Tracy and Noah Simmons survey a route to the top of a wall at Movement Rockville. Credit: Photo by Louis Tinsley

On a warm June morning, Noah Simmons, 14, is dangling from a rope 40 feet in the air. One of his hands is wrapped around the rope; the other is flapping back and forth the way it often does when Noah feels exhilarated. 

After a few moments, Noah looks to the wall behind him and angles his body so that his right foot finds purchase on a small blue rocklike protrusion. Once his other foot lands on another colorful piece, Noah continues his ascent to the top of the climbing wall, about 10 feet above him. 

“Great job, buddy!” Noah’s mother, Tracy Simmons, cheers from the floor—five stories below her son—as he reaches the top. 

It’s been a year and a half since Tracy and her husband, Mike, decided to homeschool their nonspeaking autistic son and nearly a year since Tracy discovered Movement Rockville, a rock climbing gym. Ever since, she and Noah have become regulars. It’s become his primary classroom, so to speak. 

Tracy, a yoga instructor, drives him here from their Bethesda house two or three times a week. Noah climbs for hours. He has learned to tie the complicated knots that keep him attached to the harness. He chooses the walls he wants to climb, and for how long he wants to climb them. It’s a form of homeschooling called “unschooling” that involves learning organically through exploration and discovery rather than through a traditional curriculum-based educational model.

“He makes his own choices,” Tracy says. “Something he couldn’t do in school.” 


Tracy says she never would have considered homeschooling her child before the pandemic. The Simmonses’ older son, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, has been in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) since kindergarten, and Noah had been given learning accommodations through the school system since he was 6. 

In March 2019, when Noah was in third grade, he began attending the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s school for children with developmental disabilities at what was then its Silver Spring campus. MCPS agreed to pick 

up the tab, acknowledging that Noah’s needs would be better served there. “We were over the moon,” Tracy says.


For nearly a year, reports from the school showed  that Noah was thriving. But when the pandemic arrived, Tracy took a careful look at the worksheets sent home—and then at what was being taught online—and she went from elation to disappointment. 

“He wasn’t required to learn. He wasn’t required to listen. …All he had to do was follow the prompts,” Tracy says. “Suddenly those outstanding report cards felt like little white lies.”

She tried supplementing his classwork with therapies that focused on building communication skills that she felt his school program wasn’t addressing. But eventually she concluded that she had two choices: stick with the program she’d tried so hard to get him into, “or follow my gut, which is telling me this isn’t working.” 


The morning Noah was due to return to in-person school in March 2021, she made her decision.

Homeschooling across Montgomery County skyrocketed nearly 80% during remote learning, rising from 2,510 students during the 2018-19 school year to 4,505 during the term that ended in June 2021, according to data from the state Department of Education. 

Many parents expected their children to return to the classroom when in-person classes resumed. Yet more than 3,400 students, representing almost 45% of those who left MCPS during the height of the pandemic, didn’t return for the 2022-23 school year, according to MCPS. 


And as of this July, nearly 2% of MCPS’s 164,000 eligible students had already identified as homeschoolers for the 2023-24 school year. It’s a trend that’s being felt not only across Maryland but nationwide.

There’s no one-size-fits-all reason why, says University of Maryland education professor Kellie Rolstad, founder and director of Goodloe Learning Community, one of more than 300 umbrella organizations registered with the state Department of Education to supervise home instruction for families across the state. She says families have cited reasons ranging from disappointment with the school curricula to bullying.

Others say racism and religious intolerance have played a role in families’ decisions to homeschool. 


“Many families [feel] that the school system is no longer a safe and inclusive place for faith-based communities,” says Zainab Chaudry, Maryland director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. She says dozens of Muslim and other religious families in Montgomery County have begun pulling their children out of MCPS over the school system’s decision to prevent families from opting out of its new rollout of LGBTQ+ books.

