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Home Schooling Gaining Respect in the Mainstream

Trend: Once considered part of a fringe movement, parents who teach their children are growing in numbers and diversity. But a majority of Americans still disapproves.


BOXBORO, Mass. — They form the two flanks of an odd alliance: conservative Christians determined to rear devout and dutiful children, New Age improvisers who believe in free-flow learning.

Uniting such parents, in an inexorably growing movement, is the conviction that they can do a better job educating their children at home than professional teachers can do in America's public schools.

Twenty years ago, perhaps 10,000 or 20,000 children were home-schooled, and many states frowned on the practice. It is now legal and commonplace in every state; experts estimate that anywhere from 1.3 million to more than 2 million children are involved.

Bridget Barker pulled her daughter, Maggie, out of public school in Portsmouth, N.H., three years ago, after failing to win permission for the girl to work above her grade level. She hopes the growth of home schooling sends a message to those in charge of public education.

"Hello, this is a wake-up call. You need to be doing something different," Barker said during a recent home-schooling conference in Boxboro. "Putting three-quarters of the students on the honor roll and telling them they've done great work when they haven't--that's not helping them."

The motives for home schooling have multiplied. Some parents view public schools as godless or unsafe, breeding unwholesome peer pressure. Others say teachers are too overworked or inflexible to bring out the best in a child. The Columbine High School killings intensified interest in home schooling; so has the recent success of home schoolers in national spelling and geography bees.

For all their diversity, home-schooling families have some common traits. Most are two-parent, middle-class families with a mother willing to devote her weekdays to teaching. Single parents can find the enterprise daunting; two-income couples may not want to sacrifice one salary.

Among the scores of New England families at the Boxboro conference, there was another common denominator: parents spanning the ideological spectrum marveled at how home schooling had fostered a special sense of family togetherness.

"Everyone ought to have at least one year teaching their kids," said Barker. "It's a chance for really knowing who your kids are, seeing how they learn, what excites them."

Maggie Barker, 12, was similarly enthused. Though she likes the sociability of Portsmouth's public schools and expects to attend a regular high school, she's excited now about drafting her own seventh-grade curriculum, focusing on English literature and European history.

Glenn and Cheryl Mitchell of Cumberland Center, Maine, had their first taste of home schooling in May, pulling daughter Jen out of ninth grade to finish the semester at home. The experiment went so well that twin sister Julie will join Jen at home for the coming academic year; a third daughter, Kaela, may follow suit.

"We just had this general feeling that our kids were not happy," said Cheryl Mitchell, who hopes to continue working part-time as a nurse.

"We decided to commit for a year and change our lifestyle, and see how it goes," she said. "Our lives were stressed out. We want this time to reconnect emotionally and spiritually as a family."

The Mitchells were in Boxboro to compare notes with other families and learn about ever-expanding curriculum options. These range from on-line courses to group tutoring sessions for advanced subjects that parents feel unqualified to teach.

A festive atmosphere, almost like a country fair, prevailed at the conference exhibit hall. Along one wall, an instructor promoted "archery for home schoolers" as children fired arrows into a target. "Become a rock detective," suggested a sign at one booth, featuring do-it-yourself geology experiments. Two John Birch Society members touted a summer camp with classes on "The Welfare State" and "Global Tyranny."

The hall teemed with display tables offering videotapes, audiotapes, brain-twister games, microscopes, storybooks and textbooks. There were Christian biology books denouncing evolution and secular textbooks defending it.

Nationwide, home schoolers account for roughly 2% of the kindergarten-through-high school student population; their presence is greater in some Western states. Colleges are increasingly receptive to home-schooled applicants, although sometimes these students are required to submit extra test results.

Leading defenders of public education tend to be skeptical about aspects of home schooling but generally acknowledge the strength of the movement and the dedication of home-schooling parents.

"We've seen data showing those children are doing very well," said Ginny Markell, president of the National Parent Teacher Assn. "Our concern is any kind of dismantling of the public school system. We think it's an obligation to make sure that system is adequate."

Effective home schooling, she said, "is an incredible family commitment in terms of time and money. . . . It's very much a way of life, one that many families could not manage."

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