WILLISTON — As students return to school this week, not all will be in a classroom. According to the Florida Department of Education, there were 152,109 homeschooled students in the state for the 2021-22 school year and a 69% increase over the past five years. The numbers are rising every year across the country, especially following school closures during the pandemic.
Parents who choose homeschooling don’t have to go through it alone, with online classes, resources, and local groups. The children are not alone either, as many join cooperatives or other programs.
Sherri Boggess Brice has led the Williston Christian Homeschool Group for 19 years. It currently has over 90 members from all grade levels. Members share information and resources, as well as group parties and field trips. Excursions last year included the Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary (EARS), Hoggetown Medieval Fair, Kanapaha Botanical Gardens and the Cedar Key Historical Society. All geared towards the older members of the group. Students also get together for team sports and year-end parties.
“In my 23 years of homeschooling adventures, homeschoolers always go to prom, attend a graduation ceremony, and receive a diploma,” Brice said. “My four daughters entered college straight out of my homeschooling program. Dual enrollment, college scholarships, and Bright Futures have all played a role in raising my kids to the next level.
“Home schooling is one of the best alternatives for your child’s education,” she said. “Your child will learn life skills as well as typical school subjects. Parents know their children better than anyone. An experienced homeschooling assessor can help parents customize a program to suit their children’s learning styles. Homeschoolers have more time to pursue topics that interest them. This time can be spent on different topics such as rebuilding an engine, mastering gardening or spending more time fine-tuning your sport.
Homeschooling has been legal in Florida since 1985, thanks to the work of Craig and Brenda Dickinson. Previously, the only legal option for homeschooling was to enroll in a private school that allowed parents to homeschool through them. Even then, some duly registered families were still accused of truancy and threatened with losing custody. The Dickinsons were successful in getting the legislation passed with the support of State Representative Daniel Webster, who was a homeschooled parent.
The Dickinsons continued to fight for school choice in Florida, including another bill that guarantees homeschooled children access to extracurricular activities in public schools. Craig died before this bill became law, and it was named the Craig Dickinson Act in his honor. Brenda remains a homeschooling lobbyist in Tallahassee, while Webster is now a member of the United States House of Representatives.
To homeschool in Florida, parents send a letter of intent to the Board of Education. One year from the date of this letter, the homeschooled student must take an assessment. Options include: a standardized test, a portfolio assessment by a certified teacher, or a special arrangement with the superintendent.
“As a certified teacher, I’ve helped students transition into college, military school, and trade school,” Brice said. “Parents need to dedicate time to helping their children – there are many resources available, such as a support group or an experienced certified teacher to guide them. I think it’s time well spent getting to know your child and helping them make a difference in the world.
“With all the craziness in the world right now that you can’t control, at least in your child’s education, you’ll feel like you can control the content your child is exposed to during the age level you deem appropriate,” she said. “You can teach your values and traditions to the most important people in your life.”
Tracy Kirby is the Outreach Director of Kirby Family Farm and the founder of Kirby Homeschool Co-Op. In just three years, “Kirby Kids” has grown to include more than 50 elementary and high school aged children from Levy, Gilchrist, Alachua and Marion counties.
“I dove into the ministry of serving students at home in 2013 when I left the public school classroom to homeschool my struggling middle schooler,” Kirby said. “That was the same year we found the train and started building the railroad at Kirby Family Farm. I also started tutoring other students at home, and this service continues today. My personal mission has always been to help parents who needed a non-traditional educational alternative for their children.
Kirby Kids students meet weekly at Kirby Farm, where they spend two hours in a classroom led by certified teachers. Classes emphasize science with hands-on group activities. The kids go on field trips, have the occasional homework, and even have a photo day at school. Last year, the children also put on a Christmas musical. At the end of the year, the students have an awards ceremony and party.
“I created my own model and my own road to success for students,” Kirby said. “Through mentoring programs and a variety of study programs, we have found a pathway to help students transform their lives. We lay the tracks.
“Students and parents find freedom beyond a traditional school,” she said. “My advice to families considering homeschooling is to research and read everything you can. Know why you are choosing homeschooling.
“Know your rights to advocate for your child and target your child’s needs,” Kirby said. “We live in a time of unprecedented confusion, but our children can learn safely and confidently at home.”