Many Colorado families stick with home schooling in wake of pandemic

Over 8,500 students home school in state, higher than during previous decade

By: - October 23, 2023 4:00 am

The Stephens gather around Brynn’s computer to look at a photo of a corpse flower during a lesson about plants on Sept. 22, 2023. (Chloe Anderson for Colorado Newsline)

On a Friday morning in September, Brynn Stephens and her three children were baking banana bread, cookies and black bean brownies from scratch in their Monument home. It was one of the first crisp days of fall, and the oven kept everyone warm as they mixed dry ingredients, converted fractions from the recipe and watched the baked goods rise.

It was also the middle of a school day. The children, ages 11, 8 and 6, were simultaneously getting a math and chemistry lesson, putting concepts to real-life practice.

Stephens is one of thousands of parents who began home-schooling their children in Colorado during the COVID-19 pandemic and chose to keep them out of public schools even as education settled into a new normal.

“We finally made the decision during the COVID-19 shutdowns. They were in ‘online school,’ and we saw what a disaster it was. We decided to give home schooling a try and it’s just stuck,” she said.

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The number of home-schooled students in Colorado had already been increasing in the years before the pandemic but then shot up when there was a sudden shift from in-person learning to computer-based learning at home and schools across the country navigated how to best teach students during an evolving global pandemic. The sometimes-rocky experience of Zoom-based school led many parents to question whether home schooling was a better option for their child.

In fall 2019, there were 7,880 full-time home-schooled students in the state, according to the Colorado Department of Education. In fall 2020, that number doubled to 15,773. It has dropped as more students return to traditional public school learning, but there were still 8,674 home-schooled students in fall 2022, higher than every year except one in the 10 years before the pandemic.

Colorado's numbers fit into a national trend of years when home-school numbers rose, followed by a pandemic surge.

A census household survey from 2020 that tried to measure the impact of COVID-19 on American families found that the percentage of families in Colorado that home-school their children jumped from from 3.4% in the spring to 8.7% in the fall, placing it in the middle of states. Nationally, there was a 5.6 percentage point increase of households that were home schooling, according to survey data.

The increase varies across Colorado. Colorado Springs School District 11 saw a nearly 175% increase in home-schooled students from 2019 to 2022. The increase was nearly 100% in Pueblo School District 60, 50% in Cherry Creek School District 5 and 30% in El Paso County School District 49.

During the same time period, other districts saw a decrease in full-time home-schooled students. Summit School District in Summit County had a 30% decrease and the Thompson School District in Larimer County had a nearly 70% decrease.

The state does not collect data on the ages, grade levels or ethnicity of home-schooled students, but data from some of the largest school districts shows that in general, most home-schooled students are in early elementary school, and the numbers drop off the closer the grade is to senior year. For example, there were 160 home-schooled first-graders in Denver Public Schools in 2021. That same year, there was just one home-schooled high school senior, according to data provided from the district.

Pandemic a 'turning point' for parents

Steve Craig, the executive director of the Christian Home Educators of Colorado, said the organization helps between 3,000 and 4,000 families navigate the process of home schooling in Colorado. He said CHEC has seen about a 50% increase in the number of families it works with since the start of the pandemic, and that number is staying steady.

“COVID-19 was certainly a turning point for a lot of folks. There was a period of time where everyone was home-schooled in a sort of way, and it gave parents an opportunity to have more control and have more visibility into their child’s education,” he said. “Parents learned that they can be successful in doing this.”

Research has generally shown that students who are home schooled are adequately prepared for college, though there could be a slight disadvantage when it comes to math as they learn increasingly difficult concepts outside of a traditional classroom.

Home schooling in Colorado is fairly straightforward and addressed in state statute. Parents need to submit a letter of intent to a school district of their choosing at least two weeks before they start. They are responsible for selecting and paying for books, supplies, tests and a curriculum, and they need to make sure their child is getting lessons in reading, writing, math, history, civics, literature, science and the U.S. Constitution.

Some parents buy a curriculum that covers everything while others pick and choose individual subject curricula that make sense for their child’s learning style and interests. Depending on where they live, home-school students can access enrichment and support programs, such as a science class with specialized lab equipment, offered by local school districts.

Home-schooled students take tests every other year beginning in third grade and submit their results to the school district to evaluate their progress.

John Contreraz, the principal of the Cherry Creek Options Homeschool Program in the Cherry Creek School District, said he has seen a wider range of reasons parents are choosing to home-school their children.

“Home schooling used to have a stereotype with one section of our community. I don’t think that’s true anymore. There’s more diversity in the context for why people home-school,” he said.

Home schooling is commonly thought to be a practice adopted by conservative, often Christian, families, who want to avoid a perceived liberal bias in public schools. Recent research shows that parents choose to home school their children for reasons including a safety concern about the school environment, a preference for an increase in family time, and a desire to provide a non-traditional education.

