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July 1, 2009 > LINKed together in purpose

LINKed together in purpose

A local homeschool support group creates lasting bond

By Alyson Whitaker
Photos By Kathi Cyphers and Debbie Amato

At first glance, the party appeared as any other end-of-year school celebration. Parents reminisced over how quickly the year had passed while watching the kids eating, talking, and laughing together. Yearbooks were passed out and the room was abuzz with friends requesting autographs. The party didn't take place on a school playground or classroom, but rather on the grounds of Bridges Community Church in Fremont. The reason? These students are all home-schooled and part of the LINKS Support Group.

LINKS, an acronym for "Learn, Inspire, Nurture, Knowledge, Support" began nearly 10 years ago, when a small group of homeschool parents felt a need to share ideas and create a sense of connection among their children. There were 25 students the first year. The number has grown to 160 students in 62 different families over the past nine years. Most of the families live in Fremont and Newark, while a few more reside in Milpitas, Union City, and Hayward. The Christian-based group shares not only a passion for the education of their children, but a strong faith in God as well.

While the homeschool movement may have begun with religious radicals and free-spirited hippies, there has been a shift in recent years to include mainstream families. It is estimated that there are between 500,000 and 1 million homeschooled children nationwide, and between 150,000 and 200,000 in California alone. Some families have homeschooled exclusively. Others have pulled their child/children out of mainstream education after experiencing frustration with the public school system. Still others choose to supplement their child's public school education with homeschool curriculum in an effort to challenge an academically advanced student or strengthen a child who is struggling.

A common misconception regarding homeschooled children is that there are limited opportunities for socialization. Debbie Amato, director of LINKS for the past 6 years, has homeschooled her son exclusively since kindergarten. She wanted him "to have all the social opportunities of a school experience, with parties, celebrations, field trips, etc." This support group has given her son varied and regular interaction with other students. The LINKS support group is just one example of homeschool families creating the full school experience for their children. Another group, BAHFT (Bay Area Homeschool Field Trips) welcomes all homeschool families and has regular field trips to locations all over the Bay Area. Being connected to a charter school, such as COIL (Center of Independent Learning), also provides a network for families and other students to join together for activities and interaction.

As awareness has increased about homeschooling, interest has increased as well. Parents who make this choice regarding their child's education don't feel as much criticism as they did years ago. They are more open in discussing their decision to homeschool. Kathi Cyphers is a LINKS member who home schools her eleven year-old son. She finds it humorous when someone approaches her and asks about the socialization aspect of homeschooling as she sits on the sidelines of her son's baseball game. Looking out on the field, he is no different than any of the other eleven-year-old boys as they groan at a dropped ball or cheer a player in to home base.

Homeschooling provides an educational flexibility that is nearly impossible to replicate in a standard school environment. Concepts are taught at the child's learning pace with a one-on-one interaction from the parent. There are ample opportunities to ensure that the principles are sinking in. Most families use guidelines to ensure that they cover the course material recommended for each age and grade. Many participate in standardized testing to measure how their child is meeting state and national standards. Students tend to progress more quickly in homeschool than they might in mainstream education.

Homeschooled students can pursue a subject of interest in depth and include a wide range of experiences that may not be available in a traditional classroom. Debbie Amato recalls a memorable field trip excursion with the "Voyages of Discovery." An authentic replica of a 1790's trade ship came down to the Bay Area. A crew of 45 LINKS students boarded the ship, along with a handful of adult chaperones. They experienced what it was like to sail a ship in the 1790's-raising and lowering the sails, steering the ship, singing sailor songs, learning how sailors slept, ate, and lived while onboard. Students had to learn to navigate the ship without using automated GPS systems. The adult chaperones were not allowed to help, but were there just to observe. Amato laughed when recalling that the on-board staff looked like they had been at sea for a very long time. When the ship arrived back in port after a half-day on the bay, the kids had learned a great deal of history, were utterly exhausted . . . and incredibly happy.

Other field trips this year have included a visit to Coldstone Creamery and In N' Out Burger, where students assisted in behind-the-scenes preparations that are involved in the food service industry. They also visited the Alameda County Water District. Students learned about the water cycle in the Bay Area, and witnessed how that cycle affects our community. Seeing the process, the science lesson hit home in a way that a standard textbook just doesn't provide.

Homeschooling is not without challenges. For working parents, trying to arrange childcare, fit in schoolwork, and manage a household can feel overwhelming. Debbie Amato said that the negotiations her son initiates over his schoolwork could be frustrating. These negotiations are common with all school-age children, not just those who are home-schooled. It can also be difficult to fill the hours between when a homeschool child is finished with school and when regular "after-school" activities and sports classes are available. Parents with limited education may be challenged as they attempt to teach their own children. When a student's abilities and understanding surpass that of the parent, additional resources must be found. Computer-based curriculum is available for all levels and subjects, taking some of the pressure off the parents.

The support that Cyphers and Amato feel from their LINKS connection helps them to work through the challenges and find solutions to the roadblocks of homeschooling. Online message boards and email provide regular communication among members. Monthly meetings give parents a chance to get together and share ideas, parenting tips, curriculum, and more. Having a strong support network of other parents with similar goals and values has been invaluable to the families in this group.

While homeschooling may not work for all families, with the current resources and available group support, it is definitely on the rise. Seeing the smiling faces in the annual LINKS yearbook leaves little doubt that these students are learning far more than math, language arts, science, and history.

For information on homeschooling in California, visit www.hsc.org (Homeschool Association of California), www.cheaofca.org (Christian Home Educators Association of California) or www.californiahomeschool.net (California Homeschool Network). If you are homeschooling and would like to join BAHFT, send an email to bahft@yahoogroups.com. LINKS is a cell group with Bridges Community Church in Fremont, 510-651-2030.

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