To school or not to school?
Wait, is that even a question? For hundreds of Chicago-area parents and many more across the nation, it is a very real one. In the past decade, there has been a nationwide surge in parents choosing to homeschool, unschool, or choose a non-traditional school without a fixed curriculum or grades. But why?
Proponents believe that unschooling provides opportunities for children to explore their interests without the limits of a traditional classroom. Unschooling allows children the freedom to direct their own education and learn at their own pace, without fear of disapproval from teachers or bad grades. It helps preserve the natural love of learning that people are born with, and helps children develop skills of creativity, initiative, leadership, independence, collaboration, and self-confidence.
[Related: How to apply for CPS preschools]
Some parents, like myself, dip their toe in the water of unschooling by choosing a play-based preschool, where children’s interests drive the classroom experience and there is no preset curriculum. At that age, it is a broadly accepted philosophy that children are born with a natural ability and desire to learn. Many parents continue to follow this philosophy after preschool by homeschooling or unschooling their children.
Still others are intrigued by the tenets of unschooling or homeschooling but it’s not the right fit for their family financially or logistically. They seek out one of the many non-traditional schools putting down roots across the Chicagoland area. These schools are hybrids of unschooling and traditional school. They follow the philosophy of self-directed education, but add a level of structure to the student experience and a general expectation of student attendance during school hours.
I had two bright and happy children who were doing fine in our excellent local public school. However, as they approached upper elementary grades, their zest for learning was starting to wane. As standardized testing pressures ramped up and homework loads increased, school started to become more of a battle and less of a joy. I did some research into alternative options and, as an educator myself, was intrigued by homeschooling. I longed for the ability to personalize the learning experience for my children’s abilities and interests. Unfortunately, despite my promise of a long recess, my kids did NOT share my interest in homeschooling.
Luckily, we were able to find a non-traditional school that met most of my homeschooling objectives but gave my children the separation from me that they craved. While the fear of taking the path less traveled was pretty intense for all of my family members, we took the leap into self-directed education and haven’t looked back. My kids are ahead of a traditional school curriculum in some subjects, and behind in others, but spend every day learning about something that interests them, so we are all content. Best of all, they now wake up every morning excited about going to school.
For every story like mine, there is one with a different ending. Every family has a unique set of needs. The great news is that there are so many education options in Chicago and support networks for those trying them out. Take the time to explore and see if self-directed education might be best for your family. Learn more about homeschooling through local networks like the Chicago Homeschool Network and Northside Unschoolers Group. Find schools with a self-directed education mindset on the NPN website or by talking to schools at the NPN School Fair (it’s where I found my children’s first school!).