School looks different from one day to the next for 10-year-old Piper Rouse of Yakima County.
Each Wednesday, she gathers in Yakima with other students about her age to memorize new classical education concepts and apply them to a skill development like essay writing.
Other days, she sits at her family’s dining room table with her younger brother seated across from her. Together, they recite chants and songs or review maps of the world before making their way through written assignments and workbooks with the help of their mom.
Some days, it’s more laid back.
Math lessons might happen while baking pretzels, her mom, Crystal Rouse, said in early September, weeks after the new school year began. “She was like, ‘I’ve been really wanting to bake these pretzels.’ OK, so here are all of these measurements. How would you double that? That’s our math for that day.”
As one of nearly 22,000 students homeschooled statewide, the flexibility of Piper’s education is something state law specifically enables — and a big part of why her mom loves it.
“I love having — I don’t want to say control, but — a say in what they’re learning and how they’re learning it,” Rouse said. “With all the different frames of how people learn well — are you auditory? Are you hands-on? My son just wants to be moving all the time. So he’ll stand and do his work, he’ll dance and do his work. That works for him. Just being able to tailor the education that works best for them.”
Yakima County had 311 families that opted out of the public school system in the 2018-19 school year. They each take a different approach to the school day, and have many reasons for choosing an alternative education path.
Who is staying home?
Nationwide, homeschool demographics have shifted in recent years, said Jen Garrison Stuber, advocacy chairwoman for the Washington Homeschool Organization board.
Two of the fastest growing populations of homeschoolers are Muslim students and students with special needs, she said.
“The special-needs families are figuring out that their kids are making huge gains over the summer and then losing them when they go back to school and figuring out, ‘Hey, we could actually do this ourselves,’” Garrison Stuber said.
By state law, a parent can opt to homeschool their children if they do one of the following:
- Meet regularly with certified professional educators in the state to plan and evaluate their child’s learning.
- Have at least 45 college-level credit hours or complete a home-based instruction program at a post-secondary or vocational institute.
- Be considered “sufficiently qualified” to instruct their child by their local superintendent.
To ensure students are getting a sufficient basic education, the state requires homeschooled students to take a state-approved standardized achievement test once a year, which is to be kept on record by the parents.
While religious reasons used to be the most prominent factor for switching to homeschooling, Garrison Stuber said families seeking more academic rigor are increasingly turning to the alternative approach.
“There are a lot of people who are like, ‘Oh, I can do this and solve this other problem,’” she said.
Concern about the school environment, such as safety, drugs or negative peer pressure, was the most important deciding factor for the majority of U.S. parents who chose to homeschool in the 2015-16 school year, according to the most recent data available in the National Household Education Survey by the National Center of Education Statistics.
Other common reasons were dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools and a desire to provide religious instruction, in that order.
Homeschooling meets the various needs of families in large part because of its flexibility, Garrison Stuber said.
In Washington, the Legislature specifies that home-based instruction doesn’t fit the mold of a public or private school.
Homeschooling is "less structured and more experiential than the instruction normally provided in a classroom setting,” a 2017 document by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction on homeschooling regulations says, adding that guidelines should be "liberally interpreted."
Rhett Nelson, OSPI’s director of alternative learning, said this serves as a catchall to explain that homeschooling is loosely regulated — intentionally.
The home-based instruction law "emphasizes that the parent really becomes in charge of all that, and that ... the state board and OSPI aren’t meant to put much in place,” he said.
The law provides the expectation of students being taught occupational education, science, math, language, social studies, history, health, reading, writing, spelling, art and music, he said. Students in grades 1-12 are expected to study at least 180 days and 1,000 hours a year, as well as at least 450 hours for kindergarten students.
No one regulates that all the subjects be taught or how it should be done, he emphasized.
“It might be delivered differently than you might traditionally be thinking,” Nelson said. “They could be doing math while cooking dinner as part of their meal prep time, and so that might be something that’s included in instruction hours, if they’re wanting to think of it that way.”
The popularity of homeschooling in Washington has gradually grown over the past two decades, according to OSPI data. There were 13,645 families statewide providing a home-based education in the 2018-19 school year, compared to 11,393 two decades prior. In Yakima County, the number has hovered around 300 families for the past five school years.
Selah, West Valley and Yakima school districts have without exception had the largest number of families in the county opting to homeschool over the past 10 school years, according to OSPI data.
In Yakima, there are countless organizations that provide support to homeschool parents, co-op options for students to gather to learn and wrap-around services, such as Homeschool P.E. offered through the YMCA.
Here are the stories of what brought three Yakima County families to homeschooling and what their approaches look like:
The Rouse family
Crystal Rouse comes from a family of public school teachers, including her mother. She and her husband, Frank, went to school in Selah and West Valley, respectively. They each had good experiences in public school, she said. She is a registered nurse and her husband is a pilot, and they settled on 12 acres near Cowiche.
