ANNAPOLIS – Bill Trautman taught biology in Baltimore public schools for 17 years. Now he leads two field biology classes for home-schooled students.
Typically he asks the children to sketch flowers, in order to identify the species. Later they’ll research their findings.
Trautman, who teaches 40 home-schoolers in Baltimore and Frederick, is one of a growing number of men active in home-schooling at a time when more parents are using it as an alternative to pubic schools.
“I see that building. The fathers are coming in and starting to pick up some of the responsibilities,” said Trautman, of White Hall. “It’s still predominantly the wife who carries the load.”
A full-time naturalist for the state, Trautman serves on the board for the Christian Home Educators Network in Maryland. Two of his five children are still at home, taught primarily by their mother. The other three plan to home-school their own children.
Teaching one to two subjects, in which they have some expertise, is a typical role for home-schooling fathers.
Steve Shive, also of White Hall, sometimes acts as a tutor, especially when it comes to technical problems. He helps his oldest son with chemistry, driving, and computer problems.
He also assumes a managerial or visionary role for his family’s home school.
“I remind them of what we’re doing and where our priorities are,” Shive said. “The family is the center of everything we do.”
Jaren Green, editor and publisher of HomeSchool Dad Magazine, compared fathers’ roles to that of shepherd, protecting and guiding a group of children.
Home-schooling started as a trend among well-educated Christian conservatives who wanted to give their children a faith-based education, according to published reports. Now it’s spread to other groups, including transient military families.
In Maryland, the number of children educated at home has grown by 582 percent, from 2,296 in the 1990-1991 school year to 15,651 last school year, according to Richard Scott, a guidance specialist who coordinates home-schooling for the Maryland Department of Education.
Nationally, 700,000 to 1.15 million students are home educated, according to National Home Education Research Institute President Brian D. Ray.
Home-schooling provides stability for military children.
“With the moving around so much it helps the children and the parents have peace of mind,” said Elizabeth Engle, who lives on Andrews Air Force Base and instructs her two daughters.
Her husband Kevin this year taught the girls one subject he enjoys: composition. But mothers are still the main instructors, she said, because more often “the moms are the ones at home.”
Instead of staying at home to teach, many fathers provide financial assistance, discipline, and moral support.
“[My husband] is the principal, the vice principal, and the board of education all wrapped in one,” said Julie Wesolek, head of the Upper Montgomery/ Frederick County chapter of the Christian Home Educators Network.
The reasons for choosing home schooling vary – from the military families’ stability problems to fears about public school safety to instilling religious values.
Supporters of home education applaud its flexibility and individually tailored programs. There’s less bureaucracy and more freedom to accelerate or slow down lessons as needed.
But home-schooled children don’t get enough exposure to other students with different racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, critics say.
“One of the advantages of public schools is that you’re exposed to such a diversity of people,” said Fran Landau, a guidance counselor at Walt Whitman High School.
In public classrooms, students naturally learn compromise, negotiation, trust building, and tolerance.
Critics say home-schooled students miss opportunities to develop these types of social skills, which come from working on group projects, eating with classmates in the cafeteria every day, interacting with friends in hallways, and competing in academic contests.
And then there’s the long list of extracurricular activities, like marching band, student government, athletic teams, and service clubs.
“A great deal of high school is what happens after school, and I feel they’re missing out on that,” Landau said.
That’s not to say home-schooled children are completely isolated. They’re often involved in church groups, scouting, and community clubs. For instance, Steve Shive coached a basketball team of home-schoolers.
The co-operatives, or group classes like the one Trautman leads, are another opportunity for socialization.
Some parents coordinate with other home-schooling families for field trips, recess at the local park, or swim lessons. They also share lesson plans, resources, and expertise.
That usually means parents control their children’s social lives and the children have fewer authority figures in their lives, said Mitchell Stevens, assistant sociology professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York. He wrote a book about home-schooling trends, Kingdom of Children, which is scheduled to hit stores next spring.
The Internet is widely used by home-schooling families to provide curriculum ideas, support groups, and online classes.
The Web site for the Andrews Air Force Base home-schooling support group includes the group’s calendar and links to book lists, recipe pages, games, and scripture.
“You’re always looking for those teachable moments,” Trautman said. “You can mold the curriculum around each child.”