Columbia — On Monday afternoons, the halls of Dar al Taqwa Islamic Center are filled with voices of excited children, playing tag with siblings and friends, showing off snow globe art projects. A cluster of 20 mothers meet in the multipurpose room, tending toddlers and babies, chatting, and readying lunch, forming the Al-Ansar Homeschooling Cooperative, based on a consensus model where every member participates by volunteering to teach or clean up, essentially ‘pulling their weight.’ They settle down to listen to Elizabeth, a founding member, give a talk on classroom management.
In one room, Asmaa El-Haggan, mother of a ten year old son, teaches Model U.N Debate class. Seven weeks of classes are taught by mothers divided by age on topics of interest to the group or based on her expertise. By pooling money together, they recently had a nutritionist teach a class on healthy food choices. They hold an annual Art Fair and a Science Fair, and even hand out certificates. There are no charges except minor material fees for supplies.
Tips are shared: ‘get an educator’s card at the library and you can get six weeks to check out books’, ‘present your portfolio for review in a binder and show them your daily schedule’, ‘I use lyrical recitation of Quran and that passes for the music requirement.’ It’s a close knit, egalitarian group supporting each other in Islam and in their homeschooling journeys.
Driving in once a week from as far as Frederick, Silver Springs, Laurel to Ellicott City to give their children a taste of the classroom, Al Ansar moms are also active in arranging educational field trips for the 100 homeschooling families on their email listserv. They covered the Medical Museum, Owens Science Center, the Newseum, Ladew Garden, and a glass blowing factory last session. The next trips planned are to NASA and the U.S. Capitol.
“The DC area is great for free activities,” says one mother. The cultural and historical offerings are so rich, many homeschooling families rely heavily on the city’s cultural institutions, landmarks, museums, libraries and historical sites. The Maryland Science Center offered homeschool programming in the month of January. Maryland History Society has educational tours.
On Tuesdays, Heidi Wahba’s kids take a history class at the Sandy Spring Museum in Olney. On Wednesdays, they intern with Bryant County Critters in Gaithersburg assisting the instructor. Group study on Thursdays, and the week is finished off with a debate class with friends at the Makkah Learning Center in Gambrills. “I spend a lot of time in the car,” she says, driving her four children all over the state from their home in Brookville. It’s worth it to her. Her son was bullied ‘too much” in school, so she discussed it with a few Muslim friends, bought her first book called “Teach Your Own: John Bolt’s Book of Homeschooling”, joined 3-4 homeschooler listservs and never looked back. Building a solid foundation of Islamic beliefs is worth every minute to her. “My kids don’t follow the crowd.”
Zahirah Eppard and Moira McGuire are pros; they are grandmothers and have homeschooled several children between the two of them.
McGuire recommends that families new to homeschooling do it for more than a year. “A year is just not enough time as you need to adjust your ideas about education or your child[ren] needs to adjust theirs”. Skeptical of ‘traditional’ schooling, which she says isn’t traditional at all, she found herself unschooling, a self-directed approach to education. “In the beginning, I didn’t understand that I am an unschooler,” says McGuire. Her husband had a different, more planned approach. They have learned how to balance their approaches to their childrens’ education. She thinks for parents new to the idea, especially those who are pulling their children out from schools, need to know that a year is spent struggling with the question, ‘am I doing the right thing?’
Some choose to homeschool because they see a lot of time wasted in public schools and feel that their children can complete the 12 year curriculum at an accelerated pace. Creativity and flexibility are priorities for some and others want to build a solid Islamic identity. Currently more than 1.5 million children homeschool in the United States. According to the Maryland State Department of Education, Maryland’s homeschool enrollment nearly doubled over the past 15 years.
Hifdz of the Quran is a major reason why many families choose to homeschool. Without the pressure of public or private schools structured curriculum, Hifdh students tend to complete their memorization quicker. Husna Hamza has three daughters who are completing their hifdh at The Hifz School at Dar us Salaam; she homeschools her daughters and her three younger sons.
