Forefront Excerpt: Charter for One

An introductory excerpt from this week’s Forefront.

Credit: Paul Gargagliano

City kids who learn at home are exposed daily to the complexity and social problems that densely populated areas make impossible to ignore. But what about one of the purported upsides to gentrification: That middle-class families staying in central cities will be a force in public schools? In Forefront this week, Carly Berwick turns to a cadre of homeschooling parents in Jersey City to find out how do-it-yourself schooling will shape urban education in the 21st century.

Late morning on the first day of school this year in Jersey City, N.J., Paul Valleau sat in a café waiting for a bagel. Like any self-respecting, middle school-aged young man, he leaned far back in his chair, as if waiting for the two adults chatting nearby to say something patently ridiculous. Paul, 11, still seemed deep in summer, or just very hungry.

A few blocks away and two weeks later, in the waterfront city’s gentrifying Hamilton Park neighborhood, Molly Sheridan was checking on her cat and finishing up a Japanese manga volume of Inuyasha. Molly stretched out on a comfortable chair, in shorts, and let the sun from the front windows catch her light brown hair. She had the luminous, permanently backlit skin of a preteen and the kind of wise-for-her-ages silence of a character out of a Bronte novel.

Molly looked across the room to the Eiffel Tower. The first third of it, en papier, sat on her dining room table, which doubled as a desk. She had climbed the real tower last year with her parents, on a rare whirlwind visit to France. She stared at the half-built tower and talked Minecraft, which is, she says, really cool because you can build whatever you want and choose the right metals for your blocks — not all of them are right. She wants to set up her own server to be a master. Like Paul, Molly is initially shy but easily conversational around adults, an age group both get to spend a lot of time with as homeschooled children.

Molly and Paul do school at home, at a time when doing school in school increasingly means taking tests, writing to rubrics and solving “real world” math problems on worksheets. They are city homeschoolers who live in apartments and use public transit and who defy the popular — and increasingly erroneous — stereotype of homeschooled children as the brood of fundamentalists off a country road, whose parents don’t want their kids exposed to evolution and Miley Cyrus. Or of a separatist sect taking their children’s education into their own hands: Think Amish, Mormon, Lubavitchers, fundamentalist Christians, off-the-grid hippie libertarians.

Far from disconnected protestors against the mainstream, urban homeschoolers use the city as a resource — and in turn, can become deeply embedded in the city’s wider life. Aleta Valleau, Paul’s mother, is someone who does everything so against the grain that she ends up a trendsetter. A single working mom who owns Jersey City’s only bookstore, Tachair, she is gently, good-naturedly and near-singlehandedly yoking together a book culture for this city of a quarter million. A former teacher herself, she is in charge of Paul’s curriculum, although he is old enough now to make decisions about what to read or practice with her. Aleta’s mother and collaborator, Carol, is also a former teacher and runs the bookstore, which has become a central meeting place for local homeschoolers.

Paul has already raised more than $5,000 for the local library, continually threatened with shortened hours due to budget cuts, through a charity he started called Opus Jr. Last spring he got children’s book author R.L Stine to read at a fundraiser for the cause. Paul also works a plot at a community garden that opened last year in an empty lot that used to serve mainly as an open-air pissoir and thoroughfare to a local liquor store.

City kids who learn at home are relatively worldly, exposed daily to the complexity and social problems that densely populated areas make impossible to ignore. But they, and their parents, have withdrawn from one major element of that shared urban public sphere — the schools. They’ve made the decision for many reasons, but in a large part because these families have the confidence that they can do better by their kids. Nationally the number of homeschooling families has increased steadily, going from 13,000 in 1970 to about 2 million today, according to the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), or to 1.7 million if you believe the Department of Education. In total, homeschoolers represent almost 3.5 percent of the country’s school-age population. The Department of Education only started tracking homeschoolers by regional density in 2007 and found them distributed fairly equally in thirds among rural areas, suburbs, and cities and towns.

Exact numbers of homeschoolers are hard to come by in New Jersey, the most heavily urbanized state in the country, where families don’t need to report to the department of education or even local boards if they opt out. Estimates from NHERI founder and president Brian Ray put the number at between 35,000 and 47,000 out of 1.36 million schoolchildren. On a local level, the Jersey City Board of Education reports varying numbers of homeschoolers, from a high of 47 in 2011 to only 12 this year. But that represents, in the main, those students who leave the public schools in any given year and must say why. Various Yahoo groups and Meet Up pages for homeschoolers in the area have dozens of names, and several local families say they never informed the local BOE one way or the other. In neighboring New York City, where families must report, 2,766 school-age children were homeschooled in 2011-2012, versus 1 million in the schools — a rate of around one-quarter of a percent and lower than the national average. City homeschoolers have not yet reached the mainstream, but their numbers are trending upward.

Most striking in the Department of Education data is the upward trend of parent income and educational attainment. In 2003, homeschooling parents came from all income strata relatively equally. By 2007, more families were upper income, with about a third making more than $75,000 a year. They tend to be well educated, with 50 percent possessing a bachelor’s or higher, compared to 28 percent in the general population. And this figure has climbed further. Ray conducted a 2010 study that found 65-66 percent of homeschooling parents have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to less than 30 percent of the general population. Most are married, with mothers taking on the homeschooling duties. While only about a quarter of homeschooling families call themselves secular, many of these are urban.

The trend toward more educated, middle-class homeschooling parents should give high-poverty city school systems pause, since the success of these districts hinges in large part on wooing the same demographic. In Jersey City public schools, 75 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, the standard measure of poverty in schools. Citywide, just 40 percent of households with school-age children had incomes low enough to qualify, indicating a large disparity between the city and school district’s poverty rate. Many urban districts have tried to entice the middle class to stay through magnet schools or other marketing efforts, such as Philadelphia’s Center City Schools Initiative, since reducing poverty in schools goes a long way toward lifting achievement for all.

(Scholar Richard Kahlenberg has examined this at length, and defines middle-class schools as having less than 50 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. “Socioeconomic integration is one of the most important tools available for improving the academic achievement, and life chances, of students,” he wrote in the winter 2012-2013 issue of American Educator.)

“I would love to see more involved, invested parents opt into public schools,” says Ellen Simon, a downtown Jersey City parent of a young child in public school and a newly elected member to the Board of Education. “That’s one of the things that will improve public education for everyone. There used to be a population that just moved away when their kids became school aged. We are seeing more people staying.” Evidence of that comes from the burgeoning demand for the city’s excellent, free prekindergarten program. Simon’s son’s school, PS 5, has had to add four pre-K classrooms for 3-year-olds, up from one three years ago.

In the public conversation about potential upsides to gentrification, the assumption is often that middle-class families staying in central cities will be a force in public schools. But many parents have had enough of the increasing conformity required of common standards and high-stakes tests, and the very real consequences low-performing districts face for not upping their scores. Some protest by keeping their children home on standardized test days. Others pull together low-stress, enriched, project-based days for their children at home. Arguably, instead of advocating for better public schools for all children, these homeschooling parents are choosing to opt out and build a private-sector alternative that exists on a spectrum of choice, from private to charter to public.

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Tags: gentrificationpublic schoolsjersey city

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