BRUNSWICK — On a bright, cold Friday afternoon, a small group of parents and children are bowling at Spare Time.
The kids are all ages – the youngest barely strong enough to lift a ball, while another winds up and lets one fly down the alley.
Although it’s not a snow day, these children are not in school.
Instead, they’re on a field trip organized by the Midcoast Maine Homeschool Center, a group in Bath that offers classes and excursions for home-schooled children.
Since starting the center in 2010, founder Susan Hyde has seen interest in the center’s offerings explode. Parents and their children drive from around Maine to attend workshops on owls and hawks, visit Maine Maritime Museum with other home-school groups, or to take classes on Greek mythology. The center serves 44 children from ages 3 to 13, and there’s a waiting list for winter classes.
The center appeals to both parents and their children.
“The kids love it, and the parents talk shop,” Hyde said, comparing notes about home-schooling styles and curriculum.
Home-schooling in Maine is on the rise, and not just in the Midcoast area. According to data provided by the Maine Department of Education, in 2004-2005, the earliest numbers on record, just under 4,100 students were home-schooled. That number rose to about 4,800 in the 2010-2011 school year.
In order to home-school a child in Maine, parents must provide at least 175 instructional days per year and submit annual assessments of student progress.
Organizations like Midcoast Maine Homeschool Center and Homeschoolers of Maine, a statewide group that provides support for home-schooling Christian families, make it less daunting for parents to home-school by offering courses in subjects that may be unfamiliar to parents.
They also give kids a chance to socialize with other home-schooled children, confounding the stereotype some may have of home-schooling families as isolated, educational islands.
“We find it’s totally opposite,” Lisa Siciliano, a home-schooling mom from Westbrook and the Cumberland County representative of Homeschoolers of Maine. “I don’t even know anybody who just stays home with their children.”
Every Friday morning, Siciliano takes her two children, ages 11 and 7, to a branch of Homeschoolers of Maine that meets in Scarborough. In certain subjects like science and history, parents all teach their children the same curriculum, enabling them to work on group projects at their weekly meetings.
The group also performs one musical every year, offers a 4-H club, and organizes field trips to museums, musical performances and theater in Portland.
Parents take turns teaching classes on subjects they have expertise in, Siciliano said.
One of the upsides to homes-schooling groups, Hyde said, is they allow children of different ages to socialize together.
“Life isn’t only about being with people your own age,” she said.
That also includes adults. Many parents said their children are very comfortable and well-behaved around adults, and don’t have an “us-against-them” attitude towards their parents.
Another strength of home-schooling, many parents said, is the ability to teach the way their children learn.
Hyde, who home-schools her 12- and 9-year old sons, said her oldest son struggled in public school because he was a very advanced reader, but learned at grade-level in other subjects.
“He was two ages at the same time,” she said. “There was really no good fit.”
Now that she home-schools, Hyde said, his varied abilities aren’t a problem.
Keary Lay, of West Bath, who brought his two sons to the bowling alley last Friday as part of the Midcoast Maine Homeschool Center outing, said home-schooling allows his 12-year-old son Nathaniel to spend more time on the subject he really loves: history.
“We can let him pursue that at a level that would be difficult in school,” Lay explained.
One reason parents say home-schooled children have more time to devote to personal interests is because teaching at home can be more efficient than in a school.
Siciliano explained how at traditional schools, a lot of time is spent waiting in lines, walking to and from class and riding the bus. At home, there’s none of that.
Home-schooling, she said, “leaves many, many more hours in a day to pursue the interests that are really going to be the life, work and goals of the children.”
Lay said he’s usually done teaching his sons by 1 p.m., leaving the rest of the afternoon for field trips or other activities.
But homeschooling also has its downsides, especially financially.
“All of us could benefit from a two-income family, but we’ve just made the decision that we’d rather do this than take a big vacation every year,” Sicilano said.
Every parent interviewed for this report said they rely on their spouse for income, and many acknowledged that it would be difficult to home-school as a single parent.
Hyde said many home-schooling parents are highly educated, and often give up career ambitions to stay at home with their children. “We’re putting our own careers aside a little bit,” she said.
Milva Smith, who drives from Whitefield to bring her three boys to classes at the Midcoast Maine Homeschool Center, said she used to teach Italian, but doesn’t miss working very much.
Besides, home-schooling appeals to her “teaching gene,” something echoed by Claudia Simmons, of Brunswick, who home-schools her 8-year-old son Aiden.
“We’re learning together,” she said.
Claudia Simmons, of Brunswick, takes a break from bowling with her son, Aiden, 8, and other home-schooling families at a Midcoast Maine Homeschool Center outing. Simmons moved to Brunswick from New Brunswick, Canada, and chose the area because of the active home-schooling community.
Sandro Smith, 9, of Whitefield, bowls with other home-schooled children as part of a Midcoast Maine Homeschool Center field trip.