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The Homeschool Revolution

It's close to lunchtime on a sunny Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina. Homeschooled students Hannah Spear, 7, and her brother Benjamin, 5, are sitting at the kitchen table. Hannah is practicing downward loops in her cursive-writing book, and Benjamin is working on a phonics lesson. On the floor next to them, their little brothers Nathan, 4, and Timothy, 2, have built a roadway for their toy cars and are making zooming noises. Their 3-month-old sister, Elizabeth, perched nearby in a bouncy seat, is beginning to fret.

Despite the jumble of activity, their mother, Meg, thinks that it's been a good school day. The older two children have each practiced piano or violin for half an hour, studied a Bible and a history lesson, and done some math. No science, though. They'll have a science class tomorrow, when another homeschooling mom will teach a group of 12 kids about interesting animals.

Spear admits she's probably not the best possible teacher that her children could have. "But if they were in school, there's no guarantee they'd get the best possible teacher either," she says. "And they'd never have one who gives them as much individual attention or who understands them as well as I do."

Nobody knows exactly how many children are being taught at home in the U.S., because not all states keep records on the number of homeschooled students. Experts estimate it's about 1.1 million children, or roughly 2 percent of the school-age population. Some advocates put the figure closer to 2 million. Whatever the number, there's no doubt that it's skyrocketing, perhaps by 15 to 20 percent per year. "Homeschooling has become a legitimate educational option for families," says Mitchell Stevens, Ph.D., associate professor of education and sociology at New York University and author of Kingdom of Children, about the homeschooling movement.

The idea that parents can instruct their own children has deep roots in American history. Colonial children were almost always taught that way, and many rural children continued to be homeschooled until well into the 20th century. Ten years ago, as the modern movement was gathering steam, Congress officially made homeschooling legal in every state and specified that parents don't need to have teaching credentials.

At that time, parents usually chose to homeschool because of their religious convictions or unconventional views about education. Today, however, most parents become teachers simply because they're worried about the overall quality of their public school, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. The next most common reason for homeschooling is to provide religious or moral instruction. Other parents say they're doing it because they're disappointed with the academic standards at their local schools or their child has health problems. While some parents try homeschooling early and continue right through high school, others do it for only a year or two, opting in and out of the school system as their family's needs shift, Dr. Stevens notes.

Although many more families are now teaching children at home, that doesn't mean it's easy or that everyone should try it, says Corinne Smith, Ph.D., professor of education at Syracuse University, in New York, and a Parents adviser. Homeschooling requires that one parent not work, or work fewer hours, which isn't financially feasible for many families. "It also means taking on two full-time roles?parent and teacher-which is a heavy responsibility," Dr. Smith says. "You have to know yourself. If you're disorganized and tend to have trouble keeping to a schedule, your child could end up falling behind and would be better off in a conventional school."

Dr. Smith, who runs a university clinic for children who aren't doing well academically, also cites concerns about home-taught students who have learning disabilities. Teaching a child who needs remedial education is difficult, and about one child in ten has some sort of special need, she says. (Federal law gives every child-including those who are taught at home-the right to an educational assessment and special-educational services.)

Kris Bordessa, a homeschooling mom of two boys in Placerville, California, says the two most frequent comments she hears are "How do you do it?" and "I couldn't possibly spend all day with my children-I'd go crazy." She always responds, "Well, if that's the case, clearly you shouldn't do it!"

Being adaptable is certainly important. "My house hasn't been clean since we started homeschooling seven years ago," Bordessa admits. She says it bothers her, but most of the time she can overlook it or tidy up enough to get by. "It also helps for parents to have a flexible perception of what learning means," says Christine Webb, of North Plains, Oregon, a board member of the National Home Education Network. "It's the overly perfectionist parents-who are rigidly organized and have a huge plan for every day-who tend to hit the wall," she says. "When the kids balk or the plan doesn't work, they think they've failed." Successful homeschoolers understand that there are many ways to master the same material.

