Updated: 8:42 p.m. Saturday, March 17, 2012 | Posted: 8:35 p.m. Saturday, March 17, 2012

Home school oversight lacking, investigation finds

State leaves monitoring duties to districts, even after girl’s tragic death.



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Mother sentenced for death of disabled 14-year-old daughter photo
Undated photo of Makayla Norman who died from nutritional and medical neglect according to the Montgomery County Coroner's Office. Norman's mother Angela Norman and three nurses have been indicted in her death.
Home school oversight lacking, investigation finds photo
Home school oversight lacking, investigation finds
Home school oversight lacking, investigation finds photo
Stephen Garrett goes over course work at a kitchen table with his mother. Stephanie and Edward Garrett of West Alexandria have been home schooling their four children for 20 years and are very pleased with the results. Their youngest child Stephen, 14, is still being home-schooled.

By Mary McCarty and Margo Rutledge Kissell

Staff Writers

Oversight of parents who home school children is so limited the Ohio Department of Education doesn’t know for sure how many students are being home-schooled or how closely districts are monitoring compliance with state law.

A Dayton Daily News investigation following the death of 14-year-old Makayla Norman found few if any consequences for school districts that lose track of home school students.

Individual districts are responsible for keeping tabs on parents who teach children at home, but the state administrative code specifies no penalties for districts that don’t comply.

Dayton Public Schools lost track of Makayla, a cerebral palsy patient who weighed 28 pounds when she died on March 1, 2011, yet the state took no action against the school district, and the tragedy resulted in no calls for changes in state law.

In an interview with the Dayton Daily News, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said hearings should be held on what went wrong in the Makayla case and what can be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“There needs to be some accountability for the school district for losing track of this child,” DeWine said.

“Do we need different laws? Do we need different enforcement?” DeWine asked.

Dayton Public spokeswoman Jill Moberley said “human error” was responsible for Makayla disappearing from the district’s radar.

Makayla’s family registered her with the school district as a home-schooled child during her kindergarten year in August 2004, but never filed an annual assessment with the district for any year after that, as required under Ohio law.

The district also did no follow-up checking on Makayla, who suffered years of medical and nutritional abuse and neglect before her death, according to authorities.

Moberley said the district kept paper records in 2004 that had to be re-entered into the system each year. Makayla’s record was not re-entered, so there was no contact with the family from that point on.

“Certainly our records are kept differently,” she said, noting they are now kept electronically. “We have a much more sophisticated student information system.”

However, a document the district provided the Daily News in response to a public records request raises questions about the thoroughness of the district’s monitoring.

For the 2010-2011 school year, the same year Makayla died, “0” parents failed to file the required home education notification, according to the document.

So far during the 2011-2012 school year, the district also reported 100 percent compliance.

An estimated 22,000 children in Ohio are home-schooled, though Ohio Department of Education spokesman Patrick Gallaway acknowledged the estimate is derived from individual district reports.

The Daily News found some obvious errors in the record-keeping. One of the area’s largest school districts, Northmont, had “0” home-schooled students for the 2010-11 school year, according to the ODE data for that year. The district actually had 94 home-schooled students that year, according to Leslie Hobbs, student services coordinator.

The department also listed “0” home-schooled students last year for the Columbus City School District, Ohio’s largest school district with nearly 50,000 students.

The district actually had 477 home-schoolers, a district spokesman said.

Home-school advocates, including the Christian Home Educators of Ohio, the state’s largest home schooling group, favor less regulation.

“For many of the people we deal with, it’s a conviction,” said board member Becky Clark of Richland County, who has home-schooled her four children. “It’s a parenting decision to direct the education of their family, believing it’s our parental responsibility. We love to have that right.”

She and other home-school advocates believe the vast majority of conscientious parents shouldn’t be penalized for the crimes of a few.

“It would appear to me that the blame here really lies with the parents,” said Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell, whose daughter is an e-schooler enrolled in the Ohio Virtual Academy charter school. “Parents have a responsibility to be involved in the education of their children. School systems may fail some children, but generally the parents already have failed those same children.”

