In many ways, Jen and Hilary Bayer are typical high school seniors. They spent the fall taking SAT subject tests and are thinking about how to best tackle college applications. They're studying Spanish, chemistry, physics, music, statistics and history.
But the twin 18-year-old Palo Alto residents have been home-schooled since first grade. They're learning history by reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" and Spanish from a tutor and the online program Rosetta Stone. Jen Bayer is taking a jazz piano class at De Anza College, and both girls plan to learn more about biology — and leadership — by serving as docents through a Stanford University class at biological preserve Jasper Ridge starting in January.
For many Palo Alto families who opt to home-school their children, the term is a misnomer for what their children's education looks like. Their experiences disprove the often-held misconception of a parent teaching a child at the kitchen table all day. Today, students learn through classes taken outside of their homes and online, tutors, visits to museums, hikes, travel and pursuit of their interests, whether that be astronomy, history, coding, cooking or Harry Potter.
Annette Fazzino, the mother of two young home-schooled children, describes it as "a-la-carte education."
Families' reasons for home schooling are varied. Some parents eschew the structure of public school and want education done their own way. Others with a child who has a disability or is gifted recognize their child would be better off in a different environment. Other parents want to provide extra support to a child who has fallen behind. Some students are professional musicians, are seriously pursuing athletics or have a serious health issue that takes them away from the classroom.
Parents say home schooling is a child-by-child choice: In some families, a son or daughter is home-schooled while a sibling stays in the public school district. Some parents also choose to send their children back to traditional school after being at home for a time.
Despite the fact that so many people move to Palo Alto for the public schools and many others take advantage of elite private schools in the area, the city is home to a vibrant yet almost underground community of home-schoolers. The aspects of education that so many parents seek for their children — personalized learning, time for students to follow their passions, real-world application, freedom from the rigidity and stress of high-stakes tests and homework — can be created outside of the walls of traditional classrooms, home-schoolers say.
It's difficult to pin down local statistics on home schooling. Not all school districts, including Palo Alto Unified, track or are aware when families leave to home-school.
A 2016 survey conducted by the National Center of Education Statistics found that about 3 percent of students ages 5 through 17 were reported as home-schooled, representing 1.7 million students across the country. This number has steadily grown from when the organization first issued a report on home-schooled students in 1999. In Palo Alto, that percentage would amount to about 350 students.
Annette Fazzino describes herself as a "reluctant home-schooler."
"I always thought it was too fringe and too strange for me," she said.
But events out of her control — the death of her husband in 2012 and the discovery that both her children have a specific health problem — led her out to the fringe, where she is now elated to be.
Fazzino's 10-year-old son and daughter, Matthew and Julia, attended Walter Hays Elementary School through third grade. Now fifth-graders, last year was their first full year at home.
Fazzino pulled them out of school because of their allergy to a common chemical preservative that's found in almost everything, from cleaning products and art supplies to cosmetics and even paper. Despite her and the district's attempts to make school work, both children came home with more and more "flare ups" — rashes on their eyelids, the back of their legs, and on their arms.
At home, Fazzino can more easily control what they're exposed to — but it doesn't mean they're at home learning only from her.
Before this year's solar eclipse, for example, they read books about the phenomenon and traveled to Idaho to see it in person. Instead of reading from a history textbook, they recently met with Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian for a civics lesson.
Like many home-schoolers, they take a variety of courses from online schools such as Khan Academy; Athena's Advanced Academy, which focuses on gifted children and was started by a group of home-schooling parents; and Outschool, which offers live online classes taught by independent teachers.
Fazzino is able to shape their education to their interests. Julia is into Harry Potter, so she recently took an online class called "Symbolism in Harry Potter." Last year, Matthew expressed an interest in cooking, so Fazzino found a book on the science of cooking and bought a host of ingredients, and they talked about how heat and different cooking methods transform ingredients.
"You can play off your children's interests and experience," Fazzino said, "because frankly, who decided we're studying 'X,' 'Y,' (and) 'Z' at school? Some things really don't matter, or there are lots of different ways to learn them."
