As homeschooling becomes more popular, a Florida library finds creative ways to engage families

Victoria Hanley, who oversees homeschool programming at the Pasco County Library in Land O’Lakes, Florida, helps Olivia Bosley, 15, as she gets ready to sew a Valentine’s Day dinner napkin.

LAND O’LAKES, Florida – It’s a few days before Valentine’s Day, and eight homeschool students at the Pasco County Library are about to sew a festive cloth dinner napkin to celebrate in style. 

But first, they need to review the basics, such as inserting and threading the bobbin, a small metal spool that sits in a case inside the front of the machine. They also must learn where they should touch and where they shouldn’t as they guide their fabric. 

“We are sewing fabric, not fingers,” instructor Victoria Hanley told the assembled elementary and middle school-aged students. “It’s like driving a car. Your job is to keep it sewing straight.”  

After picking out red patterned fabric squares, the students got to work. Despite a few challenges – the seam ripper is our best friend, Hanley tells one girl – every student finished before lunch. 

Welcome to a typical weekday morning at the Foundry, one of the Pasco County Library System’s six makerspaces where homeschool students can take classes in sewing, crocheting, and woodworking.  

No longer the sole domain of retirees, the county’s libraries are often filled with school-age students during what would typically be weekday school hours. The students seek enrichment to accompany core academic work. One branch offers a test kitchen; patrons can watch cooking demonstrations and try new recipes. At another, patrons can create pottery in a ceramics studio. They can visit another nearby branch to create studio recordings, while another branch hosts a community garden.  

“We see it as our job to serve the community and provide services and programs that the community desires,” said Jordan Miltner, a digital manager for the Pasco County Library System, who also was homeschooled. “Our goal is to help supplement these students with things they don’t have easy access to at home.”  

The branches offer events for homeschooled students during hours when their traditional school peers sit in classrooms. They also host open hours where the public can work on projects and get assistance from skilled volunteers. 

Each branch has its own program coordinator. Hanley, who oversees homeschool programs at Land O’Lakes, has no trouble filling up her events. A former public school teacher and homeschool mom, she has seen demand grow for homeschool services since the library reopened in 2022 after a yearlong renovation. 

“There was a definite upsurge in families saying, ‘we decided to homeschool’ Hanley said. We have also seen a couple more homeschool groups using our meeting rooms for their own activities.” 

Nationally, homeschooling is down from pandemic peak, but it remains significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels as parents seek more control over their children’s education. More states have made customization possible by approving or expanding education savings account programs or expanding online instruction programs that aren’t technically homeschooling, but enable schooling from home. Even before the pandemic, the American Library Association encouraged libraries to “put the underserved homeschool audience on your radar.”  

In addition to the maker spaces, the Pasco library system offers benefits such as free museum passes, graphing calculators and other electronics that patrons can check out.  

Trish Bosley is among the parents who takes advantage of those options. A mom who works full time from home, she let her daughter, Olivia, leave traditional in-person school four years ago. The change offered schedule flexibility for Olivia to continue training as a competitive figure skater. Bosley said it also shielded Olivia from the “toxic influence” of district middle and high schools. 

Olivia, 15, who participated in the recent sewing class, takes core academic classes through Florida Virtual School and attends homeschool classes at the Land O’Lakes maker space several times per month. Bosley said these free opportunities allow her to provide a high-quality education for her daughter on a middle-class budget. 

“We love that Olivia can work at her own pace and that it allows us the flexibility to skate full time and do so many things during the week that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” Bosley said. 

 Her neighbor to the south, Sheri Shaikh, wishes she were as fortunate as Bosley. 

 Saikh lives in Hillsborough County, where 10,680 students, 6.9% of all K-12 students, are homeschooled. That’s the largest percentage of homeschooled students in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Education’s most recent report. It also had the largest number of homeschooled students in a national database that the Washington Post published last year. 

 “Even though we are a growing group in the country and the biggest of any county, my experience has been that we do not have enough community resources that cater to the homeschooling community,” said Saikh, who is homeschooling three children, one in high school and two others in elementary school. Her children have taken a variety of classes at the local recreation center, as well as private swimming and tennis lessons. 

 However, the Hillsborough County Library System does not offer special programs that homeschoolers can access during the traditional school day.  

 Saikh lives in the southern part of the county, which is growing rapidly but has few alternatives to district schools. To offer options for homeschoolers, Saikh started Funschoolers of Southshore. The private Facebook group has 237 members and is free to join. Saikh has organized park events, field trips and classes such as martial arts, cubing and chess. This summer, she is planning a sale where homeschoolers may set up individual shops and learn entrepreneurial skills. 

 “One of challenges is to get our kids to socialize more with other kids,” she said. “I think as moms we do a wonderful job, but it is an uphill battle to keep finding those opportunities. It would help if the local libraries would provide such services in school hours where homeschoolers can do group activities. Our tax money would be put to great use.”

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.