What does it take to be a homeschooler in Jefferson County?

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

No two homeschooling families in Jefferson County are exactly alike.
From single parents to large families, working mothers to stay-at-home moms, to former teachers who have chosen to educate at home, the homeschool group is varied, creative when it comes to finding educational opportunities and always willing to enlighten others about their, possible unorthodox, style of student education.
Who can homeschool?
For mother Michelle Dollar, she never planned to homeschool her three daughters, who are now between the ages of 7 and 12
"Before my children, I was a teacher," begins Dollar. "I never really thought about homeschooling."
When Dollar's first daughter was born, Dollar chose to remain at home and care for her new baby, and before she knew it, her daughter was no longer a baby, and it was time to start school. "I wasn't ready," Dollar laughs.
As a former teacher who had taught for five years, Dollar decided to continue staying home with her young daughter and teach her for a year – but then, when that year was up, Dollar found that she still wasn't ready to send her daughter off to school.
"So, I thought, 'I guess I'm just going to homeschool,'" says Dollar. Using the experience she had gathered during her years as an educator, Dollar began teaching her daughter at home. "There was a little classroom, we had letters on the wall. We were so organized!" Dollar laughs. "But then, as the years went by, it became less and less like that and now, we're still scheduled, but its more about spending time with them, reading and enjoying each other – we don't have letters on the wall anymore, just lots and lots of books."
Another mother within Jefferson County's homeschool group is Jennifer Brown, who has six children between the ages of 7 and 27.
"Over the years, we've done everything," says Brown; from "unschooling" to public schooling, private and charter schools, even a private/homeschool hybrid at one point, Brown says that her family has dabbled in every form of education you can think of.
"Now, we're fully committed to homeschooling," Brown adds. "Over the years, I was a single mom at one time, and different things have happened, but we're all-in on homeschooling now."
For Tammy Brookins, her decision to homeschool began even before she became a mother.
"When I was young, I really hated school, especially high school," Brookins starts. Throughout her years as a high school student, she never settled well with the rigor and curriculum stipulations placed on her by teachers.
Ten years later, after Brookins graduated from college, she met families who were homeschooling their children, and her interest in homeschooling was piqued.
By the time Brookins had her first child, her plan to homeschool had been grounded; she chose to stay home and educate her children.
But, Brookins says, choosing to homeschool is more than just an educational choice.
"I want to be with them," says Brookins, a mother of 11 children. "The time I have with them is so short, and as it is, they don't remember half of what we did together... what would they have remembered from childhood if they were in school for eight hours a day?"
Brookins says that she wanted something more for her children then a rigid daily schedule of early mornings, school, homework, then bed.
Heather Boyd has four kids between the ages of 12 and 17, and began her journey after watching a family friend homeschool their children. Boyd became intrigued by the concept.
"I really liked how it looked for their family, how their children could relate to people of different ages," says Boyd. "I would see homeschoolers who were 13 to 15, interacting with their parents and their parent's friends or kids who were three to five interacting with their siblings that were teenagers."
Boyd realized that in the real world, there aren’t what she calls "five-year compartments."
"In the real world, it's not that you go to work with everyone who is 35 and everyone who is 60 works with another group," adds Boyd. "I started realizing that's not real life, and I wanted to prepare my kids for real life."
When she first began the process of homeschooling her children, she wasn't sure if they'd continue homeschooling all the way through high school, but her oldest is now a senior.
"I think she's done really well," Boyd says proudly of her daughter. "She's dual-enrolled in college – I was nervous at first to see how she would hold up against those who knew the classroom's structured environment. But during her first year dual-enrolling, she had a full load, and she got wonderful grades, and she loves it."
Can homeschool students attend college?
When it comes to the topic of college, Jefferson County's homeschooling mothers take a stand against the common prejudice that their children are not prepared for a college or university's scheduling and classroom structure.
"There are some things that they aren't prepared for," Brookins admits. "But, its easily remedied in a five-second conversation." Brookins brought up the fact that one of her children who attended college didn't understand the concept of a scantron – but after being instructed on how to bubble the answers, Brookins' daughter caught on quickly.
According to Boyd, her children are no strangers to learning through lectures.
"Our children are exposed to lectures through church meetings, co-ops, speeches and theater – they learn to sit and listen and enjoy learning," says Boyd. "I don't agree that they are unprepared for a classroom setting once they go to college."
What styles of homeschooling are there?
Since every family in the group is different, the homeschool group is made up of a variety of teaching and education styles. From homeschooling that preserves a classroom atmosphere, to online education through Florida Virtual School, to "unschooling" – a form of teaching that advocates student-driven learning that prioritizes a student's interests over textbooks and lesson plans.
However, each individual parent chooses to educate their children, the homeschool group is there – ready to offer support, resources and friendship through a variety of social events and educational projects and outings.
How does homeschooling benefit students?
Of the various mothers who gathered to speak with ECB Publishing, Inc. reporters about their family's decision to school at home, all their children had personal gains attributed to homeschooling.
For Jennifer Brown, she believes that her daughter would be further behind and would have been educationally hindered had she sent her to public school. Heather Boyd felt strongly about the fact that her children have been able to contribute to the family's farm and developed a stronger relationship with their family by homeschooling's flexible schedules. Michelle Dollar says that choosing to homeschool has allowed her family flexibility and her daughters the freedom to pursue individual strengths and interests. Tammy Brookins says that homeschooling her 11 children has allowed her children the mental and physical health benefits of lower stress, especially in the mornings.
What are the homeschooling laws in Florida?
According to Tammy Brookins, who is the group's Florida Parent Educators Association (FPEA) representative, there are three usual ways that Floridian homeschoolers go about educating at home, but only two of those methods are recognized by the state.
The first method is registering a letter of intent with your local school district. Parents must then maintain a homeschooling portfolio for their students, documenting their learning gains which will be evaluated by a certified teacher or a state-normed test (amongst other testing methods).
The second method is registering through an umbrella school, which is a term used to describe a private school for families choosing to educate their children at home. This option restricts families who may want to enroll their child in school district sports but offers more educational creativity than the first option.
The third option of homeschooling, which is choosing to educate without doing either of the two above options, is technically illegal.
I'm interested in homeschooling... where do I start?
"Find us," encourages Jennifer Brown, directing interested members of the public to the group's Facebook page (which can be found by searching for "Jefferson County Homeschoolers Group").
"Find people, because you are going to get a lot of negativity if you don't have any other homeschoolers in your social circle. You have to be really strong to take the criticism that may come your way from people who are opposed to it," Brown adds.
While homeschooling may seem like a big undertaking for families who are new to the idea, Brown says her group offers an abundance of support and opportunities for new homeschooling families to take part in; whether that is through parent-support, student social events or educational outings, the group is there to help educate their families and children.
"It's not easy to educate your child," Brown concludes. "It's not easy, whatever you choose."