Despite Fazzino's enthusiasm for home schooling now, the decision itself and the transition weren't easy. Her son adjusted quickly to being at home — at school, he would "get a little lost in the classroom," Fazzino said, which caused anxiety — but her daughter, who loved "being part of the thick of it" at school, found the transition harder.
Fazzino also worried about the responsibility she was taking on for their education. How would she know she's doing it right?
"It is a fearful thing," she said. "It's a bold move to say, 'I'm going to home-school.' You get kind of funny looks when you say you're home-schooling. People think it's fringe ... or they think, 'What are you, crazy? How do you know what to do?'"
For a single mother like Fazzino, home schooling also is a sacrifice in terms of personal time, she said. Other parents who stay at home to oversee their child's education said it requires finding a healthy balance for both child and parent.
For her part, Fazzino has been assured by support from a tight-knit network of local home-schooling families and the vast number of resources available. She can list off the programs she wants her children to enroll in but which they haven't had the time to take advantage of, from Rock-It Science, a Santa Clara nonprofit that offers hands-on science classes in labs (and has a dedicated home-school program), to Wild Child Free School, an outdoor nature program for home-schooled students.
Local organizations such as the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo, QuantumCamp (which offers laboratory math and science classes in Palo Alto) and Los Altos Hills farm Hidden Villa also offer programs that home-schoolers can take. In addition to after-school classes open to anyone, numerous programs have sprung up that are specifically for home-schoolers.
Older home-schooled students can also take classes and get college credit at local community colleges like De Anza and Foothill College. (Foothill said 70 home-schooled students enrolled this fall. The college recently launched a dedicated home-schooling webpage and held a well-attended open house for students and parents in September.)
"It's like drinking from a firehose," Fazzino said.
All home-schoolers are subject to legal regulation in some form in California. Fazzino, for example, enrolled her kids in Bear Hollow School, a private school run by a friend in Palo Alto. The school files paperwork on the family's behalf with the state and also helps Fazzino with curriculum, lesson planning and goal-setting.
The biggest misperception about home schooling, Fazzino and other parents say, is that their children lack socialization. Home-schoolers argue that their children are, in fact, better socialized and more well-rounded because they interact with people of all ages and in different settings, compared to spending most of their time in a classroom with peers and a single adult.
Home-schooled students also spend time with each other. Numerous home-schooling groups in the area organize meetups, park days, field trips and other activities. Extremely active home-school email lists also span cities and age groups. (Parents say that when they post a question, they almost instantaneously get more responses and suggestions than they even need.) Many families also work together to host a class or tutor at their house for groups of students.
Matthew and Julia are also still close with friends from their usual communities: Walter Hays, their neighborhood and church. Spending more time with their mother also has created stronger family bonds, Fazzino said.
She speculated that the internet has vastly expanded the home-schooling landscape, making it easier for more families to try their hand at an alternative form of education.
"I think 20 years ago it probably was harder. It probably truly was fringe," Fazzino said.
Despite this, she still feels some stigma attached to home schooling. She urged other parents who might be considering at-home education to not be held back by doubts.
"It never hurts to try," she said. "It's exciting to try to light those fires and be the one doing that with your children."
For the Bayers, it was a rich — and unique — home life, combined with public schools' inflexible schedules, that propelled them to home-school.
The Bayer family is part of Magic, a shared service-learning community in Palo Alto run by resident fellows who have degrees in engineering, biology, history and law.
"In a typical night here, someone may be telling the story of their recent trip to Bhutan or talking about how they built this electric go-cart and made a generator," the twins' mother Robin Bayer said. "We thought that was a very rich opportunity for them to learn in."
When the twins were in first grade at Escondido Elementary School, Bayer questioned whether hours-long school days were the best and healthiest way to learn, particularly when a community of built-in teachers awaited them at home.
Like many other families in the area, the Bayers enrolled in Ocean Grove, an accredited public charter school that provides credentialed teachers, academic support, stipends and other services to home-schooling families.
