Independent, unconventional and fun. That’s how 14-year-old Josiah Washington describes his school days.
One week into the start of ninth grade, Josiah pored over an Advanced Placement Human Geography textbook Friday morning, writing down important terms and topics in a spiral-bound notebook as he read. Beside him, a stack of literature, composition, vocabulary and chemistry textbooks, along with his “handy dandy tablet,” would keep him company for the time being, until the textbooks closed and the learning moved beyond the classroom.
School happens in a back room in his Columbia home, in the public library, at the State Museum, on tours through the city, on field trips throughout the state.
“Anything that private schools and public schools do, we do,” said Renee Washington, Josiah’s mother and teacher. “(If) you just open a textbook and there’s no hands-on, there’s no looking outside the classroom, then there’s no love for learning.”
Josiah is one of nearly 16,000 students who are home-schooled in South Carolina, a number that has been on the rise over the past several years statewide, according to figures provided by the state Department of Education. About 2 percent of all South Carolina students – out of more than 768,000 – were home-schooled last year.
Among other options outside traditional public school, the number of students enrolled in private schools has fallen in recent years – 26 percent between 2008-13, according to the education department. But that period does include the Great Recession, when parents might have switched their children to public schools to save money.
In the Midlands, enrollment numbers do not show clear growth or decline trends. But in general, Lexington County has more home-schoolers than private-schoolers, while Richland County has more private-schoolers than home-schoolers.
During the 2013-14 school year, for example, there were 585 Lexington County students enrolled in private schools and 3,757 from Richland County. That compares with nearly 1,500 in Lexington – 612 home-schoolers within the Lexington 1 school district alone – and about 700 between Richland 1 and Richland 2.
“There are a lot more children being home-schooled than people realize,” said James Quint, education coordinator at Historic Columbia, which offers monthly programs for groups of home-schoolers. “With the increased interest in alternative forms of education ... I think there’s a lot more awareness and interest out there than there has been.”
Historic Columbia is among the myriad opportunities for Midlands home-schoolers to learn and socialize together beyond their classrooms, as they play on sports teams, volunteer in the community and take group field trips. EdVenture Children’s Museum, for example, has seen 100 home-schoolers at a time for activities on the first Friday of each month.
“Home school parents are just as passionate as any other parent about their children,” said Nikki Williams, vice president of education at EdVenture.
While home schools must follow the same state academic standards as traditional schools, their schedules allow for more flexibility in how they teach their curricula, which is an advantage for them when seeking outside-the-classroom activities, Quint said.
But the key to the structure of home schooling is that parents spend time with their students, said Charlene Witt of the S.C. Association of Independent Home Schools, which oversees the curricula of some 1,300 home school students each year.
“Your most successful home schools are where your parents are home schooling because they believe that family and their family values, their spiritual values are important to their children, and they want to instill those values,” Witt said.
For the Washingtons, creativity is one of those important values. Josiah hopes to one day turn his creativity and love for math and science into a career as a mechanical engineer designing roller coasters.
And when his mother doesn’t have an answer, Josiah turns to his books and the Internet.
“There really isn’t a hard part” about being home-schooled, he said.