Meet the Homeschoolers
An increasing number of Hawaii families are choosing to educate their children at home. We spoke with three of them to learn more about the realities of homeschooling.
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Carrie Hyman and Michael Tanenbaum
For Carrie Hyman and Michael Tanenbaum, the decision to homeschool came relatively late in their son Ben Buissink’s academic career. He had been attending Niu Valley Middle School, and began running into problems keeping up with the rest of the seventh grade class due to learning disabilities.
They decided to pull Ben out of school for the second half of the school year, and have him tutored. The one-on-one focus helped: A math and science tutor from Honolulu Waldorf High School was able to raise Ben’s math skills from fourth- to seventh-grade level in just a few months, and the family decided to try Niu Valley again for eighth grade.
It didn’t go well. “They wanted to put him in all these special-ed classes, which I was resistant to, because he’s not getting a good education, they’re just dumbing him down,” says Carrie. “I didn’t feel that he was getting the attention he needed.” She says the then-head of the special-ed program at Niu Valley called her into his office and told her not to expect much from Ben.
The bad experience cemented their resolve, and Carrie and Michael committed to homeschool Ben through the four years of high school, instead of sending him to Kalani High.
The first semester of ninth grade, however, turned out to be a steep learning curve. “For the first few months, until probably November, Michael taught math, and I did everything else,” Carrie remembers. “I got totally burned out. Between working and teaching Ben, it was very hard. So we hired a few tutors to work with him.”
Today, the family’s ‘Āina-Haina home is a constantly bustling central command. Not only is Ben, now halfway through 10th grade, homeschooled, but both parents work from home, as well—Carrie as an acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese medicine and Michael as a composer and musician. There’s a regular flow of visitors through the place, including Ben’s four tutors—in science, math, English and Spanish—most of whom come twice a week. Add in piano lessons, Fed-Ex deliveries and business appointments for Michael and Carrie, and the days fill up quickly.
Ben’s main study area is in his bedroom, and he officially starts his schoolwork at 9 a.m. “We try to get four or five intellectually rich hours each day; that might take six to seven hours to accomplish, depending on the number of breaks, or how slowly he works,” says Michael.
The family relies on printed-out schedules to make sure each subject gets tackled in a timely manner, and both Michael and Carrie take breaks from their own work to keep tabs on Ben. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to leave his side,” says Michael. “But he’s really matured to the point where we can leave him for half-an-hour or an hour to do his own work.”
Ben himself says he’s having a much better time learning at home than he did at Niu Valley. “I could do the work, just not as fast as the other kids,” he says. Now he feels better able to handle the challenges of high-school level work, and is planning to apply to the Julliard School when he graduates. (He’s already working on piano compositions to fulfill the school’s entrance audition requirements.)
Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams
Ben says he does miss some of the social aspects of conventional high schools. “A lot of times I’ll only see my friends on the weekend, instead of every day like they get to hang out,” he says. “And it would be great to go to a school dance.”
All in all, however, homeschooling has proven to be a great solution. In the past year and a half, Ben’s parents have noticed that he’s become calmer and more confident.
It’s a testimonial that mirrors those made by the other two families we spent time with: that educating their children at home has made them blossom, given them composure and independence, allowed them to interact easily with adults. And for Ben, who began his homeschooling less than two years ago, his parents have witnessed an even more dramatic turnaround.
“He was so depressed,” Carrie says. “He used to say regularly, ‘I don’t know why you say I’m smart, Mom. I’m obviously not smart. I’m stupid.’ And he’s detoxed from that attitude this year, and likes to learn now. Not once has he said something like that.”