Fast growth

The issue of regulation pits parents’ rights against the state’s responsibility to protect children and enforce compulsory education. Parent-led, home-based education is widely considered the fastest growing segment of K-12 education. The National Center for Education Statistics said the number of students rose 74 percent to 1.5 million between 1999 and 2007, and the National Home Education Research Institute estimates it reached 2 million last year.

Charles Russo, an education professor at the University of Dayton, called Ohio’s system “loosey-goosey” and said it is a potential end run around compulsory education for some families.

With no federal regulation of home schools, it’s left to the states to decide how much regulation is needed. Stanford University political science and education professor Rob Reich likened it to “the Wild West,” with nearly half the states having either no regulations or low regulations.

The Home School Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Virginia that provides legal services for its 80,000 member families, ranks each state according to their degree of regulations.

Ten states — including Michigan and Indiana — have no requirement for parents to register their home-schooled students.

“It’s as if they have gone off the grid entirely,” Reich said.

Ohio requires parents to notify the local superintendent of their intent to home school. The law also requires:

• That the home teacher have a high school diploma or equivalent or work under the direction of a person with a bachelor’s degree.

• That certain curriculum areas are covered and instruction include at least 900 hours.

• And an annual assessment be filed with the school district. Gallaway said the Ohio Achievement Assessment and Ohio Graduation Test are not required of home education students, but individual districts can allow students to participate in the state assessments. 

DeWine said Makayla’s death should provide a case study for the Ohio legislature.

“There should be hearings about what went wrong with the Medicaid system and the school system,” he said. “The biggest breakdown was with the Medicaid system — there was a total collapse of that.”

Makayla’s mother, Angela Norman, and her nurse, Mollie Parsons, will face trial on involuntary manslaughter charges April 18 in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court. Two other nurses who supervised her care, Mary Kilby and Kathryn Williams, will be tried on lesser charges including failure to report abuse. In addition, the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud unit is investigating whether Makayla received the care for which her family and caregivers were paid.

The challenge for Ohio legislators, DeWine said, is to safeguard children without penalizing the vast majority of parents who are doing the right thing: “This is far from a typical home-school situation,” he said. “Most parents are very conscientious.”

Concurred Stephanie Garrett of West Alexandria, who home schools her four children: “The media gets one person, and blows it out of perspective. How many go in shooting in the classroom, and it makes the 6 o’clock news.”

‘We weren’t allowed to call them cages’

One of Ohio’s headline-grabbing cases involved Michael and Sharen Gravelle of Norwalk, who kept their 11 adopted children in bunk beds fully closed off by wooden two-by-fours.

“The children could not get in or out of bed without an alarm sounding,” said Huron County assistant prosecutor Jennifer DeLand. “In the criminal trial we weren’t allowed to call them cages. We called them enclosures or enclosed beds.”

The Gravelles claimed that they confined the children for their own protection because they were unruly and destructive. “It turned out the children didn’t have near the behavior issues the Gravelles had presented,” DeLand noted. “If they had that many issues, why did they keep adopting more? One child’s only issue was Down syndrome.”

The Gravelles lost custody of the children in 2006 and each served two years in prison on child abuse and endangering convictions. DeLand said 10 of the children have now found permanent homes.

The Gravelle case differed from the Norman case in that the family filled out the required paperwork and the children completed the mandatory testing. Yet it is similar, DeLand said, in the fact that one layer of the safety net is removed when children are home-schooled. “They were very isolated, with no activities outside the home,” DeLand said. “There was no teacher they could talk to, no teacher who could see what was wrong.”

Jeffrey J. Mims Jr., the former Dayton school board president who sits on the state Board of Education, believes more safeguards should be in place.

“We shouldn’t be functioning just on a crisis level,” he said.

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said home schooling has been overshadowed by other issues, including debates about vouchers, charter schools and virtual schools.

“Since I’ve been on the Education Committee we’ve had no legislation or a hint of legislation dealing with home schools so it hasn’t really been on my radar screen,” she said. “I’d like to say maybe it’s because things are moving along” with home-schoolers doing well on state tests.

UD’s Russo said special-needs students, such as Makayla, should be even more carefully monitored. “There are very few absolute requirements, and home visits rarely occur,” said Russo, who is also an adjunct professor of law.

