Chris Hauer started homeschooling her kids when her oldest child – now age 16 – could enter preschool.
She was already a stay-at-home mom back then, and started teaching her oldest daughter her ABCs and how to count.
When it came time for her daughter to enter kindergarten, her daughter was excelling at home. So, Hauer looked at the kindergarten requirements and decided she could teach it herself. She did the same when her daughter entered first grade, and so on until eventually, it was the norm for her daughter to be homeschooled.
But when her oldest daughter was in kindergarten, Hauer sought out support from a homeschool co-op in Helena.
“I wanted to make sure she didn’t miss out on the best parts of public school,” Hauer said, like socializing with other students.
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Now a homeschooling veteran of over 10 years, Hauer said four of her own seven children – ranging in age from 7 to 16 – were homeschooled during the last year.
And she took over and formalized the co-op her daughter was in as a kindergartener, turning it into the Homeschool Enrichment Co-Op. Through the co-op, her kids and others get to take P.E., science and music classes in line with the public school curriculum.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic, Hauer said the past couple of years were strange. Rather than dealing with those who didn’t want to take precautions, like wearing masks, the co-op chose to shut down for all of 2020, Hauer said.
When it reopened in the fall of 2021 though, Hauer said there was a spike in attendance – what she estimated to be nearly a 20% jump from just under 100 students pre-COVID to about 120.
This jump at the Homeschool Enrichment Co-Op matches the post-COVID homeschooling trends in the rest of Lewis and Clark County.
For the 2019-2020 academic year – the last school year before the pandemic – Katrina Chaney, the county superintendent of schools, received 442 phone calls from parents looking to homeschool their children.
After a semester of COVID-19, at the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, this number jumped by 36%, with at least 603 families in the county opting to homeschool their children. While the number last fall dropped compared to early pandemic levels, the number of parents homeschooling their children in Lewis and Clark County during 2021-2022 was 523 – an 18% increase from the last pre-pandemic numbers.
Chaney said there were a few reasons these numbers rose during the past couple of years.
“I heard lots of different stories,” Chaney said. “One, that they were concerned for their child or children’s health, and the other one was that the online program (offered through Helena Public Schools) was very stressful for kids and families.”
And, according to Chaney, these numbers are likely even higher than what’s reported for a couple of reasons.
First, Chaney said, county superintendents report homeschool numbers in the first week of October – near the beginning of the academic year. So, she said, the numbers don’t account for students who make the decision to homeschool from November through the end of the school year. She estimated about 30 or more students withdraw from school during a typical school year.
She added that only families with children between the ages of 7 and 16 are required by law to notify her of their decision to homeschool. And, Chaney said, there are students whose parents don’t notify the county. With no way to track those students, they “fall through the cracks.”
Even though homeschooled students are legally required by Montana’s Office of Public Instruction to complete the same requirements as students in public schools, Chaney said there are no monitoring systems statewide to ensure homeschool curriculums meet those standards.
The biggest challenge COVID-19 presented, according to Chaney, was to families who chose to homeschool when students would typically be in public school. She said most of new homeschool students were pulled out of school for health reasons.
Still, Chaney said, there are plenty of other reasons families opt for homeschooling.
“There’s usually some kind of crisis going on,” Chaney said. “Healthwise, parents splitting up, student being bullied, mental health – especially older students who are going through mental health issues – home is where people can heal. That’s what parents are wanting for students. Often, they will enter back into public school, but a number of them will say, ‘Wow, this really works for us.’”
Even with increased numbers of homeschooled students in the wake of the pandemic, Chaney estimated 40% or more of those homeschooling their children in the county were families who did it other years. She said she was surprised homeschooling numbers during the pandemic weren’t higher.
But, Chaney said, for parents homeschooling their children for the first time, as many have in the last couple of years, there’s plenty of support in Helena. Helena is home to multiple homeschool co-ops – like Hauer’s Homeschool Enrichment Co-Op – and organizations that work to make sure students who opt into homeschooling are receiving a full education.
For example, ExplorationWorks, an interactive science center in Helena, offers a homeschool program called Explore School.
According to its website, Explore School pairs with Helena Public Schools to offer science classes to students in first through eighth grade. Students must have 25% of full-time enrollment at Helena Public Schools to participate in the program. The school offers “hands-on, inquiry-based science experiences” for free.
“Explore School has been a valuable program for homeschool families for over 10 years, and it continues to provide science enrichment for close to 100 students each year,” Lauren Rivers, the STEM enrichment director at ExplorationWorks, wrote in an emailed statement to the Independent Record. “I regularly field emails and calls from parents who are looking for an option to teach their children science in a fun and hands-on classroom setting.”
And, according to Chaney, those opting for homeschool have been helped by the development of accredited online homeschooling curriculums that boomed during the pandemic.
Hauer also saw online programs grow during COVID-19. She said online programs can be expensive, so they might not be the best option for some families. Still, Hauer encouraged parents to be open to homeschooling.
Both Hauer and Chaney could only speculate, but said they think homeschool numbers will continue to be high in Helena following the pandemic.
On June 10, Chaney said she’d received five calls in the previous two days from parents planning to homeschool their children for the 2022-2023 academic year.
And Hauer said the co-op saw growth even before the pandemic, and in her estimation, it will only continue afterward.
She added the rise in homeschooling numbers in the county makes her optimistic. While some people aren’t made for homeschooling, Hauer said, she views it as a good thing that people have freedom to do what’s right for their own children.
“If you think something might be right, give it a try,” Hauer said. “You don’t have to stick with it.”