SACKETS HARBOR — On a rainy weekday morning, off to the side of the entrance to their village home, the older Streif boys, Graham J., 11, Anthony M., 10, and Jameson F., 9, sit side-by-side on their individual computers, working away at their day’s work through their online, at-home curriculum.
The younger Streif children, Shepard G., 7, and Lincoln M., 5, sit at a table across from their mother, Christin A. Streif, who oversees the home instruction of her five children. The older boys are independent and self-paced online, with some of their work automatically graded through their systems and the rest handled by Mrs. Streif. For her younger two sons, she takes a more hands-on approach to their education, helping them through their specific worksheets.
In this new coronavirus era, many parents are struggling with the decision of sending their children to school, even as some districts have opted for a hybrid educational model requiring just two days of in-school instruction a week, coupled with days of remote learning.
Some parents want to homeschool their children, but may confuse this with remote learning, in which the school district provides the curriculum and online instruction. With homeschooling, the student is unenrolled from the district and the parent becomes the teacher. While the district can offer some support, responsibility for the child’s education falls almost entirely on the parent or guardian.
An important element of homeschooling, according to Mrs. Streif, is doing the research ahead of time, finding what fits for you and what fits for your family. Through learning about homeschooling, Mrs. Streif said she realized there are so many different types of homeschooling, ways to homeschool and different programs.
“There was no way I could do hands-on with five of them, so I found a good online program and I’m still learning,” she said. “I like this program, but we may move to a different program next year or we may stick with this one … just depending on how things go for us. … Have patience and understanding that each kid is different and their learning styles are different, they work at different speeds and they all have some subjects they’re stronger at than others.”
According to Stacey J. Eger-Converse, assistant superintendent for instruction for the Watertown City School District, a fair amount of paperwork comes along with homeschooling. Under state regulations, homeschooling families must submit letters of intent, individualized plans for each child participating in home instruction, four quarterly reports and an annual assessment — requirements that will vary depending on the age and grade level of the child.
“With homeschooling, the parent is, in essence, the child’s educator. They are taking legal responsibility for their child’s education,” she said. “Every family has to make the decision that’s right for them. I think the pandemic has shown us that there definitely are hurdles with remote learning as well as there can be benefits to it in some ways, but what’s right for one family isn’t necessarily right for another family.”
Mrs. Eger-Converse noted that in grades K-6, students who receive home instruction still have to meet 900 hours of instruction annually, and students in grades 7-12 have to meet 990 hours required annually. Within the regulations for home instruction, depending on the grade level of the student, there are certain course requirements each student has to meet within that particular grade range. For example, between grades 9 and 12, each student has to take at least two units of study of math, and so on.
“On the whole, families who opt to engage in home instruction really do so with enthusiasm and dedication to their child’s education,” Mrs. Eger-Converse said. “Whatever philosophy they’re aligning to that curriculum, they do so really well.”
Mrs. Streif said there are a lot of resources on platforms such as Facebook where people put up different documents so others can see what such things as intents to homeschool look like, and use them as a template. The family’s first quarterly report is due to the Sackets Harbor Central School District next month.
The Streif family started its school year at the beginning of August with three-hour half days to work out any kinks ahead of time. After Labor Day, the family moved to full days of work, lasting from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. most days, waking up earlier and getting into a routine.
For the older boys, Mrs. Streif gives them extra work to do each day along with whatever is on the agenda through their Monarch learning program. The three have been studying language arts, math, history and science, along with studying the Bible over the past month. They also have to read for 30 minutes, write in a reading journal and take online math supplementation programs. For the sixth-grader, that means Khan Academy — a non-profit educational organization. The Streifs are also trying to incorporate Spanish into their curriculum through Rosetta Stone.
Graham’s favorite lessons are science, and he’s currently learning about the human body. He likes that homeschooling is quieter than traditional school, but he said he does miss school and seeing friends there, though he still sees them after hours. Anthony’s favorite subject is social studies, but for no particular reason, it’s just always been his favorite.