When Hamza’s girls were attending private school, she felt their relationship was more about their schooling and less about mothering — the boss-employee routine — ordering them around from the minute the day started to adhere to someone else’s schedule. Now she focuses on teaching her six children life skills and likes that she is not bound by a curriculum or artificial structure. “Home is the best, I don’t think young children should be away from home for such long periods of time,” she shares. She feels it is important for the health of the family – for bonding with parents and siblings.
Maryland is an active hub for homeschoolers, but is relatively homeschool unfriendly at the governmental level. Many states such as California and Pennsylvania provide resources, curriculums, let homeschoolers borrow books from the public school system, allow homeschoolers to take some classes in public high schools, give access to many public school extracurricular activities (sports, clubs, etc.). Some states provide public schooling at home by sending district teachers to the house. The District of Columbia pays for virtual homeschool programs such as K-12.com. The only resource that Maryland provides is that the homeschooled student may sit for standardized state testing.
But this didn’t stop Andini Gallivan family’s homeschooling journey which started when her daughter was also bullied in school. Her mother fell ill overseas and she took her two daughters with her to Indonesia for an extended stay. Her husband, a private school teacher, was intially opposed to the idea, but when he saw the progress the girls made under Andini’s tutelage he acceded. He is an active participant in their education and wants their daughters to home school through college.
They likes structure and have organized their Gallivan Academy to suit the family’s schedule and her daughter’s learning styles. These days the girls are studying the Khulafa Rashideen in History. She helps run a Muslim Homeschooling page on Facebook, which frequently offers tips and articles. The family moved from Virginia and finds more Muslim homeschooling families in Maryland. They do miss the resources in Virginia and the fact that Virginia doesn’t require portfolio reviews or reporting, but revel in the company.
Nahiya Saeed says seeing your child learn how to read and knowing that it was a result of your hard work is so rewarding. Participants use many different methods, ”different strokes for different folks”, says Saeed who attended public school. She has taught in the school system and feels the system is overworked with 30 students in a class room. “I don’t think homeschooled kids are smarter, but they tend to be more patient, less frustrated and less stressed as they receive a safe, tailor-made education.”
Home education is governed by COMAR 13A.10.01 in Maryland, a procedure used by the superintendent of each local school system to determine if a child participating in a home instruction program is receiving regular, thorough instruction during the school year in subjects usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age. Each school district has different requirements.
Under COMAR, students must be taught by parents or guardians but they can also hire tutors for subjects. Parents do not need to be certified. Learning the law is very important, parents are not required to teach the same information that the public schools teach.
Local school district personnel are not always familiar with the details of the laws, and a spirited discussion ensues as the Al-Ansar moms reveal their review experiences where they were asked questions that were clearly illegal. Dannette Zaghari-Mask, an attorney, says that sometimes the county asks to see everyone.“They are not allowed to interview the kids,” she says. Saeed nods her head in agreement; she is a member of the panel which runs the co-op. Mervad Sewilan comments that some reviewers ‘look at us as an enemy.’ Gallivan shares how she used her review as an opportunity for dawah.
Saeed says Al-Ansar is not an umbrella group, so it can not do the reviews for its parents, but the interest is there. Dar Al Taqwa has the required paperwork.
If a parent or guardian decides to homeschool, they have 15 days before the beginning of a home instruction program to sign a written statement on a form prescribed by the State Department of Education. In Maryland, English, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Art, Music, Health, and Physical Education are mandatory subjects. Quranic recitation classes can be substituted for Music classes.
Some school districts have cooked up forms and policies that are not legally required, warns Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). The correct form—the one developed by the state Department of Education—is available on the HSLDA webpage for Maryland. HSLDA urges families to use this form rather than the one the county offers. Families are not required to file any forms with the local public school; a notification of intent is enough to inform the school superintendent.