But when it came time to send their oldest daughter, Piper, to school, public school didn’t seem like the best option.
Rouse was worried about bullying, which survey after survey says is on the rise in U.S. schools. She had concerns about her daughter being exposed to things like sex and drugs at a young age. She wanted to ensure that God was central to Piper’s education.
But to send Piper to private school, Rouse said she would have had to go back to work full time, which she didn’t want to do with her younger son Frankie, now 7, still at home.
“I remember asking my husband, ‘Should I try it?’” she said of homeschooling. They decided to test it out a year, while Piper was still in kindergarten.
Five years later, Rouse is serving her first year as the director of Yakima Valley Classical Conversations, one of several local chapters of a national Christian homeschool co-op network.
“All of our communities are currently full and we're looking for new directors to open up more communities to fill the need of the Yakima Valley,” Rouse said, listing off five chapters in Yakima County.
The co-op breaks students into age groups. Students 4 to 12 in age begin with Foundations, which emphasizes memorization to build a baseline in history, science, math, English, Latin and geography predominantly through songs and chants. In Essentials, students 9 to 12 wade into analysis, honing math skills and developing writing and structure skills. In Challenge years, ages 12 and up, students work on developing skills in problem solving, research and logic.
Rouse observed a day of Essentials at the West Valley Classical Conversations chapter her first year and was won over by the program. She joined the Yakima Valley chapter and bought workbooks from Costco the first year to provide learning structure for Piper outside of the one day of classes at Yakima Alliance Church on Wednesdays.
Today, Frankie is in second grade and Piper is in fourth. Both participate in Foundations, and Piper is in her first year of Essentials, which she and her mom go to together while Frankie joins daycare offered through the chapter. The co-op costs $335 a year per student in tuition, plus application supply and facility fees.
Outside of co-op, they review materials from past weeks and work through supporting Abeka homeschooling curriculum in subjects like math. Piper takes pride in the fact that she reads above her grade level — seventh grade reading, according to a test she took — and they both excel in math.
The siblings also take karate and music classes, in addition to traveling and playing outdoor sports. In the afternoon, they play with neighborhood kids when they can.
Rouse works one day a week at a local hospital while Frank teaches the kids. The rest of the week, she teaches them. The family skips town to hike or ski whenever the opportunity arises.
“While they’re young, our whole goal is to continue to give them the gift of childhood and not having them growing up before they’re needing to,” she said.
Piper and Frankie are fans of homeschooling. They appreciate the challenge of their schooling, as well as the flexibility of their school days and weeks, which they know from friends isn’t the case in the public school setting.
“I think it’s really fun. I love it,” Piper said of homeschooling. “My favorite part is probably being able to hang out with my friends and still be with my family, instead of staying at the school all day.”
The Hernandez family
Nathaniel Hernandez attended kindergarten at Wide Hollow Elementary School in West Valley. Nathaniel, 9, struggled with a speech delay and poor motor skills because of autism and ADHD.
“He had a great teacher, it’s just that he couldn’t focus,” his grandmother, Selene Hernandez, said. “His anxiety level was very high when he was in a traditional school. He has auditory sensory issues. Being in a room with other kids where they’re laughing or screaming or crying — it was really hard for him.”
She said it was hard for her grandson to speak. Now, his speech has gotten much better.
Hernandez heard about Washington Virtual Academies, free online public K-12 schools, through her sister about three years ago.
“When we learned about WAVA, it was like, ‘Yes, we can do this at home,'” Hernandez said. “They have real teachers, class sessions, so it’s not like I’m the one teaching. I’m helping.”
Hernandez said she broke her back a few years ago, leaving her unable to work. Nathaniel's mother, a single mom, works as a medical assistant and Hernandez’s husband also works while Hernandez supports Nathaniel’s learning.
This is Nathaniel’s third year taking classes through WAVA. All of Nathaniel’s classes — handwriting, math, vocabulary, science, literature, comprehension, writing, art, history, social studies, speech therapy and occupational therapy — take place through the computer.
Every weekday, Nathaniel has one virtual lesson with his general instructor for roughly 40 minutes in the morning followed by a session with his special education instructor in the afternoon. Twice a week, he has speech therapy, and two times each month he does occupational therapy — which he used to have more regularly, before his motor skills improved.
“It’s a real classroom, just virtual,” Hernandez said. There are about 10 students in each class, she said, but Nathaniel also gets one-on-one time with teachers, especially if he’s struggling with a concept. Hernandez supervises him to make sure he’s doing his work and helps him when he gets stuck.
“He actually likes it. The noise is much better because the teachers have control. If the (students) are making too much noise, you just turn off the microphone,” she said.
