Some 50 million U.S. children have returned to school. But for an increasing number--between 1.5 and 2 million--back-to-school doesn't mean boarding that big yellow bus, but rather clearing off a place at the kitchen table. Though still a fraction of the school population, the homeschooling movement has achieved phenomenal growth in a short time. From 1991 to 1996, the number of homeschoolers nationwide more than doubled, according to Patricia Lines, a former senior research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education. But the decade's biggest growth spurt may well take place this academic year: Experts project a 15% increase in homeschooling.

Why the strong surge? In addition to the reasons traditionally given for homeschooling--to teach specific religious values, control social interactions, develop close family ties, and improve academic quality--parents cite concern for children's safety at school.

Homeschooling at a Glance

The Parents:
  • The majority of homeschooling is done by mothers, most of whom are not employed outside the home.
  • 94% are white. Most are middle class, married, and have larger-than-average families (3.1 kids versus the national average of 1.9).
  • 88% report at least some college. Most have higher-than-average incomes for families with children ($52,000 versus $36,000).
  • 75% attend church regularly.
  • Roughly half are Baptists or independent fundamentalists.
  • The Children:

  • Kids watch far less TV than same-age peers.
  • The majority are in primary grades. Only 11.4% are at the high school level.
  • Students consistently outperformed 75% to 85% of their grade-level peers in private and parochial schools on achievements tests.

    Source: 1998 study by Lawrence Rudner, Ph.D., University of Maryland at College Park

  • According to Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, based in Purcellville, Va., "Within 48 hours of [the Columbine tragedy], our phones started ringing off the hook. Columbine erased a myth: 'It can't happen in my school.'"

    "Parents can sometimes push aside ideological arguments or even their child's emotional or spiritual well-being," says Brian Ray, Ph.D., president of the National Home Education Research Institute, in Salem, Ore. "But when they think their child might actually be maimed or shot, that's when many of them will be moved to act."

    No such fears plagued Tamara Konczal, of Scarborough, Maine, head of the state's Catholic homeschoolers group. Konczal had begun to teach her children at home long before the recent spate of school shootings, and even now doesn't homeschool out of fear. But she admits to feeling relieved that her kids were at home on April 20, 1999. With homeschooling, she believes, she can assert her family's religious values and protect her child from a host of unsavory threats, including precocious sexuality and peer pressure. "We do shelter our kids," says Konczal. "But they're fragile. It's like with tomatoes: You don't put them out in February."

    Homeschoolers are gaining in more than numbers. In recent years, they have won national spelling and geography contests as well as entry into elite colleges. Harvard University has assigned an admissions officer to review applications from homeschoolers, and Patrick Henry College, founded to cater to homeschoolers, opened in Purcellville, Va., this fall.

    What the Laws Say
    Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, though it is easier to do in some than others because education policy is set by state and local agencies. Wisconsin, for example, considers homeschooling a form of private education and regulates it as such, requiring home-based schools to register with the state and teach a minimum number of hours per year, yet freeing them from specific curriculum requirements and any obligation to administer standardized tests. Other states, like Pennsylvania, directly regulate homeschooling and call for extensive oversight, including curriculum approval and submission of achievement test scores. States such as Oklahoma, Idaho, and Texas, on the other hand, have no registration or testing requirements at all.

    Such wide discrepancies fuel critics' concern than home-based education is undersupervised and inconsistent. Despite the criticism, however, homeschooling has definitely gone mainstream. "There are more resources available, more homeschooling support groups, more online help," says Dr. Ray. "This is no longer as different as it once was."

    Homeschooling vs. Unschooling
    Homeschoolers who like the familiarity and structure of school--and most beginners fall into this category--will likely purchase a curriculum package (average cost: $400) or develop one themselves, set school hours, assign projects and grade papers, and maybe even create mini-schoolrooms in their kitchen or den. A typical day might start with prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance after breakfast, followed by two hours of schoolwork at the kitchen table, recess in the backyard, lunch, then a briefer, quieter study period in the early afternoon, during which parents might read with kids, supervise crafts, or work one-on-one with older children while younger siblings nap.

    Others, who view homeschooling as the antidote to the stifling rigidity of formal education, become "unschoolers," abandoning worksheets, tests, and textbooks, and learning as they live. A typical day might include traipsing through woods behind a 5-year-old, chasing and naming butterflies, reading "Charlotte's Web" aloud after lunch, giving a piano lesson in the afternoon, then making ice cream for the evening's dessert while carefully measuring and discussing the ingredients. The following day might involve supervising a child-inspired recycling project--accompanied by a discussion of conversation. Included in every day would be lots of free time for reading, writing poetry, or wandering through local museums.

    Jedediah Purdy, 25, who was "unschooled" until the ninth grade on his family's West Virginia farm, treasures homeschooling's legacy that learning and living are inseparable. Purdy, a Harvard graduate and the author of "For Common Things" (Knopf, 1999), fondly recalls playing games with sticks and pebbles and working alongside his parents, digging potatoes, plowing, and feeding livestock. He remembers little official studying, but he and his sister read constantly and considered every activity an adventure. "I was never burned out or burdened by formal education," he says. "As a young child, I hadn't lost my enthusiasm for learning."

    The Socialization Question
    Mention the "s" word to most homeschooling parents, and they'll tell you they teach at home because of, not in spite of, socialization concerns. They believe they are better models of appropriate behavior for their children than same-age peers or a succession of teachers who may not share their values. "I want my kids to grow up looking at fireflies, not learning how to put a condom on a banana in fifth grade," says Konczal. "I want them to carry around a stuffed animal without being embarrassed." Furthermore, parents maintain, local support groups, Scouts, Sunday school, and other community activities give their kids ample opportunity to interact with other children.

    So far, at least, it appears that homeschoolers have little to worry about. Although there is scant research to indicate how homeschoolers fare in the long run, studies to date indicate that their social behavior, self-esteem, leadership skills, and resistance to peer pressure are equal if not superior to those of conventionally schooled children.

    But critics caution that homeschooled students may fail to acquire crucial social skills. "They're having interaction, but not the buffet of experiences that group schooling provides," says Charlene Messenger, Ph.D., a school psychologist who privately counsels families in Orlando, Fla. "A lot of common sense, judgment, and reasoning comes from interacting with many different adults and children. You learn to read people."

    Purdy concedes that his own transition to public high school at age 14 was very difficult. "You often don't get the codes that are part of adolescent culture," he says. But Purdy believes that this deficit is temporary and possibly meaningless. "Once you're an adult and know who you are and have established friendships, you're free to be yourself without these codes."

    Over time, most families come to see homeschooling as a lifestyle choice rather than merely a means of education. The morning scramble to meet the school bus, long days spent apart, evenings filled with extracurricular activities that eclipse family dinners--all are foreign to most homeschoolers. Instead, these parents and their pupils recount early-morning walks and prayers, days spent exploring the Civil War or planning an Old English Christmas, followed by a leisurely dinnertime in which the whole family participates. In the process, parents often discover for the first time the curiosity and love of learning they long to instill in their kids. "Ultimately," says Konczal, "homeschooling is as transforming for the adults as it is for the children."

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