A Home Away from Home: Libraries & Homeschoolers

For most homeschoolers, there’s no place like the library

Homeschooling families are everywhere these days. They’re on television, giving interviews after winning national spelling bees. They’re in the paper, profiled after making Olympic trials. They’re on the radio, talking about the growing popularity of homeschooling as an educational choice.

Illustration by Laurie Luczak

And they’re definitely in your library. According to a 2003 study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), when homeschoolers were asked about their primary source of books and/or curriculum, 78 percent named their public library. Leah Langby, the library development and youth services coordinator at Indianhead Federated Library System in Eau Claire, WI, says her husband homeschools their two children. “It is nearly impossible to homeschool without that amazing resource unless you have a ton of money for materials,” adds Langby, referring to her local public library. Approximately 1.1 million kids are homeschooled, according to the NCES’s 2003 statistics, up from 850,000 in 1999. And even those numbers don’t represent the true popularity of homeschooling as an educational option, says Laura Derrick, president of the National Home Education Network (NHEA). But one thing is certain: research shows that the homeschooling trend will only swell in the coming decades. How can you meet the needs of this burgeoning population? Through programming, resources, and specialized services. “Many librarians do programs for special groups—preschools, day-care centers, school groups,” says Sandy Irwin, manager of the Deschutes Public Library’s branch in La Pine, OR. “I believe that homeschooled groups should receive the same consideration as others.” Here are a few ideas to help your library become a hub for homeschoolers. Create a homeschool information hot spot in your library or on its Web site. The homeschooling page (www.skokie.lib.il.us/s_kids/kd_homeschool/index.asp) of Illinois’s Skokie Public Library features a variety of resources, including homeschool programs and subject headings, homework help, and links to local homeschool groups. “I strived to represent many homeschooling philosophies as well as sectarian and nonsectarian groups,” says Holly Jin, a children’s librarian and homeschool liaison. Creating an in-library resource area can consist of a few well-selected titles on a designated shelf or a more complete collection including textbooks. At the Lane Library District in Creswell, OR (population 4,500), Youth Librarian Esther Moburg says the two-shelf niche she carved out for her small-town library is incredibly popular: “At least 20 percent of the collection is checked out all the time.” At the Smoky Hill branch of the Arapahoe (CO) Library District, Patron Service Specialist Erin Richards devoted space to homeschool-specific titles, state law guidelines, and information about area groups. Richards put together a quick-reference notebook, she says, “to answer as many questions as possible. For example, 'Where can I find testing info?’” Richards also obtained textbooks—for free. “About three years ago, I wrote to as many publishers as possible asking for samples.” Thirty curriculum publishers were happy to help, sending catalogs and books. Although parents can’t take home textbooks, they can browse the contents before deciding to buy. Offer a library tour to homeschool groups. At the Greece (NY) Public Library, Cathy Henderson, the head of children’s services, offers monthly library tours for homeschoolers. She says she tries to stick to the basics—introducing genres, Dewey, and research and atlas skills. “I usually break the classes up by grade level, kindergarten through second and third through fifth grades,” Henderson says, but then adds that she lets parents decide which class is most appropriate for the child. Ellen Cummings, manager of Oklahoma’s Tulsa City-County Library’s Research Center offers hands-on help to homeschool kids. “If they have specific assignments they are working on, we will examine resources useful for those projects.” You can also try integrating scavenger hunts and creative techniques into your library tours, like Youth Services Librarian Dorothy Holt of the Guilderland (NY) Public Library. Using titles in the folktale section, “I had them create their own story or myth either by drawing the story or writing it or acting it out,” she says. Derrick of NHEA suggests taking the typical library tour one step further by inviting local homeschool groups to speak once or twice a year. During meet ’n’ greets, new families learn about applicable laws, community resources, curricula, and different approaches to homeschooling. Offering such an event helps new homeschooling families “choose a little more carefully, wasting less time, energy, and money while they’re getting started,” says Derrick. Which is even better if such decisions are made “in the context of a supportive library and homeschooling group,” she adds. Offer a collection service. At the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, IN, homeschoolers can request a collection of titles on a certain topic. “With one week’s advance notice, we can pull together a thematic collection of books, DVDs, software, teaching materials, and so on, for the family or homeschool coop to use,” says Mary Voors, Allen County’s children’s services manager. The library’s request form is viewable at www.acpl.lib.in.us/children/form.html. Because homeschoolers frequently focus on intensive studies of a topic, it’s easy for eager families to check out the entire Roman Civ collection in one fell swoop. That’s why it’s a good idea to provide targeted books on Helen of Troy alongside new-media sources like magazine database links or DVDs. Create targeted programs. After storytime’s finished, see if there’s an open block of time in the late morning or early afternoon—a perfect time for working