Over one million U.S. kids home-schooled

Walnut Creek, USA - It doesn't get more exclusive than Berkeley, Calif.'s Treehorn School.

With an enviable 1:1 teacher-student ratio, this unorthodox private school blends anthropology lessons with math, history and plenty of baseball. It's no use salivating: Unless Lucy Kuntz is your mom, you won't get in.

Kuntz homeschools her 7-year-old son, Aaron, using one of four education options allowed under California law. She started her own private school, with its own homegrown curriculum. Friday included a jaunt into Richmond, Calif., for an evolution workshop, followed by batting practice.

"I'm an unschooler," said Kuntz. "We don't have a typical day."

Once the province of frontier families and 1960s crunchy granola types, homeschooling has hit the mainstream. The number of children opting out of traditional school environments jumped 30 percent between 1999 and 2003. More than a million American children call their teachers "Mom" - or "Dad."

"It's not such a taboo thing any more," said Oriana Lewallen, a Fairfield, Calif., mother who juggles full-time work with homeschool duties.

The Federal Department of Education estimates that 1.1 million children were homeschooled in 2002-03, but experts at the pro-homeschooling National Home Education Research Institute say it may be closer to 2.2 million, depending on how states define "homeschool."

California offers homeschoolers four options, including joining independent study programs run by public or private schools. Some families launch tiny, home-based private schools, just like Kuntz's Treehorn.

Others follow Lewallen's lead and join one of the 120 California charter schools that cater to homeschoolers. Those numbers include schools like Knightsen's HomeSmartKids and Hickman Charter School, where Lewallen's daughter is enrolled.

Hickman Charter, for example, through its Sonora, Calif., and Berkeley resource centers, offers homeschooled children classes in carpentry, art appreciation, choir and other specialized subjects they may not get at home.

Ann Zeise, a certificated teacher, took the fourth option. She became her son's private tutor from fourth grade until he left for college.

Given the variety of homeschooling options, California's statistics are an exercise in extrapolation. If the state population follows national trends, about 156,000 children, or 2.2 percent of school-age children, are homeschooled.

"Back in the '70s, the only people who did it lived in remote areas. Textbook publishers wouldn't sell the big math book to you," said Zeise, a Milpitas resident. "It's funny now. Everyone's courting the homeschool market."

Textbook publishers print homeschool-friendly versions. Internet sites abound. And a homeschool DVD service rents educational films, including hundreds with a Christian focus.

That's hardly surprising.

Some 30 percent of families involved in home-based education did so to provide their children with religious or moral instruction.

Another 31 percent cited concerns over "school environment," a broad euphemism that encompasses everything from violence and drugs to discipline - too stifling or too lax.

School environment spurred the Mickle family's exit from public schools 11 years ago. In their case, the environmental issue involved aggressive classroom bullies.

Initially, Deb Mickle's three children participated in the district's independent study program. But when the oldest daughter hit high school, the family joined a Christian-based independent study program with a college-prep focus. That daughter is a junior at Cal State East Bay now, studying to become a teacher.

"It's been beneficial to me as a parent and to my children as students. We really know each other," said Mickle, who heads Livermore, Calif.'s Sowers' Circle, a Christian-based support group for homeschooling families.

The homeschool world is hardly nirvana. Even with resources, it takes work and discipline to design curricula and lesson plans. There is paperwork and record-keeping.

Although charter students take state standards exams every year, homeschoolers enrolled in private school or private independent study programs do not. The lack of testing worries some parents and delights others.

Other parents admit concerns over socialization. Some fret over college prospects for children without grades and teachers' letters of recommendation. And a few mourn hallowed school rituals.

"What about prom?" is a common refrain, Zeise said.

But homeschoolers take life, and curriculum, as it comes. They join homeschool support groups, swap lesson ideas and plan field trips together. They share tips and joys and woes.

Zeise recalled sending her son out on scouting expeditions to measure the diameter and circumference of every round thing he could find. Back at the kitchen table, the pair whipped out pencil and paper to find the ratio.

"By gum, it was always 3.14," she said. "He invented pi."

But even Zeise made mistakes.

"Never teach genetics with anything that breeds," said Zeise. "We have a lot of rabbits."