As public schools fail to address students’ needs, more parents turn to alternatives

Katie Mathews knew her stepson, Ryley, was struggling in public school. But she had no idea how much help he needed until he joined their family when he was in 6th grade. 

“When we first got…

Katie Mathews knew her stepson, Ryley, was struggling in public school. But she had no idea how much help he needed until he joined their family when he was in 6th grade. 

“When we first got custody of him, the longest book he said he’d read was about 13 pages,” she said, adding he was functionally illiterate and had difficulty writing and spelling three-letter words. “It was distressing. I felt terrible for him.” 

After multiple attempts to address Ryley’s needs through his school, Mathews finally withdrew him in 2021. She homeschools Ryley, now 15, at her home in Excello, Missouri, along with her other two children – her son Charlie, 10, and her daughter Raylan, 7. 

“I’m so excited to talk to people about it. It’s become my passion,” she said of homeschooling. “I just see my children doing better, and it makes me happy.” 

‘Supposed to be an award-winning school district’

Mathews is far from alone in her exodus from public school. Enrollment in U.S. government schools dropped by 1.3 million students from 2019 to 2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

While part of the decline could have stemmed from lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, the trend continued in fall 2021 even after most districts had returned to in-person classes. 

“Current enrollment data indicate that a broad return to public schools simply did not happen,” concluded Thomas Dee, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. 

In Mathews’ experience, virtual classes only contributed to her dissatisfaction with her children’s school. 

“We had moved into this school district especially because it was supposed to be an award-winning school district,” Mathews said. “And we got there, and it turned out to be the opposite.” 

When the school switched to remote-only classes, Mathews found her children’s academic performance suffered. 

“I’m here doing all the work, and so much is on the computer, and they want to play video games afterwards,” she said, adding homeschool gave her the freedom to return to more traditional, handwritten methods of teaching. 

She had asked the school to test Ryley so he could enter a remedial class to help improve his handwriting through occupational therapy. 

However, the school refused after Ryley scored just two points above the cut-off range, she said. 

“They said we could just let him do more work on the tablet, which they were doing a lot of at school, and the keyboard,” she said. “I just didn’t agree with that because kids get so much video game time already and screen time, and I’m as guilty of that as the next mom. I try to limit it quite a bit.” 

Other moms have received similar responses from school districts where their children’s scores weren’t deemed low enough to warrant needed attention. 

For example, Amanda Thompson moved her family from Kansas to Florida, just to get treatment for her 12-year-old son struggling with dyslexia. 

“Help me understand: reading at a 1.5 grade level as a 12-year-old entering 6th grade (which should be 7th, but we held him back a year) isn’t low enough?” Thompson wrote in a statement to The Sentinel. She concluded: “Our kids deserve better. They are not robots to be passed by and hope that they figure it out.” 

‘Structure and stability’

Once Mathews taught Ryley at home, she explored practical, affordable ways to get him motivated to read. 

Beyond his usual textbooks, she gave him graphic novels. She took him to the library each week. She got him a pencil grip, which he still uses. 

“He was holding his pencil wrong, and he’d grown so accustomed for so many years to holding it a specific way that was incorrect,” she said. “He always naturally goes back into that same position, so he prefers the grip.” 

Today Ryley is thriving at home.  

“He’s a voracious reader,” Mathews said. “He reads novels, and he reads as fast as I can, almost. … He’s making better personal decisions too. He’s less impulsive. He had these symptoms of them saying he was on the spectrum, or having ADD. And I just think a lot of that sometimes is attention and nurturing.” 

Another reason Mathews chose to homeschool involved health issues. She and her son, Charlie, have Alpha-gal Syndrome, which involves a potentially life-threatening allergic response to red meat. 

“If we get sick, I don’t have to go putting him around a bunch of other kids,” she said, adding the family got sick constantly while the children attended their previous school district. 

“Kids need structure and stability. That’s something homeschool offers,” she said, adding public schools can’t always provide similar one-on-one attention. 

Mathews encourages other parents to try homeschooling even if they don’t feel qualified or have previous experience with it. 

“I didn’t know how to do any of this. I winged everything,” she said of her first two homeschool years. “I didn’t know anybody else really homeschooling.” 

Every year when she gets her tax refund, she uses it to buy homeschool materials. Through planning, she can purchase all her supplies for $1,000-2,000 for her three children. 

“I buy that first before I do anything else,” she said. “I consider it an investment, a big investment.” 

‘Important for community’

Mathews also credits homeschooling with helping her family when her father was experiencing health issues. 

“We got to have a year with him before he passed away,” she said. “It was hard, but it was a blessing that I could be with him, and I was able to take care of him in his last year. And the children, I feel like it matured them a lot. … Homeschooling really let us be there for him, and he helped us homeschool too.” 

Homeschooling has allowed the Mathews to care for another family member, too. Over the last two years, Ryley’s grandmother received a second cancer diagnosis after she had gone into remission. Just recently, the family learned she is responding well to medical treatment. 

Homeschooling allowed Mathews and her children to adjust their schedule to stay with Ryley’s grandmother when she needed help, Mathews said. 

“We had a lot going on over the last few years, but homeschooling has definitely helped us. It’s helped us be more adaptable,” she said. “It helped us to be there for our family. I think it’s important for community, for raising children. People don’t have that these days.”