Diana, a mother of six, sits outside a church, on a cold January day, with several other mothers clad in hijabs. Her daughter is inside attending an advanced science class in the church’s basement, that they found through a Christian message board. “I wish masajid [Islamic Centers] would open up their doors for homeschoolers to host classes.” Her experience requesting rooms at the Islamic Center near her home met ‘a lot of resistance and barriers’. Families can easily band together and hire tutors for private lessons cutting down the cost for a single family and provide income for retired teachers and professionals in the community.
McGuire, a thrifty mother of six, says it is not her journey, it is her children’s journey. Her son, Zakaria asked her to homeschool in first grade, he is now 16 and taking two classes at Howard County Community College; $250 each a semester. She also unschools three younger children – reusing books and equipment. Homeschooling can be cheap if used textbooks are bought through eBay and homeschooling swap meets. Community college credits for advanced coursework can later be applied toward a degree, saving money in the long run.
Homeschooling can be expensive as well. Classes with private tutors, correspondence classes and curriculum such as Calvert can add up fast. A full 4-year, 18 unit high school diploma program with American School online costs $2100. Diana of Columbia, MD, spends at least a couple of thousand dollars, ‘plus pay[s] taxes’. Heidi has a budget of $2000-2500 for her children, which she finds cheaper than private school.
With two kids now in highschool McGuire feels the pinch, spending $500 a year per child per class. “I find the older I get and the older my kids get, the less involved I am; they are experiencing life,” says McGuire. ‘Subcontracting’ as she calls it, means having other people involved with her kids, “that is what is different about [homeschooling] high schoolers.”
A tax credit bill SB 271 has been submitted to the Maryland Senate. It will help all families who choose non-public education—both homeschool families and private school families. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) If enacted, homeschooling families can obtain a $1,000 tax credit for books, tuition, correspondence courses etc. Some homeschoolers see the bill as intrusive and oppose it. They fear stricter oversight.
Another concern for parents who want to homeschool through high school is college preparedness. They are unsure if they have what it takes to teach high school level concepts. Diana tortured herself over this issue. Her eldest has now graduated from UMBC. “She loved the place,” says Diana.
In 2002, the College Board, which administers the SAT, says that homeschoolers averaged 72 points, or 7 percent, higher than the national average. At a portfolio review in Greenbelt Library, the school district reviewer shared samples of transcripts kept by homeschooling mothers of high schoolers. “Some universities are more friendly than others,” she says and college board results, extracurricular activities, recommendations from community college professors as well as showing what the student has done with their life helps homeschoolers get into prestigious colleges. According to the New York Magazine, based on a study that compared students at a midwestern university from 2004 to 2009, students coming from a home school graduated college within four years at a higher rate than their peers—66.7 percent compared with 57.5 percent—and earned higher grade-point averages.
What about the kids? What do they think? Dalya, an eighth grader from Germantown decided to homeschool herself. The language at school, the aggression and bullying were too much for her. “I want to homeschool my own kids; schools are a bad influence,” she says with a grin. However, she is headed back to the local high school because that is what all her siblings did.
Safiyyah is a quiet eight year old, whose favorite subject is math. Homeschooled since she was in kindergarten, she shyly says, “I like being home,” her brown eyes looking down at the floor.” I like spending time with my mommy.” Her mommy, Kimberly Baqqi, the cheerful administrator of the Al-Ansar Co-op email list coos with delight. Validation feels good.
Nadia, Sakinah and Aisha are ninth graders having lunch in between sessions at the co-op. After being homeschooled by their mothers since they were in elementary school, they presently take chemistry classes together with a college professor in Adelphi, MD and writing classes in Greenbelt, MD. They find themselves aptly prepared for the classes.
Since socialization skills are a big concern for homeschool critics, this is a question that is often thrown their way. They don’t agree with the stereotype that homeschoolers are introverts. “It allows you to grow in a way that is not possible when people are closed in with [only] their peers,” says Nadia.
Confident that they can take on the world, they know that it is their own journey.