Ocean Grove families sign education agreements that map out students' goals and report their progress to a credentialed educational specialist who visits their home. Parents can decide how much they want the specialist to be involved, from providing actual instruction or grading assignments to a more hands-off monthly check-in.
A family with a penchant for inquiry and self-directed learning, the Bayers opted for the latter. Over the years, the twins and their younger brother, who is now 13 years old and has never attended traditional school, learned from a variety of sources, including Bayer, other adults living in Magic and outside programs. The Magic resident fellows have all been closely involved in their education, which remains a standing agenda item on a weekly meeting with all four adults. Bayer has mostly overseen science and math instruction, while other Magic residents helped with topics like music, history, writing and computer science.
For both girls, the freedom to follow their own interests, at their own pace, has been a hallmark of their education. Hilary Bayer recalled picking out a Singapore Math textbook when she was young and making her way through every single book in the series, simply because she wanted to. Later, she took two online classes from Harvard University, one on the impact of climate change on global human health and another on computer science.
Even family trips to a neighbor's cabin in the Sierra Nevada turned into learning experiences. Hilary Bayer took photos of flowers, looked them up later and added them to a photo album with labels. They learned how to read topographic maps to navigate between two lakes that weren't connected by a trail.
"I remember a lot of fear in my education," Robin Bayer said. With a test, "I was nervous and I had to learn it by then. They take the test when they're ready and take it again if they don't pass it."
As the twins have gotten older, Bayer and the other adults' direct involvement has lessened. Each quarter, the twins write life plans with their short- and long-term goals. Each day, the girls record what they've worked on, go over it with an adult in the evening and adjust if necessary to continue working toward their goals. This provides discipline and focus to an unstructured way of learning, their mother said. At a monthly meeting with their Ocean Grove teacher, they also talk about work they've completed and show samples, which the teacher documents.
"It's a real privilege to have this much freedom in your life where you don't have to be somewhere at a certain time and you don't have to do what the teacher says," Bayer said. "You've got to earn that."
The biggest challenge of home schooling, both mother and daughters said, is ironically a function of this freedom: simply staying on track.
"The challenges are letting them find their own way and avoiding panicking by comparing them to their peers, who are in a different environment and many times accountable in different ways," Bayer said.
While Jen Bayer said she sometimes feels "socially isolated" from people of her own age, she prefers interacting with adults. When the twins were 14, they thought about going to a high school, but the freedom and flexibility they have outweighed any social appeal, they said.
As seniors, Jen and Hilary Bayer are now facing a different kind of challenge: how to apply to college as home-schoolers, given the numerous requirements.
Though Ocean Grove provides accredited transcripts, the documents don't fully capture the work the twins have done, so they've decided to develop their own. For each conventional subject, they'll describe relevant courses, activities and projects, their overall goals and how they met them.
Stanford, as one example, does not have a separate application for home-schoolers but rather guidelines that ask students to submit a detailed description of how and why their family chose alternative education, how their learning process was organized and what choices they had to make to pursue this form of education.
"We are interested in how you have gone about the learning process, not how many courses you have completed," states a Stanford admissions webpage on home schooling.
Home-schoolers who want to apply to University of California schools are subject to the same admission requirements as any other student, as long as the courses they've taken meet the state's A-G requirements and they have an official high school transcript and diploma. Students who don't meet that criteria can still apply to the UCs with SAT and ACT scores, according to a UC admissions webpage.
Other private universities have special programs for home-schooled applicants, said Cynthia Rachel, director of education support services for Ocean Grove. Brigham Young University, for example, reserves 5 percent of its freshman class for those students, she said.
Unlike their Palo Alto peers, however, the Bayer twins are in no rush to get to college. Jen Bayer wants to study more biology, and Hilary Bayer, calculus. Both want to get further on a Barcode of Life project they've been working on for months, using DNA-sequencing data to document biodiversity in the area. So they've decided, for now, to defer applying to college until next fall.
As she raised her daughters, Bayer worked to combat the cultural assumption that teenagers need to go straight to college from high school. Home schooling allows them the rare freedom to think about what they want to do in college and why.