More Black families are also homeschooling since the pandemic began—many citing implicit racial bias in the educational system as their primary reason, according to several surveys. Nationwide, the percentage of Black families who switched to homeschooling during the early months of the pandemic rose fivefold, from just over 3% in the spring of 2020 to more than 16% that fall, according to the U.S. Census. 

A lot of Black moms, in particular, told Rolstad that they didn’t realize how much better it would be to have their kids at home, learning their values full time rather than what was being taught in school, she says.


Overall, about 3.1 million students were homeschooled across the U.S. in the 2021-22 school year, representing about 6% of school-age children, versus 2.5 million homeschooled students, or 3% to 4%, three years earlier, according to the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI). 

The one universal among homeschooling families, Rolstad says, is that “once you realize that there’s this whole community out here…and kids are doing fun things, you start thinking: What is the benefit that school can offer that makes me want to send my kid back?” 

Noah Simmons, 14, learns organically by scaling an indoor rock wall. Credit: Photo by Louis Tinsley

Clara Timme became a homeschooling mother shortly after the pandemic arrived. Her first grader had thrived at Rockville’s Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School, she says, but when programming went online, she realized that the pace was too slow for her child—and for her. 


“To be fair, [the teachers] want none of the students to be left behind,” Timme says. But her daughter continually finished the online tests early and would sit and read a book or play video games on her Chromebook while the other students completed their work, she says. “It was tedious to watch the amount of time wasted when we could be, like, going hiking or going camping.” 

One month into the 2020-21 school year, the family switched to homeschooling. Now the stay-at-home mom plans field trips and activities with her daughter most days, and every Tuesday during the school year her daughter participates in the Homeschool Naturalist Program run by a nonprofit called Ancestral Knowledge, which offers outdoor educational programs that cater to homeschool families. 

Bill Kaczor, the executive director of Ancestral Knowledge, says homeschooling families can meet most of the state’s homeschool curriculum requirements while still having fun. “[We cover] everything from art to English composition, biology, physics, everything…you’d find in a public school but [in] more of a hands-on, experiential, self-motivated journey,” he says.  


Homeschooling requirements, as well as services made available to homeschooling families, vary by state, and some are more accommodating to homeschooling families than others, says Goodloe’s Rolstad. 

In Maryland, homeschooling families have the option of joining a state-registered umbrella organization or submitting to periodic portfolio reviews with their local school district to ensure that their child “is receiving regular, thorough instruction…in the studies usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age,” according to the state. 

“We want to make sure that students are being instructed,” Brian Beaubien, MCPS’s supervisor of online learning, interim instructional services and home instruction, says in an email. “But…parents have a lot of leeway in how they deliver and the specific curriculum that they use.”  


Umbrella organizations cost between $60 and $3,000 annually, according to the Maryland Homeschool Association. Though some have religious ties—particularly those that started in the 1980s and ’90s, when homeschooling was most popular with conservative Christians—many umbrella groups today are secular, even progressive in their focus. 

The nonpartisan International Center for Home Education Research notes the dearth of high-quality scientific studies on homeschooling outcomes and says, “It is thus impossible to say whether or not homeschooling as such has any impact on the sort of academic achievement measured by standardized tests.”

Homeschooling often involves one parent giving up their job, or cutting back on work hours, which can make it challenging for families of lower means. And in Maryland, families that pull their children out of the public school system lose not only their child’s spot in the classroom, but also the benefits that come with it, from access to sports and music extracurriculars to support services, including speech, occupational and physical therapy.


Anna Mwangachuchu learned that the hard way after she decided to homeschool her son, Aden, who has Down syndrome. Aden started special education kindergarten at Galway Elementary School, in Silver Spring, in September 2019. But a month in, Mwangachuchu began seeing red flags. 

“He didn’t bring anything home,” she says. “I wrote back to the teacher and said, ‘So, what does my child do from morning to evening in school?’ ” 

After getting no response for weeks, she learned that her son’s class was being taught by a series of substitute and temporary teachers. The school eventually started sending her weekly one-page memos outlining what Aden’s class was covering, but it wasn’t enough to make her feel that anyone other than herself was fully invested in his learning.


