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Finding A Perfect Fit The Home-School Option Is A Good One For Some, But Needs To Be Part Of A Menu Of Choices For All

Story By Julia And Thomas Vitull

High school student Santina Polera just finished the 12th grade with a 100 average, ranked first among 550 seniors in Newburgh, N.Y.

According to The New York Times, she paints and has mastered French, Italian and the piano.

In her senior year, the school district declared her “co-valedictorian” rather than valedictorian because she had been denied a Regents diploma.

The reason? She was unable to take Regents biology - she couldn’t look through a microscope. She is legally blind, and she reads from textbooks with pages magnified over 150 times.

Since age 5, she has been taught at home by her mother because the school district had insisted on placing her in classes for retarded children.

Polera’s story holds many lessons. But for public policy, the important one is this: Home schooling - a once obscure but now increasingly popular practice - is not just for oddballs.

Rather, it is a crucial option for many children.

Indeed, between 1990 and 1996, the number of home schoolers more than doubled to 1.3 million students.

This is nearly 3 percent of the total school population and more than 20 percent of the private school enrollment. It equals more than half the total Catholic school enrollment.

Take another story - that of Rebecca Sealfon, New York’s darling home-schooled spelling bee winner.

She’s enormously appealing - smiling and leaping in youthful exuberance on the front pages of many newspapers after victoriously spelling “eunomy.”

This 13-year-old winner of the 70th National Spelling Bee in Washington hadn’t attended an official school for some time, but instead had been taught at home by her mother.

Rebecca had previously attended St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights, one of New York’s best private schools.

In other words, she dropped out of a private school - and a good one - not a public school.

Her parents, one a former teacher, decided to instruct her at home because her attention span was too long for the usual 45-minute periods.

She loved to read and resented having to stop what she was immersed in when the school bell rang.

She wanted more focus and intensity than the school - even a very good school -could provide.

In the fall, she will attend Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s most selective public high school.

So what is the lesson here? This is not yet another story of parents rejecting public schools, nor is it merely a quirky instance of a brilliant child resisting the institutional confines of a school.

Rather, it is a dramatic example of a common problem: Children’s emotional and educational needs are complex, and fitting the needs of any child to any given institution can be fraught with difficulty.

Yet the rigid American public school system, which essentially assigns children geographically, allows for little flexible matching, only an opting out.

The public schools have taken a lesson from Procrustes, the ancient Greek who required that his guests fit his bed perfectly.

If his guests were too tall, Procrustes chopped off their heads and feet. If they were too short, he stretched them until they fit.

Parents need a range of options to find the best-available instruction matching their child’s needs - whether that is in public school, private school, religious school or home school.

What is important here is not so much the home schooling itself as the choice part.

Current public policy discourages choice, which can usually be indulged only at much greater expense or effort.

The key is to move toward a system that allows every child choice and flexibility rather than trying to jam the child into the constraints of an assigned institution.

Over her brief school career, Rebecca and her parents have taken advantage of many options - superb independent school, home schooling and, next year, elite public school.

But what of the parents and children boxed into a narrow range of options or even no range at all?

American parents are increasingly rejecting this Procrustean rigidity.

In general, racial minorities are assigned to poorer public schools and have fewer choices.

In particular, increasing numbers of black parents are unwilling to wait for the promised reforms in public education to materialize.

Promises won’t help their children in school today.

One African-American leader, Howard Fuller, the former superintendent of Milwaukee’s public schools, spoke recently to a Manhattan Institute conference on school choice at New York’s Harvard Club.

(In 1995, Fuller had been forced out of the superintendency for pushing a plan to give vouchers to poor children attending bad public schools so they could pay tuition at private - including religious - schools.)

“My first priority is not to protect institutions that are failing to educate children,” Fuller said. “My first priority is to see to it that children get the best education possible when they need it.

“And if that is in a private school, a suburban public school, a religious school or schooling at home, that choice, whatever it is, should be supported by the public.”

This is a call for revolution, of course.

Fuller is probably the first and only superintendent of a major public school system to urge such a level of choice. He found home schooling to be a difficult but good choice for parents whose children would otherwise be assigned to a bad public school and who lack the financial ability to pay tuition to a private school.

Home schooling is not to be undertaken lightly. It requires initiative, intellectual discipline and time from parents.

According to a study by the Home School Legal Defense Association, racial minorities constitute only 5 percent of home-schooled students.

Minority test scores are very close to those of white home schoolers, both ranging in the 87th percentile - well above public school averages.

The point is not that home schooling is for everyone - but everyone should have this option.

The spectacular growth of home schooling testifies to the demand by parents for far more open, less institutionalized approaches to education.

Public policy should help parents, not fight them, to do what is best for their children.

MEMO: Julia Vitullo-Martin edited “Breaking Away: The Future of Cities (Twentieth Century Fund). Thomas Vitullo-Martin is an education consultant working in the charter school movement.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story by Julia and Thomas Vitullo-Martin, Bridge News

Julia Vitullo-Martin edited “Breaking Away: The Future of Cities (Twentieth Century Fund). Thomas Vitullo-Martin is an education consultant working in the charter school movement.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story by Julia and Thomas Vitullo-Martin, Bridge News

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