Emilee Gettle, known on Etsy as Heirloomgirl, is a busy woman. With her husband Jere, she operates a multimillion dollar, multistate heirloom seed business called the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company that includes stores in Missouri, California and Connecticut. Last year, their company launched the country’s first National Heirloom Exposition, drawing speakers from around the world and over 10,000 gardeners from all 50 states. Emilee is hard at work writing a vegan cookbook, the second project in a three book deal with Hyperion. She edits her own craft blog and a quarterly magazine. She’s a mom. And she gives back: in 2011, Baker Creek donated over a quarter million seed packets to schools and non-profits around the country to support garden education and healthy eating.
But when Emilee was a little girl, her future as a happy, productive adult wasn’t so clear. “In the fifth grade I began coming home from school in tears,” she told me. “I was often bored, waiting for the other kids to catch up. Other times, I felt left behind, especially in math. All children learn differently and the structure at our school just wasn’t right for me. School didn’t feel stable, and my parents were distraught to see me crying all the time.” It was then that her parents made the decision to homeschool her.
Homeschooling, perhaps once thought of as a place for “back country kids” or a fringe activity for nonconformists, is growing in popularity and stature across the United States. Statistics are somewhat sketchy; the U.S. government has been keeping records on homeschoolers only since 1999, and many states do not require homeschoolers to register. But one thing is clear: homeschooling is on the rise. Participation increased 74 percent between 1999 and 2007, and rose another 7 percent by 2010. Today, the number of children in homeschools is estimated to be roughly between 1.5 million and 2 million, or about the size of the country’s two largest public school districts – New York City Department of Education and Los Angeles Unified – combined.
Homeschooling can take many forms: individual home instruction, small groups – with or without credentialed teachers – sometimes incorporating online courses. In some states, homeschoolers might even attend public school for one or more classes, or join a local school’s band or sports team. I’ve learned it’s important not to stereotype who you imagine a “typical” homeschooler to be. For example, a colleague from Berkeley, California – a Ph.D. who you might loosely classify as a secular Left Coast progressive – recently announced he has begun homeschooling his son.
Critics of homeschooling question whether parents are qualified to teach, particularly those parents who may not have teaching degrees or backgrounds in education. Another concern is whether homeschooling can be isolating, resulting in a lack of socialization.
For Emilee, now 28, the socialization issue was addressed early in her homeschooling experience when her mother opened a small, home-based hairdressing business. “Soon, women and girls were coming right to our front door,” recalls Emilee. Learning about a home-based business came in handy as an adult when she met her husband, who also was homeschooled and who started Baker Creek Seed in his bedroom when he was just 17. “I don’t think I would have been as comfortable with having our own business if I had only known 9-to-5 jobs,” she says. “If you sit behind a desk in school, I think sitting behind a desk becomes natural. It can become how you see yourself in life, behind a desk.”
What do education experts say about homeschooling? Sir Ken Robinson – perhaps the closest thing education has to a rock star – suggests that homeschools and public schools could benefit from a dialogue that shares the best practices of each. ”[Public] schools are still pretty much modeled on factory lines,” he says. “It’s essentially about conformity…and I believe we’ve got to go in the exact opposite direction.” That direction, says Sir Ken, is a more individualized education that supports the unique creative potential of each child.
Both Sir Ken and Emilee stress that homeschooling isn’t for everyone. “I see it for those who need it, who can afford it, and who do have the time,” Emilee says. She is homeschooling her own daughter, four-year-old Sasha, pictured throughout this post. In additional to academic studies and traveling with her family as they research heirloom plant varieties around the world, Sasha will also learn about traditional handcrafts, including what Emilee calls the “lost arts” of earlier days. Emilee believes that education should include “pursuing your dreams while using your hands. Every child is different, and I want her to dream her own dreams, not somebody else’s. I mean, God doesn’t give you those dreams for you to stifle them.”