Once the pandemic hit and she was working with Aden one-on-one, the Silver Spring mother realized how far behind her son was lagging in reading and math.   

When it was time to return to in-person school, she decided to keep him home, though it meant she couldn’t go back to work as a registered nurse. “I [could] see that I [was able to] do more with him at home than when he was at school,” she says. She didn’t realize at the time that homeschooling him would also mean he’d lose access to the speech, occupational and physical therapy that his school provided. 

Now, Aden is making progress in reading and math, using programs and resources Mwangachuchu has found online and at the library, but he hasn’t had the support services he got in school because she can’t afford them, she says. 


“Unfortunately, if parents choose to home instruct their children…essentially the only county service to which they are entitled is standardized testing,” says MCPS’s Beaubien. “It is something that parents do have to weigh when they make the decision to homeschool.” 

“As a taxpayer, I feel like it’s unjust for my son to be penalized that way,” Mwangachuchu counters. “I don’t know what kind of a community we [live in] if our community cannot support [children with disabilities]…unless [they are] a number  in the school system.”

MCPS says student privacy rules bar it from commenting on any specific family.

Ben Hickman, 11, builds Lego robots at his North Potomac home. Ben has started to learn coding and to program his robots as part of his homeschooling curriculum. Credit: Photo by Louis Tinsley

Caraline Hickman decided long ago that her children wouldn’t go to public school, but she loved the small, private Seneca Academy in Darnestown that her kids attended since they were little, near their North Potomac home. 

“We were very heavily invested in Seneca. It was a big part of who we were as a family,” says her husband, John.

But when the pandemic arrived, the family discovered that they all enjoyed being at home together even more—and they decided to stick with it even after their school reopened. 

On a warm July afternoon, 11-year-old Ben Hickman is holding up a dark gray triangle-shaped item about the size of a silver dollar. “It’s a megalodon tooth,” he exclaims, referring to the prehistoric shark species. He found it on one of his family’s fossil-hunting excursions and came home to research the tooth’s origin. 

Since becoming homeschoolers, he and his 13-year-old sister, Sterling, learn at their own pace—which means high school-level algebra for Ben and high school-level geometry for Sterling, John says. 

Some days they head to the Horizons Homeschool Co-op in Gaithersburg, where dozens of children of all ages learn and play together. On other days, they participate in programs and seminars for homeschoolers offered across the region, including visits to the National Archives and The Phillips Collection in downtown Washington, D.C.

“Part of the fun for me is I’m learning as much as they are,” says Caraline, who, after years in the corporate world, is now a stay-at-home mom. 

The children have even started to enjoy writing, something their mother says they used to fight. Now Ben writes poetry nearly every day, and Sterling is working on a novel—her second. 

For John, a tech executive who works from home, the best part of homeschooling is that they aren’t “just exposing [their kids] to rote memorization of ideas or history or facts,” but rather delving into “something that happened in history and [reflect] on how…that applies in today’s social context.” 

Tracy Simmons says critical thinking is also at the heart of what made her pull Noah out of school. At Kennedy Krieger, Noah was asked questions about things that were read to him, and all he had to do was point to the right answer, something he could usually figure out because the prompts were so easy, not because he understood the material, she says. 

Now, she says, she can focus on things he’s interested in and help him to think through information at a deeper level. Recently they were reading together about coral reefs, and she turned to him and asked, “Noah, can you tell me something else that lives in the ocean?”

“I could have given him the choice: Is it fish that live in the ocean, or dogs?” she says—something equivalent to what his lessons were like in school. Instead, she says, “I waited a moment…and then he looked at me and said ‘whales.’ ” 

And when she followed it up by asking him to look at his letter cards and spell the word whales, he did. “That is huge,” she says proudly. “I am very hopeful that one day we will get to a place where Noah is in more of a school setting, but…where he can be engaged. ” 

For now, she says, they are taking it day by day. 

This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.