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Undercurrents: Does It Matter Where Johnny Learns to Read?

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

As the practice of homeschooling gets more popular in the Virgin Islands, government education officials are struggling with how best to regulate it.

A draft proposal by the Board of Education to tighten the existing rules has already brought cries of government interference from some parents. They are chafing at the idea of having to follow a curriculum outline loosely set by the board and to be required to have their children tested by the Education Department.

The parents have enlisted support from a national organization, the Home School Legal Defense Association, and attacked the proposal as “the greatest threat to homeschool freedom in decades.”

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Stephanie Berry, acting executive director for the Board of Education, stressed that the board’s proposal is still being vetted.

“Everything is still in draft,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Berry also suggested a revision is necessary because the existing policy dates back to 1998.

The board began holding work sessions on the matter last May and has encouraged suggestions from parents, Berry said. Its most recent hearing was in December and there will be more before any decision is made.

The issue is so sensitive officials apparently don’t want to discuss it. Board chair Nandi Sekou did not reply to several requests for comment made both directly and through Berry. Attempts to talk with members of the board’s Committee on Policies, Rules and Regulations were also unsuccessful.

It’s not clear how many people will be affected by a new policy, if and when one is established.

Anyone who opts to educate his or her child rather than send the child to a school is supposed to register with the Department of Education. But actual numbers are elusive.

In an email, Berry said last week, “Although the VIBE (VI Board of Education) is aware of an increase in the interest of home instruction in the territory, the number of registered parents/guardians with the DOE as required by the existing policy needs to be validated.”

A leading proponent of territorial home schooling, Andrea King, said there are about 90 people in a Virgin Islands support group she called the USVI Home Schoolers. King maintains a closed Facebook page for the group and said she gets between two and five requests to join about every 10 days. At least some of the St. Thomas members of the group meet every Thursday, usually either at Magens Bay beach or Smith Bay beach.

King and her husband are home teaching their 9-year-old daughter.

“She’s never been in a conventional school,” King said. Home schooling “fits with our philosophy of life.”

One thing that appeals to King is that she can tailor her daughter’s studies to the girl’s interests and set a pace that is individualized for her.

“She’s in her second year of Latin,” King said. “She’s reading at about the sixth-grade level and she’s in third grade. It’s all because she isn’t under pressure.” Colleges and universities want students who learned at home, she maintains, because they are self-starters and independent learners.

King rejects the oft-repeated notion that children are “socialized” in traditional schools, saying that they are actually exposed to more realistic life situations and a wider range of people when they are home-schooled.

“I’m also very patriotic,” she said. “My husband and I believe in the integrity of the Constitution … We’re a faith-based family” and home schooling allows more freedom of expression. “We say the pledge (of allegiance) and a prayer in the morning” at the start of instruction.

King said she doesn’t want to see any of that change because of what she characterizes as “the government trying to get in the way.”

“They’re about 40 years behind the times,” she said. “The government shouldn’t get in our way.”

King said her family uses the Living Books Curriculum, which she described as a popular home school support service. They also attend a conference sponsored every year by Great Home School Conventions. As for hours of instruction, “We do Monday through Friday” roughly the same as traditional schools.

But are all parents who choose to home school so conscientious?

And what are the Board and Department of Education’s obligations to ensure that every child in the Virgin Islands receives an education?

The “Procedures for Home Instruction” that have been in place since 1998 are simple. They require a parent to file a form saying he/she will home school his or her child and provide “basic program information including the name(s) of teacher(s), the subjects to be taught, the days of instruction, and the teacher’s method of assessment.”

By filing the form, the parent “acknowledges full responsibility for the education of their child in accordance with the requirements of the Virgin Islands law.”

Under the proposed revision, the parent would be required to list the number of days of instruction and the number of hours per day. He would also need to list the qualifications of the teacher(s). At the primary level, the home teacher would be required to include instruction in reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. At the secondary level, he would have to include English, math, science, V.I. culture and history, physical education, foreign language and digital literacy.

Moreover, the student would have to submit to testing by the Education Department as part of the assessment of progress.

A compromise may be reached yet. King said the home school group has put together a committee consisting of three families from St. Croix and three from the St. Thomas-St. John district to work with the Board of Education to revise the draft proposal.

And Berry emailed that the board “recognizes the variety of home instruction being utilized and is making every effort to determine a fair and equitable policy in accordance with the law and parental/guardian input.”

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