For modern parents, the “best” method for child-rearing can leave many divided. In this post-pandemic landscape, how you choose to educate your child can lead to contentious debate. The options are plentiful: public school, private institution, Montessori method, outdoor education. But perhaps none are as likely to raise eyebrows as homeschooling.
In the new documentary “Homeschooled,” which will make its world premiere at the Children’s Film Festival Seattle on February 9, director Niki Koss dives into the lives and realities of four homeschooled teens, each of whom has a different reason for bypassing traditional education.
Though she was not homeschooled herself, Koss was inspired by a friend who was. She took that conversation and expanded it into a feature-length documentary.
Fastest growing form of education
According to a 2023 Washington Post analysis, homeschooling is the fastest-growing form of education in the country. Propelled by the COVID restrictions, the report shows that many families have continued to homeschool despite lifted restrictions. The report estimated that 1.9 million to 2.7 million kids are homeschooled in the U.S. In some districts, the study recorded one homeschooler for every 10 public school kids.
“There’s such a stereotype to homeschooling that exists,” Koss said. She will be visiting Seattle for the first time to accompany her film at the festival. “I was looking forward to breaking that stereotype or maybe understanding why it exists a little more. I wanted to explore what other reasons they might be homeschooled. It’s such an interesting concept to me.”
The California teenagers highlighted in the film each with their own reasons for entering the homeschool terrain. For Koss, casting was the greatest challenge, forcing her and her producing partners to use unconventional methods to secure the right group of subjects.
Finding the right kids
“The kids, by nature, are a little bit more reserved, as well as their families,” she said. “A lot of them are spooked at the idea of a film that could potentially bring a bad name to homeschooling or paint them in a negative light. We took to every avenue possible. We were finding people on social media. We tried to infiltrate homeschooling Facebook groups. We were doing Craigslist ads. We did everything you can imagine.”
Tilly, a freshman, began homeschooling in the second grade after her older sister, who was shy and introverted, made the switch from public school. Tilly lives on a 10-acre citrus farm with her parents and two sisters. She has a boyfriend and enjoys being social, but homeschooling allows her the flexibility to take college courses and to continue helping her family on their property.
In the film, Tilly explains: “People think that it’s weird, or I’m anti-social. But that’s not always the case. A lot of people think I’m at my desk doing homework all day. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m out doing things.”
In Pasadena, 12th grader Cheyanne decided to homeschool after some intense bullying incidents in elementary school. She and her mother also experienced a hard time and were homeless for a time. Through the testimonials of Cheyanne and her mother, it is clear that homeschooling was the best option for Cheyanne to avoid further difficult situations in the traditional school setting.
Warning: Hard truths shared
Brothers Sean, grade 11, and Seamus, grade 9, have been homeschooled for eight years. In the film, they appear to struggle most with socialization and admit to not going “outside often.” With diagnoses of undisclosed learning disabilities, Tourette’s, ADHD, and autism between them, homeschooling allowed the brothers to learn and work at their own pace in a stable, familiar environment. For all the benefits this has granted them, however, the film makes it apparent that there is also something lacking. Seamus attempted suicide in 2022 and the film begs the question: was social media part of the milieu that led to that action?
“Seamus’ story was so heartbreaking to watch,” Koss said. Sean is not comfortable talking about his brother’s experience on camera, but both Seamus and the boys’ mother, Carrie, bravely address the issue in the film.
“Seamus died five times on the table,” says Carrie in the film. “He was without oxygen for approximately five to six minutes. He backslid a lot. Homeschooling, in this instance, really helps because not only was I able to delay when they started, it’s given us the ability to go really, really slow on things where he needs to go really, really slow.”
“I learned a lot making this film,” Koss said. “Especially for kids in a more isolated setting like homeschoolers, social media feels like the next best thing. For me, it doesn’t even come close to real-life interactions and socializing. That was very apparent when I saw them at prom and being social for the first time.”
As the documentary progresses, the teens prepare for a special homeschool prom where the students and their friends, in Koss’ words, are given a “quintessential coming-of-age opportunity that non-homeschoolers take for granted.”
As they prepare for the big night, the girls dress in designer gowns and are pampered with facials. Tilly’s boyfriend plans an elaborate balloon arch promposal, and they coordinate colors for her dress and his tie. A limo whisks them off to Beverly Hills for the big event. A feverish excitement bubbles amongst all of the attendees.
The prom itself is a beautiful moment in the film that finds all of the teens interacting with one another, dancing together, or letting loose on their own. They take photos in the photo booth and run giddy through the venue like any other teens might. Tilly and Cheyanne strike up a sweet friendship, but it is Seamus who makes surprising connections and puts himself out there with strength and admirable vulnerability.
“Once I saw [Seamus] in a social setting, he didn’t even realize how desperate he was for that,” Koss said. “He didn’t even know what he was missing because he did have a lot of friends online. He thought he was good in that department. In reality, there was a piece missing for him. I think he grew the most out of everyone.”
Creating an uplifting experience
Seamus and the others were not the only ones to gain something from the documentary. Koss simply gushed about the experience. She began the project in the hopes of creating a film that, in contrast to the abundance of dark, murder-centric material in this medium, “made people feel good after leaving the theater.”
The culmination of months following the teens and capturing their journey was an emotional one. The finale – a coordinated event in which Koss could see the effect her planning had on the young adults – was the catalyst for a moving and powerful meditation on her hard work and creative vision.
“I was crying all day the next day because I was so unbelievably touched to see these kids come to life,” said Koss. “When we first walked into their houses versus seeing them in that space being so social and having the opportunity to socialize in ways they’ve never really had before. They just came out of their shells in such a beautiful way.”
Homeschool: Yes or no?
After all her research and collection of first-hand accounts, would Koss recommend homeschooling? She said she believes that’s a decision that needs to be made on a case-by-case basis. While it’s a good thing for some kids, it “can also be a detriment for [others].”
Homeschooling may not be for everyone, but “Homeschooled” is worth a watch with an open mind and heart.
See the film
“Homeschooled” is screening at the Northwest Film Forum theater located at 1515 12th Ave in Seattle. February 9 at 8 p.m. Director Niki Koss and producer Ryan DeLaney will be in attendance. In-person tickets: General Admission $14, Student/Child/Senior $10, film forum members $7, teens (with or without TeenTix pass) $5. Virtual tickets are on a $5 – $25 sliding scale. All tickets available at the Northwest Film Forum website.