Parents and educators used to say that the major drawback of homeschooling was that kids missed the opportunity to build social skills with other classmates. However, homeschooling organizations have found that parents go out of their way to make sure that their children spend lots of time with other kids and adults. In fact, being isolated and lonely seems to be more of a risk for homeschooling moms than their children. "If teacher-moms are going to succeed and be happy with their choice, they have to work not only on teaching but also on creating a support network," Webb says.

Homeschooling is becoming increasingly popular as more and more parents are inspired by families who've made it work. After all, in the last few years, homeschooled kids who've won spelling bees, published books at an early age, and gotten into Harvard have been profiled in newspapers and national magazines.

However, longtime homeschooling parents say that a key factor in the boom is simply that it's much easier to homeschool now than it used to be. The Internet is incredibly helpful, says Tamra Orr, of Portland, Oregon, author of four books on home learning, including A Parent's Guide to Homeschooling. Orr, who began teaching the oldest of her four children in 1989, often felt very alone in those early years. "These days, at any hour of the day or night, I can go online to the more than 600 homeschoolers in my association and say, 'What do you know about this?' Or just, 'Hey! I'm having a rotten day!' It makes a tremendous difference."

Parents in local homeschooling groups often share the teaching of certain subjects like science and math-reducing the burden of having to master all the necessary academic material. They also join forces for physical-education classes and for field trips to museums, historical sites, and more.

There's a wealth of new academic material available just for home learners. Parents can purchase books and workbooks on a single subject, such as first-grade math, as well as a complete year's curriculum-either with religious themes or without, depending on the publisher. Homeschooling parents typically spend about $600 each year per child on these materials, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. Internet classes for homeschooled kids-whether they live in remote areas or not-are also proliferating. Some states, including Florida and Wisconsin, offer cyber schools, where children do their work at home but participate in group discussions online and get guidance from a teacher, to whom they also send homework and quizzes. Not all online schools operate the same way or are available for every grade level, but the number of state-supported and private online schools is increasing every semester.

Other communities have opened resource centers where kids can take a course or two but still do most of their learning at home. For instance, HomeSource, in Springfield, Oregon, located in a former elementary school, allows local homeschooled children to choose from about 200 classes, from grammar to piano. State funding-the same money the local public school would get if the kids were enrolled there-supports the project. Nikki Wenger has enrolled her kids, ages 13, 9, and 5, in a San Diego-area charter school designed for homeschoolers. The kids do their learning at home, but by "joining" the program, Wenger can select all the curriculum materials she needs. A facilitator visits her home school once a month to look over the children's lessons and answer questions.

For parents with young children, the trend toward online work may hold the answer to their most common question: "Can we keep doing this all the way through high school?" Many universities now offer long lists of fully accredited high-school courses; students often do work and take tests online.

So how do homeschooled kids measure up academically? They typically score between the 70th and 80th percentiles on nationally standardized tests, putting them well ahead of their public- and private-school counterparts, according to a 1998 study by Lawrence M. Rudner, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland, in College Park. On average, a homeschooled child in the primary grades tests one grade level above kids in public and private schools, and by eighth grade, she's four grade levels beyond them.

But the most convincing evidence that children flourish when taught at home is the first generation of homeschooled teens. Hundreds of colleges have looked over their essays, portfolios, and test scores, and admitted them. Last fall, for example, Stanford University had 65 incoming freshmen who had been homeschooled.

Elizabeth Jones-Boswell, whose children are 17, 14, 10, and 2, homeschooled her two older children for several years when they lived in Houston. Then the family moved to Spokane and decided to enter the school system because they were happy with what they saw. "I loved homeschooling, but I finally needed a break-it's a big responsibility," Jones-Boswell says. After a year, however, she felt that the standards at her 10-year-old's school were sliding, so she started teaching him herself again. "Homeschooling gives your children time for projects and opportunities they'll never find in any school system," she says.

Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the February 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

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