists, workshops on curricula development, and an on-staff “dream director.” The Bethel location serves as both a virtual hub and interdependent co-learning space. Workspace Education utilizes a membership pricing model.

The center is tentatively planning on opening two days a week in the fall, enforcing social distancing and requiring masks inside the building. With a coronavirus spike predicted for mid-fall, they are prepared to go online fully if necessary.

Workspace Education is launching Workspace in the Sky, an online co-learning community in the cloud, to enable students to connect, collaborate and learn. The highly interactive site will offer online events and classes, a member comment feed, pathway mentoring, an educator portal, a co-creation studio, parental support and more.

In addition to enabling parents beyond the Connecticut area to utilize Workspace Education, Workspace in the Sky will be less expensive because it doesn’t require the on-site experience or its overhead. It will include three platforms: one for parents to organize and cocreate; another for 7-to 13-year-olds to cocreate, learn, participate in clubs and more; and the third to house portfolios.

Check the website for more detailed information in mid-August.

Disclaimer for all programs: Availability, class size, set up and more for all these programs are subject to change and contingent on guidelines published by the State of Connecticut.

Ariana Rawls Fine is an experienced homeschooling parent and contributor to Natural Awakenings. She resides in Stratford. 
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