More students leaving New York districts for homeschooling – Times Union

In the Capital Region, those districts are seeing the most parents switching to homeschooling.

Statewide, Schenectady has the fifth highest increase in homeschoolers leaving their public school district outside of New York City’s five boroughs. The number of homeschoolers in the Electric City almost tripled from 99 before the pandemic to 289 last school year, according to data from the state Education Department.

The average school district in the state, excluding New York City, lost 23 students to homeschooling, while the average loss among the five districts with the most homeschool transitions was 284 students. Statewide, there are 54,000 children designated as homeschoolers.

The other districts in the top five are a mix of suburban and urban upstate schools: Arkport, Steuben County; Sherman, Chautauqua County; Rochester, and Kingston.

Ballston Spa and Rensselear did not have the highest number of kids who transitioned to homeschool, but they did have the highest percentage increase among Capital Region public schools.

In actuality, the 190 Schenectady students who moved to homeschooling is a drop in the bucket for the city district, which has almost 10,000 students. But it is a 192 percent increase in comparison to the homeschoolers who left before the pandemic. 

Educators take the loss as a criticism of their schools. As lifelong public educators, they strongly believe it’s the best way to learn. They note that schools consist of a more diverse group than one’s family, with teachers trained in social-emotional learning and myriad other skills.

In the last two years, parents largely left public school because of COVID, though not all for the same reason. Some felt districts were taking the virus too seriously — while others felt they were not taking it seriously enough.

School officials have focused on getting both groups back, partly on the grounds that everyone has now accepted that COVID is here to stay. But many parents who started homeschooling because of the pandemic told school officials they want to continue because they have fallen in love with teaching at home. The flexibility, ability to work at a child’s learning level rather than grade level, and the chance to incorporate play-based or outdoor school won many of them over.

“For us personally, my father had a re-diagnosis of lung cancer and to me personally it was, ‘do I send (my kindergartner) to public school and expose my father, or keep him home?’” said Laura Eadon of Ballston Spa. “It started for me as a necessity for our family to stay together.”

Her father died in March 2022. But she has not re-enrolled her children, who are now in first-grade, second-grade and pre-kindergarten.

“We just love it,” she said of homeschool.

Her two sons are well above grade level now in reading and math, and study history and science together. They’re helping their little sister learn to read as well.

“She’s starting to string letters together to read and Evan encourages her – this is how you do it, it’s ok, I had trouble, too,” she said.

She stays home with the children and her husband supports the family financially through his job at General Electric.

Ballston Spa had the 22nd highest homeschooling percent change in the state, excluding New York City. There, homeschooling nearly quadrupled from 2019 to 2022, from 36 students pre-pandemic to 127 students last year.

Rensselaer and Ballston Spa are the only Capital Region schools in the top 25 of public schools statewide in percent of students who transferred to homeschooling. Rensselaer had the 16th highest homeschooling change in the state. There, homeschooling increased by four-fold from 2019 to 2022, but the numeric change was relatively small: from eight students pre-pandemic to 32 students last year.

When the Times Union reached out to Rensselaer Superintendent Joseph Kardash, he disputed the state’s data and then did not return calls for further comment.

Remote workers also homeschooling 

In Schenectady, some parents who started homeschooling to protect an at-risk family member now have remote jobs and have chosen to continue to homeschool, said Schenectady Deputy Superintendent Lynne Rutnik.

“What we were finding was many of the families had family members living with him or that they were caretaking … that did have autoimmune diseases, or diseases that made it really risky for them to come back to school,” she said. “When we contact them again, families told us many of their circumstances had changed, being able to work virtually.”

But that means the enormous lift of juggling work and homeschool.

Some make it work because homeschool can be done on weekends and in the evenings, and many parents take turns running classes for a group or drop off children at a co-op. State rules allow parents to hire a tutor, but if they do group teaching, it can’t be used for a majority of the school program because it would constitute an unlicensed school, according to state regulations.

But Schenectady officials want the students back. In the last year, 36 students returned, which they see as a victory. “We’re trending in the right direction,” Rutnik said.

It’s not that they are opposed to homeschooling – but they prefer public school.

“We are public educators, we believe in the public education system. We have dedicated out lives to it,” Rutnik said. “We would love to have the homeschool families come back.”

In Ballston Spa, too, the interim superintendent is tracking numbers to see if homeschoolers are returning. Last year there were 129 homeschoolers, according to the state. There are 139 now, Superintendent Gianleo Duca said, but some returned when they reached high school.

“This year for sure we definitely got a bunch of kids back at the high school,” he said. “At the (grades) 9-12, that’s where we see more of the transfers.”

While homeschoolers can get a letter from their school superintendent stating they received the “substantial equivalent of a high school education,” they cannot get a state diploma. That can lead to some homeschoolers returning for high school. (Another option is do a 24-credit college program to earn a High School Equivalency Diploma.)

Luca hoped some of them would return because the district opened Spa Academy, a non-traditional high school. The new school has 60 students in total.

“These are kids who hadn’t set foot in a traditional school building in two, three years. We have a 97 percent attendance rate,” he said. “We’re always thinking about creative solutions – what student needs are, what their interests are. We really do try to find a path for all our kids.”

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