BROOKSVILLE — The people dotting a back room of Vineyard Christian Church one night last month had lots of reasons for showing up, but they all had one in common: They were thinking about home-schooling their kids.
There were parents who were home-schooled themselves and parents dissatisfied with traditional public schools. One mom, whose New England family recently decided to spend half the year in Hernando County, wanted to know if she had to re-register her kids for home-schooling in Florida. Another, whose child wasn't yet school age, wanted to know how early she could get started.
About a dozen of them showed up for the meeting, offered monthly by Home Circle of Hernando, the county's biggest support group for families who home-school. There's a growing audience for the information it offers: In the summer of 2016, the Hernando County School District had 981 registered home-schoolers, about one for every 22 students enrolled in a public school. By last summer, that number had grown to 1,354, about one for every 15.5 public school students, and it's gone up this school year.
Doreen Petrucci Gadow, who leads orientations for Home Circle, knows that home-schooling carries stereotypes and misconceptions, so she came prepared to soothe any apprehensions. She held up a pink piece of paper with dozens of Home Circle field trip options to debunk the idea that home-schoolers "never see the light of day."
She talked about how her son, who began home-school in second grade, started college last fall with a junior standing because of all the dual-enrollment classes he'd taken. She ran through the state's requirements for home-schooling: students must be registered with their county school district; they must go through an annual evaluation, most commonly done by a state-certified teacher; and parents must keep a portfolio containing a log of educational activities and work samples.
"A lot of new home-schoolers get really nervous when they hear that word, 'portfolio,'" she said. "I am here to tell you that is not supposed to be intimidating."
Though home education is trending upward across Florida, it's growing particularly quickly in Hernando County. According to the Florida Department of Education's most recent annual report on the subject, home education enrollment grew by nearly 8 percent statewide from 2016 to 2018. In Hernando County, based on the numbers the district provided, it grew by 38 percent.
There doesn't seem to be a single reason behind that change, said Liz Monroe, who chairs the Home Circle group. Some factors have persisted for decades. Families want to travel, parents feel their children are ahead of or behind their grade level, and some want to incorporate religion into their kids' schooling.
But the internet has made it easier for parents to get information on home-schooling and materials to teach their kids with, Monroe said, while public schools sometimes seem to lag technologically. Parents seem more attuned to the consequences of bullying, too. And concerns about school security have made some families skeptical of traditional schools.
Individual families rarely have a single reason, Monroe said.
"Everyone comes out with a multitude, a big handful of reasons," she said.
Monroe, who has five children and a degree in elementary education, lived in Iowa when she decided eight years ago to home-school her oldest child. She'd grown up in the public school system and succeeded, she said, with teachers who nurtured her academic abilities.
But her children's school had neglected infrastructure and graffiti everywhere, she said, and her family planned to move to Florida. She figured home-schooling her 5-year-old would free them up to look for homes without worrying about the quality of neighborhood schools. Now, her three oldest kids are doing schoolwork, and she values the time she spends with them and the flexibility it allows. She can take them to Busch Gardens or a museum on a weekday, she said, and they still have time to get their work done at their own pace.
Monroe said she thinks home-schooling has helped her kids avoid a disdain for school, something she said she sees in their friends who go to public schools. She's also realized the pleasure of education may be taken for granted by people who take to schoolwork easily.
"I don't know what it feels like to be the kid who gets Cs, Ds and Fs," she said. "Do you still love learning if you're getting that?"
She hears from parents who appreciate the individual attention that comes with home-schooling, she said, especially with what strikes some as an excessive focus on testing in public schools, and with the statewide teacher shortage creating increasingly cramped classes.
"I very much see and understand the work that goes into what traditional school teachers do. They're underpaid and working with what they have, and they're doing their best," she said. "But I recognize as a parent that when you're given a 30-, 35-student class, that's challenging."
Angela Kennedy, the school district's supervisor of school choice, said it's hard to pinpoint one reason for the uptick in home-schooling. The district doesn't ask parents about their decisions. But she's seen people in online conversations about school security talk about feeling safer keeping their kids at home, and she said social media can amplify voices suggesting home-schooling.
Two years ago, Elyza Iusan and her family sold several car washes they owned in Tennessee and moved to Hernando County to rebuild their business. Iusan's daughter, Janessa, was about to start kindergarten, and Iusan had considered home-schooling to incorporate more religion into her education. But Iusan was pregnant, and her family was building a home and a business. Janessa started kindergarten at a public school the day Iusan gave birth.
Last fall, Janessa, 6, started picking up cuss words at school. And she came home with notes from her first-grade teacher explaining that Janessa, having finished her work quickly, was talking during class.
The last day of the fall semester, Iusan turned in paperwork to take Janessa out of school and start home-schooling. Now, Janessa does schoolwork at a desk in her strikingly pink bedroom, next to a bookshelf stacked with children's books and a toy abacus. Her workbooks combine introductions to human anatomy with Bible verses.
Iusan worried the transition would overwhelm her. But last month, a few weeks into home-schooling Janessa, life already felt easier: The kids got more time outside, and she didn't have to worry about building her younger kids' schedules around Janessa's school hours. As she watched her daughter learn, she felt a deeper connection with her.
"The way of her thinking is kind of advanced," she said. "I'm learning how she's learning."
Early one afternoon last month, the doorbell at Iusan's house rang. Janessa ran to the door and came back with a package. Inside was a plastic red clock, which Iusan planned to use to teach Janessa to tell time. Her favorite subject is math, and Iusan wanted to figure out if she learns best through visual or hands-on practices.
While Iusan sat on the living room couch and talked to a visitor, Janessa played with the clock. Occasionally she piped up excitedly.
"Mom, I made the actual time!" she said. But mostly she stared at it, entranced, cranking the hands of the clock forward.
Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.