Learning from home: How home-schooled students in Alachua County look for community
Noah Howes has a classroom inside his home.
Howes, a high school junior and a resident of Gainesville, plays basketball at The Rock school and hangs out with his friends in his free time.
He is one of the roughly 154,000 home-schooled students in the state of Florida, according to the Florida Department of Education’s home education report in 2022.
However, according to his mother Nicole, the Howes family has struggled to find community in Alachua County.
“Gainesville is not home-school friendly,” said Nicole Howes .
Nicole taught Noah and his older brother Jonathan, who is currently in his second year at the University of Florida, for their entire schooling. They explained that there is a lack of home-school groups or co-ops available in the greater Gainesville area. Co-ops are groups put together by home-school families where students can go to learn new subjects. They are created for a variety of reasons and can be run many different ways.
“There are groups in the area, but they’re mostly for kids under the age of 14. Most of these groups only have 4-5 families, and they’re typically closed off to new members. Some of the co-ops feel like a waste of time,” said Nicole.
Before the family moved to Gainesville in 2017, they were a part of a large home-school group in the Tampa area that provided co-ops, middle and high school sports programs, special events and a graduation ceremony. After moving, the family would drive four hours round-trip on Thursdays to continue attending a STEM class in Tampa, as well as keeping their membership in their homeschool group there.
“We would get up at 4:30 am every Thursday to attend class,” said Noah.
Both Noah and Jonathan started dual enrollment at UF at the ages of 14.
“I’m a senior in college right now by credits. I took Calculus 1, 2 and 3 before I graduated high school,” said Jonathan.
Both boys felt as if their home schooling helped develop their social lives too.
“A lot of people think that home-schoolers are anti-social, but most of the home-schoolers I’ve met have been very social. I feel like being home-schooled gave me more time to focus on basketball and to study my harder subjects,” said Noah.
Home schooling was established as a school choice option by the state in 1985. Since then, home schooling has grown exponentially, starting with fewer than 100 families in its infancy to becoming one of the largest states by percentage, with nearly 1 in every 20 school-age children being taught at home.
With the growing demand for home schooling, organizations like the Florida Parent Educators Association (FPEA) look to help families that are starting their journey. Suzanne Nunn, who has been the chair of the association since 2015, has looked to lead families in their journey to begin teaching their children.
“Home schooling doesn’t look like one particular thing. It can be different for every family,” Nunn said.
FPEA looks to provide support and education for home-school families by providing information on what homeschooling and curriculum options are available. One of the ways they seek to accomplish this mission is through their annual home-school convention in Orlando, which occurs from Thursday to Saturday every Memorial Day weekend.
“We have the largest home-school convention in the world. We typically have about 15,000 to 18,000 people,” said Nunn.
They work to connect FPEA members with groups and co-ops in their area. However, in certain areas of the state, groups struggle to form due to factors such as a lack of organization, lack of meeting space and rising insurance costs.
“The only way we can connect people with groups is if they organize with us. Right now we only have one group from Alachua County. North Florida isn’t as developed as our other areas,” said Nunn.
However, in Marion County, the overall number of home-schoolers and the organization seems to be more prevalent. Vicki Leist is a former home-school educator and currently runs a group called Christian Homeschool Academic Teaching (CHAT). CHAT offers events for kids starting in pre-K and extending to 12th grade. Leist also teaches advanced math at First Assembly Christian School as well.
“Teaching your child is a whole different ball game. I loved the time with my kids,” Leist said.
Leist began teaching her oldest son ‘by accident.’
“He was having trouble keeping up in Kindergarten. One day I was in Barnes and Noble, and I saw an out of place home-school book and I wanted to try it,” Leist said.
Leist home-schooled both of her children through their high school graduation and became involved with the homeschool community along the way. Both of her children are college graduates.
Marion County has worked closely with Leist to help aid homeschool students into finding a community. The school board liaison for the county often directs new home-school families to her for guidance on local home-school groups.
Leist also works with Home Education After Righteous Teaching, another Faith-based organization, to provide events like prom and graduation. She said events like these can be very enticing for home-schooled families.
“Home-school families need to find connection,” she said.