Vulnerable kids aren’t a powerful political constituency, Russo noted: “If legislators try to do anything, they’ll be flooded with 100,000 faxes from the home-school folks. Most of these parents are caring for their kids and trying to do the right thing. The politicians must be asking themselves, ‘Why stick your hand in a hornet’s nest for a relatively small number of people?’”

Political tug of war

States that have attempted to tighten regulations have met with strong resistance from the well-organized home-school movement.

Russo said if a parent reports a problem, the Home School Legal Defense Association is likely to have a lawyer there the next day.

“Home-schooling advocates are very aggressive, and the Legal Defense Association is an in-your-face group that will be there in a heartbeat,” he said.

Michael Donnelly, one of the association’s 10 attorneys, said, “We just work wherever we can, whenever necessary, when opportunities present themselves to advocate in favor of reduced regulation because we don’t think it’s necessary. In fact in many respects we think it’s counterproductive. (Parents) are spending time jumping through hoops instead of spending time educating their kids.”

New Jersey State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the new Senate majority leader, is trying to tighten regulations in the state which has none now. She has introduced legislation to address the problem “where children just seem to disappear off the radar screen until something awful happens.”

One of those children who disappeared was Christiana Glenn, an 8-year-old home-schooled girl who died last May of malnutrition and had an untreated broken bone.

Weinberg’s bill would require an annual medical exam for each child, which brought a strong response from the Home School Legal Defense Association.

The group says on its website Weinberg’s bill “treats every home-school parent like a child abuser by requiring them to give their school system documentation of a medical exam every year.”

“Taxes will inevitably go up to pay for it,” the group says. “New Jersey would overnight have one of the worst home-school laws in the nation.”

Weinberg doesn’t believe her bill calls for unreasonable regulation. “The local school board should know your child exists,” she said.

Local districts

The Dayton Daily News filed public records requests with 13 school districts in Montgomery, Greene, Warren, Miami, Butler and Clark counties to gather information about how they deal with home educators.

Eleven districts reported an increase in the number of home-schooled students since last year, including Beavercreek City Schools, which has the most in the area with 275. Lebanon, with 222, was second in the area.

Lebanon Superintendent Mark North said he’s not sure why those parents have chosen to home school.

“I look at it as parents have a right to choose how their children will be educated whether they choose home schooling, parochial schools, Christian schools or public schools,” North said. “That is the parents’ right and I respect that.”

Stephanie and Edward Garrett of West Alexandria said home schooling has fostered success and creativity in their four children.

“Our children have very different personalities and we have been able to tailor their schooling to their needs, whether they’re a child who prefers workbook thinking or thinking outside the box,” Stephanie said.

Her two oldest daughters are married and one is home schooling her own children.

The Garretts said their children have found enrichment and socialization through groups such as the Christian Home Educators of Ohio. This weekend, youngest son Stephen, 14, is competing with 250 other students at the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association (NCFCA) competition in Cincinnati.

In the Garretts’ experience, these students are closely monitored. When they lived in Franklin, their paperwork came under scrutiny from the superintendent’s office.

They passed with flying colors after getting help from the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Oregon, said research shows home schoolers on average perform better on standardized tests than public school students.

But Reich disputes such claims, saying they are often tiny samples of home schooling students: “There is simply no existing study that gets a genuinely representative sample of all homeschoolers and that is in part because we don’t even know who is being home-schooled because regulations are so minimal.”

Estimated number of home-schooled students:

U.S.: 1.7 million to 2.3 million

Ohio: 22,000

Miami Valley: 2,500

Sources: National Home Education Research Institute, Ohio Department of Education, area school districts

The 13 largest home-schooling districts in the Miami Valley:

District

Students

2010-

2011-

2011

2012

Beavercreek

206

275

Lebanon

220

222

Xenia

231

224

Springboro

138

N/A

Kettering

132

145

Huber Heights

135

158

Troy

108

88

Fairborn

114

103

Centerville

105

127

Hamilton

117

126

Northmont

94

108

Dayton

122

165

Springfield

87

92

Source: Area school districts

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