In a gray rambler off a dirt driveway, a teenager sits at a wooden table, working on a PowerPoint presentation while his younger brother studies a model of the solar system.
Their mother, Vel Burgess, hovers between them, directing most of her energies to 10-year-old Stone. He’s in the “school room,” an open area with walls decorated with cursive letters, world maps and memory verses.
Big brother Blue, 17, typically works at his own pace, doing assignments for classes at Rappahannock Community College.
Burgess has home-schooled both boys from the time they were old enough to distinguish colors and shapes.
She and her husband, John, wanted a certain lifestyle for their King George County family. They couldn’t accept their children being gone seven hours a day, then squeezing family time and dinner, homework and sports into a few jam-packed hours before bed.
And, they especially didn’t want them exposed to words, actions and morals before their young minds were ready.
“I wanted to preserve that innocence for as long as I could,” Vel Burgess said, “and I didn’t want my children sent to a place where God can’t be mentioned.”
The Burgesses are among a burgeoning part of the population. One of every eight students in the rural county is home-schooled, giving King George the third-highest percentage of home-schooled students in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
The statistics do not include students who attend private schools.
“We know so many families who are home schooling,” said Kirby Payne of Dahlgren. He and his wife, Jennifer, have taught their four children, ages 14 to 22, from kindergarten on. “It’s a lot of families for a small community.”
King George currently has 647 home-schooled students. Its percentage is two to three times higher than any other locality in the Fredericksburg region as well as Virginia.
Only Floyd County in southwestern Virginia and Highland County, on the western border of the Shenandoah Valley, have higher percentages.
While King George leads the local pack, the number of home-schoolers in every county in the region has grown in the last decade.
During the 2004–05 school year, the Fredericksburg region had 2,114 home-schoolers.
In 2014–15, it had 3,816 of them.
“It’s definitely more mainstreamed than it used to be,” said Mary Ann Kelley, a Stafford County resident who runs “TheHomeSchoolMom,” an online newsletter with 35,000 subscribers worldwide.
“When I started [16 years ago], a lot of people had never met anybody who home-schooled, and today, almost everybody knows somebody who home-schools.”
But why are there so many in King George? The answers seem as varied as the reasons families home-school in the first place.
‘AREA RIPE FOR HOME SCHOOLING’
When Blue Burgess was almost 5, his mother wanted to send him to a Christian school—and even lobbied several facilities to start a satellite program in her county.
But no private facilities, Christian or secular, were available in King George 12 years ago—and still aren’t.
“We don’t have any other options here,” she said.
The Burgess family lives less than five miles from Dahlgren, and the Navy base is another possible factor in the high home-school numbers. The base attracts scientists and engineers as well as other professionals with secondary degrees, and families are able to make enough money to live off one income, said King George resident Amy Campillo.
Those factors make “the area ripe for home schooling,” she said. “All the other benefits, like co-ops and activities, stem from the sheer numbers of people who decide to home-school.”
Burgess started the Guarding Hearts cooperative in 2002 to give county home-schoolers a chance to socialize and interact. The name is based on Proverbs 4:23, which says you should “guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.”
Guarding Hearts is one of three such groups in King George—and more than a dozen in the region. While some focus on teaching core curriculums, Guarding Hearts provides twice-a-month enhancement activities, such as learning about civics or different cultures.
‘PART OF A COMMUNITY’
Some co-ops hire instructors for specialized classes kids need in high school. Others select parents to lead group activities such as art and drama.
Laura Bettis teaches American history classes through the King George home-school co-op Hope2, pronounced Hope squared. She believes home schooling fits into the lifestyle of military families who have moved a lot, as hers did. She started home schooling when her family was stationed in Okinawa because the base’s school system was overcrowded and ill-prepared.
She liked home schooling so much, she continued with her three sons when the family returned stateside.
“I think a lot of people want the freedom to study the things they want their kids to learn,” she said. “A lot of times, your choices [in public school] seem so rigid, and a lot of kids don’t fit into the cookie-cutter image.”
Rob Benson, superintendent of King George County’s public schools, credits the strong home schooling cooperatives for the high numbers of students.
He said the school division tries to stay in touch with home-schoolers through social media to let them know about activities open to them, such as a recent middle-school STEM program on science, technology, engineering and math.
As in other counties, King George home-schoolers can take specialized classes in the public school system, if space is available. There were several inquiries this year, but no applications, Benson said.
The cooperatives, along with church events, clubs, classes at the community college and sports opportunities through the Parks and Recreation department “make home-school families feel like part of a community,” said home-school parent Lisa Pizana. “It doesn’t feel like you're an isolated pioneer.”
‘THE WHOLE FLEXIBILITY’
Several students interviewed echoed their parents as to why they prefer home schooling. They don’t face peer pressure, a carved-in-stone schedule or being picked on because they’re different.
“Home schooling is definitely a lot more popular now because the atmosphere in public schools is a lot more difficult,” said Abby Short, a 16-year-old Spotsylvania County resident who is part of three different home-school co-ops, including Hope2.
Jack Nerney, 17, said everyone is like-minded.
“We have similar beliefs, we’ve never had to deal with bullying, and I’ve grown up with these people,” he said.
Jennifer Payne, who’s home-schooled her four children in King George, said the schedule works for many different reasons.
“You could talk to 500 different home schooling families and get 500 different stories of how it worked for them and why they did it,” she said. “Being able to personalize, go slower or faster, switch curriculums, try different things, that’s part of the whole flexibility.”
|Caroline||162 students: 3.6%||121 students: 3%|
|Culpeper||548 students: 6.4%||328 students: 4.8%|
|Fredericksburg||84 students: 2.4%||69 students: 2.7%|
|King George||647 students: 12.9%||175 students: 5%|
|Orange||317 students: 5.7%||207 students: 4.6%|
|Spotsylvania||1,000 students: 4%||547 students: 2.3%|
|Stafford||1,001 students: 3.5%||642 students: 2.4%|
|Westmoreland||57 students: 3.2%||25 students: 1.3%|
|AREA TOTAL||3,816 students: 4.8%||2,114 students: 2.9%|
|VIRGINIA||38,934 students: 2.9%||23,252 students: 1.9%|
Source: Virginia Department of Education
Note: Chart shows the percentage of home-schooled students in each locality as compared to overall public-school enrollment. Numbers do not include private school students.