with homeschool students. Offer computer classes or book clubs. But be prepared to think outside the book—like the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System’s branch in Upper Marlboro, MD. Library Manager Anne-Marie Ramsey says two separate groups (one for teens, the other for younger kids) meet monthly to discuss books based on a theme and create projects based on their readings, including dioramas, maps, and art. The students’ works are then displayed in the library for the larger community to see. This year, the groups are reading books, watching movies, and discussing the differences between the two. “I love working with them,” says Ramsey of the homeschoolers. “Their parents tend to check out materials constantly and have increased our circulation greatly.” The Allen County Public Library takes advantage of its staff’s diverse talents by offering classes on such far-flung topics as embroidery and needlepoint, and it has even established an incredibly popular weekly hand-chimes choir. “I can’t tell you how impressed I have been with the commitment these kids have made to their music,” says Voors. And every February, the Arapahoe Library District’s Smoky Hill branch hosts an old-fashioned ice cream social. Homeschooling families are invited to bring any game or toy from home—as long as it doesn’t require a battery. “It only costs about $30 for all that ice cream,” Richards says, and they get turnouts of 100 people or more. Derrick says that families wish their local library offered more multiage programming. Irwin of the La Pine Library presents monthly hourlong programs to homeschooled children ages six to 11. “Last year, we worked on a rain forest mural, collages, painting like Monet, mosaics, the state flag, and so on,” says Irwin. “The programs always have an educational element, then a fun activity.” She says that the most intensive aspect is the prep work. “But really, after awhile, it becomes routine.” At Lexington (KY) Public Library’s Northside branch, Children’s Librarian Wendy O’Connor offers a multiage program series based on the book Picture-Perfect Science Lessons: Using Children’s Books to Guide Inquiry (National Science Teachers Association, 2004) by Karen Rohrich Ansberry. “Each month we do science experiments based on a picture book. This month, we did experiments with sound using The Remarkable Farkle McBride by John Lithgow,” says O’Connor. She and her children also explored sound with straws, and made instruments from cans and boxes. Welcome homeschool volunteers. As Derrick explains, homeschoolers are hard workers; they also appreciate quality resources and will advocate for those resources within both the homeschool and larger community. When trying to get a homeschool program off the ground, don’t feel shy asking for help from a local group’s adults or older youth. Many libraries open the front door to enthusiastic, hardworking homeschooling families. Homeschoolers often feel frustrated by age limits, union rules, library policies, and other restrictions on volunteer opportunities. Take a look at library policy and see if there’s a way to increase volunteer possibilities. Host a homeschool fair. At the Mount Prospect (IL) Library, a yearly 90-minute-long Homeschool Fair allows homeschoolers, community members, and the library to strut their stuff. It’s not an event for vendors, explains Mary Ann Sibrava, the assistant head of youth services. “The focus really is on the kids who want to show off their projects, and on the families who want to network, share resources, and meet local organizations who might contribute to their homeschool experience.” While parents meet with Girl Scouts representatives and art teachers, children display scouting achievements, prehistoric dioramas, or travel journals. “One year, we had a large family offer a choral recital to showcase their interest and talents in music,” Sibrava says. Every April, homeschoolers gather at the Arapahoe Library District’s Smoky Hill branch for the annual curriculum and information fair. Richards says parents sell used books, swap books, and visit up to 30 booths—from regional homeschool groups, vendors, tutors, music teachers, and other local resources. Parents appreciate the opportunity to exchange homeschooling information and techniques, free of charge. “We’ve stolen patrons from other city libraries because our library will go the extra mile for homeschoolers,” says Richards. “We’re known in the area as the homeschooler library.”
Lora Shinn is a former librarian, and now works as a freelance writer. She was homeschooled from age 8 through 12, and thanks the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system for providing a stellar education during those years.

Getting the Word Out

Here are some great ways to market your homeschool program:
  1. Familiarize yourself with a wide cross-section of local groups and their leaders. Google can help you identify the organizations and state associations can provide you with some helpful lists. Ask to be added to groups’ local email or mailing lists, and add them to yours.
  2. Designing programs is a two-way street. Brainstorm for programming ideas with local homeschool families and leaders. They’re more likely to get excited and participate in your program if you involve them at the idea stage.
  3. Run your program time and preliminary info past local homeschooling leaders. Does your program conflict with some of their long-standing commitments (park days, homeschool conventions, etc.)? Do they have any interested volunteers that would help you set up or clean up?
  4. Promote your book group or homeschool fair via email lists, quarterly or school-year mailers, library signage, and word of mouth.
  5. Be patient. Creating popular homeschool programs can take time. Even if your initial turnout is low, don’t give up. Ask parents to tell fellow homeschool friends about the program.

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