This is the time of year when many parents (secretly) and others (not-so-secretly) breathe a huge sigh of relief because their children are going back to school and life at home can return to a semblance of calm and routine after a summer of relative chaos.
But back-to-school for one Plainsboro mom brings a twinge of wistful sadness. Though her four youngest children are now attending the Wilberforce School at 75 Mapleton Road in Plainsboro — part of the new Princeton Center for Arts and Education on the campus of the former St. Joseph’s Seminary — and her oldest will be a student at West Windsor -Plainsboro High School North, until just last year Gemma Farrell homeschooled all five of them. This, in a school district to which so many people move specifically because the schools are ranked so highly in the state.
Why the decision to homeschool? The Farrell family follows the Catholic faith and Wilberforce is a Christian faith-based school. And statistically, many homeschoolers are from Christian families. But Farrell says her decision had little to do with religion and everything to do with just wanting to spend more time with her children, Marian, 14, Emmanuelle, 13, Richard, 12, Jack, 10, and Thadius (the family calls him Tade), 9.
“It was an organic evolution,” Farrell says. “I had my children all a year apart. With my oldest, it was fun to work with her at school age, and I started teaching her phonics.
“We so enjoyed being home together, and I thought how nice it was to get her to learn things from me at home. My next daughter was right behind her, just a year younger, and I started with her, and it seemed to be going well. So then I had a 4, 3, and almost 2-year-old and expecting my fourth, and it was working out for them to learn at home. They had each other, and I enjoyed them.”
Farrell says homeschooling her children also became easier when she met other families who were doing the same thing. They would meet up with other families from time-to-time at the Westerly Road Church Learning Center in Princeton, an academic enrichment program for homeschooled students.
“They were studying medieval history with other kids the same age and taking history and a couple of science classes. It was a way to be with other kids and interact with other families but still homeschool,” says Farrell. “Once or twice a month we would have field trips. There were study sessions to get the kids to do schoolwork together. As the kids started to get older, they were enrolled in a homeschool choir.”
Farrell says she understands that the West Windsor-Plainsboro schools stand out at all grade levels, but she and her husband did not feel that their children would necessarily be better served by going to them. “They were bright enough to pursue what they were interested in, and they could excel. Time goes so fast, and it was an opportunity to spend more time together. We were so close as a family, and I really loved that.”
With so many children at different age and grade levels, wouldn’t it be difficult to set up a curriculum that met the needs of each? Farrell explains that she familiarized herself with the whole spectrum of homeschooling, an approach that includes a more structured vision of academics, along with a traditional Judeo-Christian worldview. “The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home” is a step-by-step, grade-by-grade, subject-by-subject guide to the classical pattern of education. It is used by many homeschooling parents as a guide, and for Farrell, it became almost a Bible. “It’s rigorous academically, and I wanted that for my kids. I had a good education, and I valued that. I didn’t want my kids to explore the world with no boundaries. We always woke up early and set a routine.”
Farrell says that she followed district guidelines at each grade level, but her children were usually working ahead of them. The state of New Jersey does not have testing requirements for homeschoolers but she always had her children take certain standardized tests independently of the schools so she could track where they fell nationally and locally.
But on a day-to-day basis, she allowed each child to manage his or her time and pursue different interests, all with a patient, gently guiding hand. “If they wanted, they could practice their instruments, the piano, and the violin. They could do their artwork, write poetry, stories, novellas, and be creative.”
How and where in the house they worked changed over time. “We have a study, and we would work there especially when we had subjects that we could do together like reading. But then we would spread out around the house.” And unlike most households today, the Farrell household never had and still does not have a television.
Farrell explains that balancing the roles of mom and teacher was not difficult for her, and there is no such thing as a switch that goes on and off between the two. She graded all their assignments, but didn’t have a need to generate report cards because on any given day, her children knew exactly how they were doing.
Part of Farrell’s calm, patient, and relaxed approach may have something to do with the fact that she is a yoga instructor. She teaches several classes a week at Holsome on Witherspoon Street in Princeton and teaches privately (www.gratitudeyoga.org). “Yoga is wonderful and such an integral part of my daily life. My children, mostly my girls, and I do practice yoga together sometimes. My daughters are ballet dancers (at Princeton Ballet School), and they find that yoga complements their dance training. They often bring their friends to my yoga classes — that’s fun,” she says.
Farrell grew up in Flemington, the only child of a J&J executive and a nurse. She was not homeschooled, but says she spent a good deal of her elementary school years making art by herself. “I loved school but I also had intense personal interests that I pursued with vigor in my free time.” She is a 1986 graduate of Dartmouth who worked for a time in the New York business world with Goldman Sachs and then in marketing. She met her husband, Jack, during a stint at publishing house McGraw Hill. They were married in 1986 and they now live in Plainsboro, where Jack runs his own recruiting firm. While Jack has been supportive of the homeschooling, he was not actively involved.
And while other people, family members and friends, have also been supportive of her decision to homeschool for so many years, Farrell says she recognizes that there will always be people who disagree with it, saying it’s not social enough for the kids or too family-centric. “But for the most part, I think people see the value in it,” she says. “I would recommend homeschooling but not unequivocally. It needs to be a good match for both the parents and the students. It is not right for everyone but it can be a wonderful option for many families.”
While she says she has no specific advice for families considering homeschooling, she says, “It is so dependent on the personalities/skill sets of both the parents and the children, as well as on the family dynamic. The best I can offer is: love your kids, be yourself — it’s pretty simple.”
Farrell admits there were days when everyone felt a bit burned out and felt they needed a break. But on balance, she says, their best days have been many, just enjoying their reading together, having inspiring conversations.
And this year, as she sends her children all off to school, Farrell feels peaceful and confident about their transition.
She says they all already have plenty of friends in the public school sector, friendships built in their neighborhood and church, and for the boys through sports — football, soccer, basketball, and baseball — and for the girls through ballet.
“I am not al all concerned about my kids entering school,” says Farrell. “They are extremely social and love being around other kids their age. They have good study habits and an interest in learning. This will be an exciting next step for all of them, especially Marian, this year.”
What she will keep at the front of her mind is that being able to be with her children has been a tremendous gift, and that watching them grow into their intellects and personalities has been such a privilege. “I am honored and feel that I have learned as much from them as they have from me. I have discovered that kids want to know what to expect and what is expected of them. They typically rise to challenges with enthusiasm and possess an innate curiosity. If you can capitalize on their inborn love of learning then teaching them becomes exciting and rewarding.”