Impact on public funding

Students who home-school full time are not eligible for any public funding. Neither the family that home schools nor the associated school district receive state funding, which varies across districts. If a student interacts with a school district for some classes, extracurricular activities or enrichment programs, they are not considered full-time home-schooled students.

Under the 2023 School Finance Act, the base per-pupil funding was about $8,000, meaning that in a hypothetical scenario where 10 students in a district leave a public school for home schooling, the district would get about $80,000 less from the state that year.

“It could cause pressure for a period of time,” said Tracie Rainey, the executive director of the non-profit Colorado School Finance Project. “A school district can’t reduce their operating costs in a situation like that.”

Districts do account for student trends and can plan for declining enrollment, Rainey said. The uptick in home-schooled students in Colorado has not caused a financial catastrophe for districts.

“There is a financial impact, obviously, but if that is the family's choice, we will not stand in their way,” said Devra Ashby, the chief communications officer for Colorado Springs School District 11. “We're going to actually support them to make sure that their student is successful.”

Flexibility in schedule, learning styles

With increased visibility into the classroom that came with pandemic learning, Stephens did not like some of the things she witnessed in her children’s education. One day, as she tried to facilitate online learning for her two oldest children, a teaching assistant publicly chastised her son on Zoom for receiving help from Stephens on a craft project, she said.

“It became a passive aggressive thing every time we got on the computer. It got to a point where we’re, like, making a snake out of construction paper. We don’t need a Zoom call for that,” she said.

It was a minor grievance, but it highlighted Stephens’ belief that her children would thrive academically in an environment with more personalized attention.

“This is me being able to push them to their potential, as opposed to them being left behind in a classroom because maybe they don’t understand something or they aren’t being pushed,” she said.

Her daughter, for example, has always been a strong reader but has now accelerated to a high-school comprehension level. Her son has been able to get a grade level ahead in math.

Brynn Stephens smiles at her daughter Hadley as she answers one of the 6-year-old's questions about the periodic table on Sept. 22, 2023. (Chloe Anderson for Colorado Newsline)

Amber Wollsey of Colorado Springs knew she wanted to home-school her daughter when she reached middle school, but the transition happened earlier after her daughter’s music teacher shared what Wollsey felt was inappropriate content. She said the third-grade class listened to a 2012 satirical song that has lyrics about actor Shia LaBeouf being a murderous cannibal.

“There’s way more appropriate ways to teach satire to a third-grader,” she said. “That was a big factor, and then just knowledge that the school system needs reform. We’re teaching kids the same way we did 50 years ago, and I feel like I can give her a better education for today’s world at home.”

Families who home-school also laud the flexibility it gives them.

Jana Jeltema of El Paso County said her family is able to wake up on their own time and have a leisurely breakfast together before starting home-school work with her oldest elementary school-age daughter. If it’s a snowy day, they can spend time as a family playing outdoors. If it’s a warm spring day, they can go for a walk.

They spread out her approximately four hours of work throughout the day: an hour in the morning before taking a break to play with younger siblings, some reading time in the quiet hours after lunch, some math time with her dad after dinner. She goes to an in-classroom enrichment program through the local school district two times a week and a nature immersion program once a week. Many Colorado school districts offer enrichment programs for home-schooled students.

“We get to explore anything that she’s interested in. I have the freedom to change the curriculum and go into depth on something a little bit more,” she said. “Your childhood is for wonder and exploration and finding your passion and being a kid.”

The rise in home schooling in Colorado and across the country comes during a flashpoint in culture wars over school curricula and lingering tension over pandemic vaccine and masking requirements for children. The conversation and politics around how topics like race and sex should be taught in school has intensified since the pandemic. The debate has spilled into multiple Colorado school board races as conservative groups rally against the instruction of LGBTQ topics, sex education and critical race theory — the advanced academic field that examines how racism has shaped public policy. Critical race theory is not taught in Colorado K-12 schools and is not part of the academic standards.

Parents who home-school have control over how, and if, their child learns about those concepts.

“Those are the ones we hear about, the parents that are troubled with some of the things being delivered and kind of forced on their kids at school, and so they’re looking for a solution to protect their kids from values and worldviews they don’t support,” Craig said.

“A lot of families really embrace home schooling because it gives them an opportunity to pass along their values and worldview in a more effective way.”

Jeltema said her decision to home-school her three daughters was not entirely a faith-based decision to avoid culturally fraught topics, but faith played a role.

“I’ve been able to provide my daughter with a biblically based education as part of her curriculum. If she were in public school, we’d be limited to providing that foundation in the fringe time slots available,” she said.

Stephens said she doesn’t want someone else teaching her children sex education, especially her middle school-age daughter. That belief extends to other issues.

“There’s a lot of stuff out there that I don’t think schools should be teaching, like gender ideology, CRT if they ever bring that in. Science, literature, English, et cetera, are education. The rest is what you’re taught at home,” she said.

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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado.

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