Jameson, who had been working on synonyms and antonyms earlier in the week, said his favorite subject has always been history.
“I’ve been learning about the world pretty much,” he said. “I started with San Francisco and Sydney, then Hong Kong, then Istanbul. Now I’m on London.”
The younger two boys have mostly been working on number recognition, reading skills and letter recognition. They also have been reading a book, along with their mother, about a character who travels the world gathering ingredients for an apple pie they can make at home. To coincide with the book, Mrs. Streif is planning a field trip to an orchard soon where the boys can pick some apples, bring them home and learn to make their own apple pie, which would also utilize some math skills. While it won’t require nearly as much traveling, it will most likely be equally delicious.
On Sept. 25, the family traveled to Granger’s to pick pumpkins. Mrs. Streif said she’s trying to incorporate field trips and fun activities when she can while the weather holds up.
“I’m trying to get them out and do stuff and kind of break up the monotony,” she said. “They’re further ahead than they would be in school — they get more done every day — so we can take days and do things like that. When they’re able to just sit and work for a few hours, they can get a lot done.”
According to Stephen J. Todd, Jefferson-Lewis BOCES superintendent, school districts must track the homeschooled students within their jurisdiction and collect their plans and report to the state Education Department. The bottom line is the state asks that public school districts assure there’s a substantial equivalency, meaning kids receiving home instruction are in fact being provided instruction and learning each day.
“The difference is pretty significant between that and virtual learning. Those who are enrolled in the school district are entitled to all the same benefits as in-person students. They can participate in extracurricular activities and they are enrolled students in the district,” he said. “The district provides the instruction, but certainly families play a critical role in it. It is indeed a challenge for many families, but it’s very different from the homeschool environment where the family literally has unenrolled the student from the district and is completely in charge of all of that stuff.”
Respectful of the diversity of curricula and teaching methods in homeschool environments, there’s a level of supervision by public schools, but it’s not a heavy-handed one. According to Mr. Todd, more families seemed to turn to remote learning this year during the coronavirus pandemic than homeschooling in the districts he oversees.
“I think there are great advantages to that — the district still is able to provide a great educational program in partnership with the family and not leaving it all to the family,” he said. “I’m respectful of the decisions families make, but I’m also a big fan of public schools, and so I would urge folks to take a look at the excellent educational programs that our public schools provide. I think they’ll find that we’ve got amazing teachers and amazing programs that will help to support their kids.”
While homeschooled students can’t participate in extracurricular activities like clubs at school, they are still able to take advantage of services like speech therapy. Lincoln is still able to get virtual speech once a week and go into the Sackets school for in-person speech each week.
With the older boys being self-paced, Mrs. Streif thinks her fourth-grader will be finished with his grade work before the end of January. The others, she estimates, will be finished before the end of March. Once they finish everything for their current grade levels, they’ll simply move on to the next grade.
One of the major pros of homeschooling for Mrs. Streif is flexibility to start their school year when it’s best for their family. With her husband, Maj. Russell M. Streif, in the military, Mrs. Streif said the family enjoys the freedom to take time off during her husband’s irregular periods of leave without worrying the kids are going to get behind in their schooling.
“We’re hoping with Thanksgiving and the holidays we can go to Tennessee — where our family is — for a month and they can do their schoolwork there, but also get to visit family,” she said. “Typically, we would be stuck here at least till closer to Christmas when they get off from school.”
Though Mrs. Streif said the family’s homeschooling journey has been easier than she thought it would be, it definitely requires patience, a level of independence and dedication. She said despite the fact that there will be days when it would be easy to come up with excuses to not work one day, families must be dedicated for it to succeed.
“I’m kind of glad we were forced into it, that we took this leap,” Mrs. Streif said. “I think it’s going to be beneficial for the kids. I don’t know if it’s gonna be a lifetime thing for us, I know my boys miss school, but with homeschooling, they have an opportunity to do other things and to take advantage of the opportunity to get out and learn about different things. I’m very much a big believer in the traditional learning style, but I also want to incorporate some nontraditional things.”