Outside of the live lessons, much of the coursework is done through illustrated videos followed by exercises and quizzes online or in workbooks. They are assigned for a specific day, but Nathaniel can do them whenever he wants — although he usually gets an early start to school and ticks off all his tasks by early afternoon. Hernandez said this flexibility allows them to go on a walk or run to work off pent-up energy and refocus as needed, or to postpone a lesson to the weekend if he gets overwhelmed. Then, the teachers grade his work.
Nathaniel spends an average of six to seven hours on schoolwork each day, she said.
She said his growth in the past few years has put him on par for his grade level.
“When he finished kindergarten, he was not even at that level. He had a speech delay, anxiety — he was not doing very well,” she said. In the first year, she noticed a big difference, and now he’s right on track. “He’s doing good. He’s not behind.”
The program is entirely free to the family, since it’s a public school service run and paid for by Omak School District.
Textbooks and school materials, including art supplies, are delivered to their door before the start of the school year, said Hernandez. The system even provides a laptop for Nathaniel to work on, but Hernandez lets him use a large, old desktop computer of hers, so he can see everything on the screen better, she said.
Outside of coursework, Nathaniel has participated in YMCA P.E. and swimming, as well as regular visits to the park.
“He loves swimming. He loves water,” Hernandez said. With the new YMCA open closer to their West Valley home, she said he will get a lot of water time this school year.
Overall, Hernandez said the online program is prepping her grandson for adulthood in a world of technology, where he might even go to college online. She said WAVA has brought new hope to her family.
“There’s options. If I can help him to handle the stress and anxiety, (I will). It’s already enough that we have so many kids with depression. I don’t want that for him. I want something that’s going to help him to grow and helps him to be successful,” she said, noting that the online program suits his learning needs. “Now that a lot of kids with autism are going to college, it gives us hope.”
The Brown family
When Madison Brown was just 2 years old, her parents — both critical care nurses — discovered she has life threatening food allergies.
“We had her checked out and the allergy specialist was blown away with how severe her allergy was,” her mom, Shayna Brown, said. “My husband and I are both in critical care and we have seen kids die from anaphylaxis.”
When it came time to send her to preschool, they worried that a teacher might not understand the severity of her allergy or be able to recognize the symptoms and administer an EpiPen properly. Since Madison couldn't yet read, she wasn’t able to check labels and was too young to be responsible for tracking her own allergies, Brown said.
“So we decided to homeschool her for preschool,” Brown said.
Madison, now 12, skipped kindergarten and went to first grade and second grade at John Campbell Primary School in Selah. Brown said they had a great experience with the public school system. But since then, the family has gone back and forth between the public school system and homeschooling.
“We take it year by year,” she said, based on “what fits best with our family and what we’re doing now.”
Because Brown and her husband are nurses at a local hospital, they work 12-hour shifts. She said it was hard to find daycare for that long of a work day for their younger son, Jacob, now 10. Instead, the couple alternated caring for the kids and working. They rarely had crossover with the whole family.
“It was kind of depressing, to be honest with you,” Brown said. “We like to travel and do stuff, and so we were just like, 'this doesn’t work for us.' We want to be home with our kids and have that time with them. So we went back to homeschooling.”
Madison and Jacob were homeschooled for two more years before their younger sister, Svea, now 3, was born. They went back to the Selah school system for a year. But with Madison a grade ahead, her parents were uneasy about her entering middle school with much older students, and they returned to homeschooling.
The family switched to a new online Christian homeschooling program this year, BJU Press, which is more up to date than the antiquated curriculum Brown says they used last year. The program uses a combination of videos, online learning and textbooks to guide students. Parents grade the work, unlike computer grading in their previous curriculum, so they are more involved in their kids' learning.
Brown said she tries to keep a regular school environment, having Jacob, in fifth Grade, and Madison, in seventh, sit quietly at their desks without talking or getting up for snacks or bathroom breaks outside of designated windows. In the afternoon, she or her husband spend one to two hours correcting their work in addition to helping them through any topics they’re struggling with, such as coding concepts Madison is learning this year.
The school days themselves are flexible.
“We do school work on the days that we work,” said Brown, explaining that she and her husband, Jeremy, each work three 12-hour shifts a week. “So the days that Jeremy and I are off together, they’re also off of their school work. Those are our family days… Because we’re nurses and work weekends, they can be any day of the week.”
Both siblings also take private music lessons — Jacob plays guitar and Madison plays piano — plus Madison plays saxophone in the Wilson Middle School band through Yakima School District, which appeases her gregarious nature by getting more interaction with students her age.
The jury is out on whether the siblings prefer public or private school, but they have each excelled in learning and light up when they talk about lessons from this year: Jacob grew crystals using Epsom salts earlier this year in one science experiment, and Madison is absorbed in fun facts she’s learning from around the globe in her world studies course, like how toothpaste was made in the Aztec Empire.
“The school year is going pretty good,” said Brown, noting the improvement a change in curriculum made. “It’s certainly an adjustment.”
This story has been updated to correct that Omak School District runs and funds the free online public school program Nathaniel Hernandez attends.