Repercussions from the pandemic have changed the landscape of schooling in Lancaster County. Through lockdowns and other policies that kept children at home, parents have had a chance to see what is being taught in their children’s classrooms — and they have also been able to experience how achievable educating their kids at home can be. Since many parents’ faith in the public school system has been shaken recently, and since other education options — like private schools and charter schools — can be expensive, hard to get into, or unavailable in some areas, homeschooling has become a natural choice for many.
The National Home Education Research Institute, which conducts, collects and publishes evidence-based research on homeschooling in the United States and internationally, has kept an eye on the growth. The institute’s president, Brian D. Ray, told The Lancaster Patriot that in the 2019-20 school year there were approximately 86,000 to 106,000 homeschoolers in grades K-12 across Pennsylvania, and in the 2021-22 school year the number of homeschoolers had expanded to an estimated 103,000 to 126,000. “From 2019-2020 to 2021-2022, the growth was about 19%,” he explained.
Pennsylvania law requires each homeschooled student to be evaluated annually by a licensed clinical or school psychologist, by a teacher certified by the commonwealth, or by a nonpublic school teacher or administrator who has at least two years of teaching experience in a Pennsylvania public or nonpublic school within the last ten years. Therefore, in order to get a clearer picture of the growth of homeschooling in Lancaster County and the state, The Lancaster Patriot interviewed two homeschool evaluators: Renita Gerlach, who has been serving the Lancaster County community as an evaluator for 21 years, and Courtney Dunlap, who has been evaluating homeschoolers all over Pennsylvania for more than 20 years.
Gerlach is a Pennsylvania-certified teacher, and prior to 2020 she typically evaluated 75 homeschooled students per year, with that number steadily increasing each year until it reached an all-time high of 96 students in 2019. Gerlach said, “In 2020 there was a dip from 96 to 77 students. In the three years since then, I have had between 110 and 120 students, so there was a sudden and significant jump after COVID.”
Likewise, Dunlap’s evaluations had been increasing each year but saw a dramatic rise in the wake of the pandemic. She reported that compared to the 370 evaluations she completed in 2019, she completed 755 evaluations in 2021 and 850 in 2022.
Gerlach is a homeschool co-op member and also serves as president of the Coalition of Homeschoolers Across Lancaster County, and she told The Lancaster Patriot that she has noticed that the home education community has grown in both numbers and diversity since 2020. “Overall it has been a positive experience and it’s great to see an increase in the variety of homeschooling options,” she said.
Today’s families can of course choose traditional homeschooling, with curriculum selected and taught by the parents, but families can also hybridize education to suit their needs. There are co-ops staffed by parents, there are co-ops staffed by teachers where children can be dropped off for a day of classes once a week while parents serve more of a tutor’s role at home, and there are hybrid schools that provide several days of in-person group instruction and the rest of the week children complete their assignments at home with the oversight of their parents.
“Structurally,” Gerlach said, “Lancaster County has everything from the more formally structured Classical Conversation co-ops to informal field trip groups.”
The number of CHALC’s member co-ops has been increasing since 2020, and most of the groups have been operating at full capacity and now often have waiting lists. Gerlach said that the coalition is aware of many co-ops operating independently of an umbrella group in Lancaster County as well. Because of the explosion of growth in Lancaster’s homeschool community and the high demand for co-ops, CHALC has prioritized encouraging and equipping parents to form new co-ops in the county. CHALC lists member groups and co-ops in its newsletter, The Scrawls, which is available digitally and in print for CHALC members.
All of CHALC’s co-ops describe themselves as Christian organizations. Because Christians have made up a significant percentage of the homeschool community since the movement began in the United States during the 1980s, it is little wonder that there is a broad array of Christian options for homeschooling. Dunlap and Gerlach both said that in their early years of evaluating homeschoolers, the majority of the families they worked with were Christians. Now that homeschooling is on the rise across the country, the demographics of the homeschool population may shift.
Gerlach noted that since she does not collect information about the faith of the families she works with, she cannot say whether the new homeschoolers are still for the most part Christians or whether they have a wider variety of worldviews. “There has definitely been an increase in families homeschooling, though,” she said, “and many of them give the reason as the challenges their children have faced in the public school system.”
Dunlap has also witnessed a marked upswing in the number of students leaving the public school system to homeschool, even midway through the school year. Parents tell Dunlap that their kids are behind academically and are struggling to catch up, that their kids have anxiety in the school system, or that they themselves are worried about the safety of the schools.
“I have been astounded at the number of students with IEPs homeschooling as well,” Dunlap said, referencing the Individualized Education Program for disabled or gifted students. “In 2021, I did an unprecedented number of approvals for students that have IEPs.”
Although there are many resources available in Lancaster County and from statewide and national homeschool organizations, a thorough understanding of the legal requirements of homeschooling is necessary for those who homeschool or are interested in homeschooling. Changes to Pennsylvania’s home education laws will be going into effect at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, enabling homeschooled students to participate in academic courses, cocurricular activities such as a school band, and technical education courses that are offered by the student’s school district. An overview of Pennsylvania laws that pertain to homeschooling can be found at homeschoolpennsylvania.org/index.php/knowledgebase/pennsylvania-home-education-law.