I’m going to preach to the choir here for a minute.
We have excellent—truly, truly excellent—faith development models, curricula, and resources. The content is rich, fun, and edifying. The pedagogy is progressive and engaging. And the philosophy is grounded in the best of child development theories and the values of Unitarian Universalism.
In other words, we’ve got some amazing tools. But here’s the rub: We’re not even close to maximizing their potential.
Our religious education materials are only ever experienced by children in families who are looking for a church home, who come to us on a Sunday morning for the whole, big experience. And while some congregations’ religious education programs are growing as fast as they can keep up with them, many attendance and registration numbers are declining.
It’s time to utilize our faith’s most powerful tools with other populations. A great place to start is with homeschoolers.
There are around 2 million homeschooled children in the United States right now. About 64% of them are homeschooled because their parents want to provide a specific kind of religious instruction. Those folks aren’t likely to want what we have to offer. But many of those kids are homeschooled for other reasons—for example, to have a safer and richer learning environment, to experience a more progressive pedagogy, or because their parents want or need a freer schedule for their family. These homeschooling parents often seek support in their children’s education through classes, camps, workshops, play groups, or learning co-ops that augment what they can offer at home.
This is where we come in, as UU religious education folks.
We have the curricula. We likely have teacher training and preparation already in place. We might even have classrooms and playgrounds and social halls that sit empty during the school day. And we have a theology that encourages learning, growth, and the creation of a world community built on love and justice.
Without much extra effort at all, we could tweak our existing religious education offerings to speak to a more interfaith group of participants and provide them to homeschoolers as enrichment. Once a week for a semester? Twice a week for a month? From 9 a.m. to noon for a week in late August as a “not-back-to-school” day camp? There are many ways the classes could be structured.
Some congregations already host homeschool learning co-ops with something like a rental agreement. This is a great start. And we can go further.
We can make this kind of outreach an integral part of our mission, a manifestation of our third and fourth Principles in which we covenant to support one another’s spiritual growth and searches for truth and meaning. The leap here is in seeing families who aren’t necessarily interested in joining our congregation as worthy of this effort, to see our faith grow not in membership numbers but in the dissemination of our ideals and values, and in the friends we make and the service we do in our communities. Partnering with and serving homeschoolers could be our gateway into very new, very exciting models of religious education that go beyond our walls and out into our communities where families need and want more and better options for educating their children.
We’d start by beginning dialogs and forming relationships to see what the homeschool groups in our particular areas need and want, and how the partnership could be fruitful for congregations, too. Ours is a pluralistic, welcoming faith dedicated to lifelong learning and the creation and strengthening of communities. We may find in many eclectic and secular homeschoolers kindred spirits in these goals and helpmates in spreading the messages of love, justice, and learning.
Let’s start talking to each other! If yours is a congregation that hosts a homeschooling group during the week, please “Comment” below so that others can learn about your arrangement.
Ask around in your congregation to learn if there are any current homeschoolers. Many keep a low profile because of prejudices and misconceptions about their educational choice. If you think there are none among you, you might be surprised.
If you are a homeschooler, consider meeting with the minister, religious educator, or other leaders of your local congregation to ask about potential partnerships. Also, you can join the Facebook group “Unitarian Universalist Homeschoolers,” here.
Finally, if you are a UU-identifying homeschooler, please consider taking this survey (through September, 2016) to help us learn more about you, your approach, your needs, and how your choices are helping to shape our movement.