"That's part of the beauty of it," Bayer said. "They can take the time to learn what they want to learn and feel prepared."
Katrina O'Neil and her husband are in the midst of their own home-schooling experiment, testing the waters with a son who struggled in traditional school.
Ironically, the family moved to Palo Alto from Mountain View in 2012 for the public schools. They enrolled their son, Kirill, at Hoover Elementary School and planned to do the same for their daughter, who was about to be born.
Kindergarten went well, O'Neil said, but on the first day of first grade, Kirill started having behavioral problems.
For the next year and a half, Kirill struggled in school and at home. He had nightmares and wouldn't sleep well. He had a hard time making friends. A self-directed learner, he was often bored in class but also had problems with writing, his mother said.
He was eventually diagnosed as gifted but with anxiety and disorders in sleep, developmental coordination (fine-motor skills) and visual processing. The school and a psychologist also suspected he might be on the autism spectrum, but he has not been formally diagnosed, O'Neil said.
Early on, the psychologist advised that they home-school Kirill. It felt like a radical suggestion for two parents who were working full time and had both successfully gone through traditional schooling themselves. Also, Kirill himself didn't want to leave an established structure, O'Neil said.
"Everybody always told him, 'If you want to grow up and be a real person, you have to go to school and go to university and in order to go to university you have to go to school.' (The idea) was sort of ingrained by us," O'Neil said.
They considered local private and alternative options, like The Nueva School in Hillsborough and AltSchool in Palo Alto, but realized that, while these kind of schools might address Kirill's giftedness, other elements of school would continue to be challenging.
After about a year and a half, things reached a breaking point, O'Neil said, and home schooling started to seem like the best option. But someone would have to stay home with Kirill.
O'Neil told her boss at HP, where she had worked as a software security researcher for more than 13 years, that she would have to quit. She was instead offered a year-long leave of absence, which she's currently on.
Several months in, Kirill is a happier, healthier learner, his mother said. He likes to immerse himself in a single topic for months — recently, it was Greek mythology and before that, astronomy — and home schooling allows for that, with some guidance from his mother to make sure he's making necessary progress. With no set schedule, she can take Kirill to science lectures in the evening without worrying about getting up early the next morning for school.
"Somehow we found this happy medium. We do a little bit of everything and just leave a lot of time for his own interests," she said.
Kirill is enrolled in Ocean Grove. O'Neil is especially appreciative of the special-education services Kirill receives — occupational and speech therapy — which she said are more extensive than what the Palo Alto school district offered.
O'Neil is Kirill's primary teacher, overseeing his work in math, English language arts and social studies. They often do that work at a cafe together. Kirill's avid interest in science means she can let him have free reign on that subject. He watches movies, reads books and does his own research, O'Neil said.
He also now has the time to take an online chemistry course in Russian from Moscow State University, meeting both science and language requirements. O'Neil is from Russia and wants her children to learn the language.
"The flexible schedule allows us to dive deeper into (his) interests and do things we just couldn't do before just because of the lack of time, or it makes it easier to do them," O'Neil said.
He's also more calm, O'Neil said. Being in school for six hours a day was overwhelming and draining for him.
For socialization, Kirill goes to Rock-It Science and the Wild Child nature program. He's finally on his way to making friends, his mother said — a real measure of the progress he's made.
O'Neil said that while this is right for her son, home schooling is an incredibly personal decision. It's not for everyone — including her own daughter, who still attends Hoover and is thriving.
"I knew home schooling existed a year and a half ago, but I didn't know what it really meant. Now I know that everyone does it differently," O'Neil said. "It's just one term but it means all sorts of different things."
Looming on the horizon is the decision the family needs to make when O'Neil's sabbatical ends. While most home-schooling families have one parent who stays at home, O'Neil knows some with two parents working full time.
"Everything is possible," she said. "You just have to really, really want it."
• WATCH "Behind the Headlines" for a discussion with mother Robin Bayer and Weekly journalists on this topic.