Family lessons: Home schooling is attracting mainstream families for a variety of reasons

Traci Hodges works about 30 hours a week running her own consulting business and managing a small production company. She recently finished a master's degree in human development counseling.

On top of it all, she finds time to homeschool her oldest daughter. Make that she and her husband, Harlan, who is an emergency room doctor at DePaul Hospital. The Maryland Heights, Mo., couple split the responsibility.

As two working parents, the Hodges are a far cry from the stereotypical homeschool family with a stay-at-home mom, ultra-conservative moral and religious values, and a fierce belief in the right to keep government out of their lives.

Hodges likes that she and her husband can shield 9-year-old Amoree from exposure to drugs, alcohol and sex - at least while she's young. But she also likes that she can spend time with her daughter and that Amoree can learn at her own pace, advancing beyond her grade level in math.

"Everyone has their preconceived notions of what a homeschool parent is like," Hodges said.

Including herself. She stepped gingerly around other homeschool families at first, worried that she wouldn't fit in. "But then you learn that they come from all walks of life," she said.

Indeed, these days, the ranks of homeschoolers are becoming so diverse that one can make few generalizations about the burgeoning movement. There are as many reasons for homeschooling as there are families. The only thing that truly unites them is that for some reason, they have decided to take control of their child's education.

Homeschoolers are gifted students, teen-age mothers, Olympic hopefuls, children with special needs - even people with peanut allergies. They are predominantly Christian, yes, but also Muslim, Jewish and Hindu.

They are children who fell through the cracks in public schools and who move around a lot in military families. They are children whose parents are worried about violence or bullying in the schools, want to instill certain religious or moral values in their children, get into fights with school districts, and can't or don't want to shell out money for private schools.

Sometimes they come from unlikely camps - people like Nancy Schaaf, executive director of Dayspring Centre for Arts and Education in Maryland Heights. She was a strong believer in public schools and volunteered a few days a week at her son's school.

But she couldn't ignore the fact that her son, now 12, who was well-behaved and a quick learner, didn't get much attention in the classroom.

"The teachers in the public schools are becoming very, very swamped with a lot of paperwork and dealing with special-needs kids who are being added to the classroom," she said. "My child was going to school for seven hours a day and not getting any attention. He was losing his excitement for learning."

Still, she wasn't sure she could devote herself to homeschool.

"I never really thought I could do it," she said. "I have graduate degrees and stuff, but I didn't think with my older children I could really do it."

Hodges also worried that homeschooling wouldn't fit into her own career aspirations. But she found a perfect compromise at Dayspring, where Amoree attends an academy for homeschoolers two days a week. Hodges is now on the board at Dayspring.

Schaaf's son also attends the academy, and she homeschools him in her office and at home at night.

Indeed, as the people who homeschool become more diverse, so do the ways in which they do it. Some homeschool the old-fashioned way - at home. Others supplement home lessons with classes, band, choir, bowling leagues, and sports through homeschool associations or community centers or colleges. At the most structured are places like Dayspring that mimic a school setting a day or two a week. At the other end of the spectrum is "unschooling," an unstructured type of homeschooling that is directed by the child.

Some parents homeschool for just a few years, often sending their children to a traditional high school so they can get a standard diploma, play on varsity athletic teams, and reap other benefits. Some homeschool one child, but not others.

As homeschooling moves from the fringes closer to the mainstream, it is clear it has gained many supporters_but exactly how many is difficult to measure. Many homeschoolers fiercely resist documentation and have fought in Illinois and Missouri for liberal laws that do not require homeschoolers to notify their school district or the state that they are teaching their children.

"Looking at the number of calls I get, the amount of interest is just soaring," said Margaret Porch, who leads the St. Charles Christian Home Educators. She gets about 10 calls a week during the summer from people thinking about homeschooling, she said.

Estimates from various groups reinforce that homeschooling is on the rise. According to estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 1.1 million students, or 2.2 percent of school-age children, were homeschooled last year. That is up from 850,000 students or 1.7 percent of students in 1999.

The National Home Education Research Institute, based in Salem, Ore., estimates that 1.7 million to 2.1 million children were home taught during the 2002-2003 school year, up as much as 13 percent from 2000-2001. The institute says that homeschooling has grown about 7 percent every year for the last 4 years.

Whatever the numbers, the movement is fueled in part by the Internet and the easy access it provides to thousands of resources. Just a decade ago, parents had to order textbooks through mail-order catalogs. These days, home educators can find curriculum guides and workbooks at Sam's Club and Wal-Mart as well as on the Web.

As homeschooling has grown, its infrastructure has become more sophisticated. There are homeschooling magazines, thick newsletters, thousands of Web sites, class rings, bumper stickers, T-shirts, senior banquets, graduations, proms and yearbooks.

Outside institutions are beginning to recognize homeschoolers as a marketable group and are reaching out to them and their needs.

The St. Louis Science Center holds Homeschool Days - science workshops on different topics - once a month. The St. Louis Zoo is working on starting its own series this winter. Six Flags and Silver Dollar City both hold special days or discounts for homeschoolers.

Lindenwood University in St. Charles has advertised in some homeschooling publications. The school is seen as a good fit for many homeschoolers with its single-sex dormitories and values-centered campus.

John Guffey, Lindenwood's dean of admissions, said he's seen applications from homeschoolers take off in the last six to seven years. He receives a couple dozen a year, he said.

"From our end, we see these students as very bright students, very capable of college work," he said.

At Washington University, the admissions office used to get just a handful of applications, but now it gets 40 to 50 applications from homeschoolers a year, admissions director Nanette Tarbouni said by e-mail. That's still a small sliver of the 20,000 applications Wash U. receives, but a growing sliver, she said.

"There have been times when it's a little hard to be different," admits 19-year-old Katie Wightman, who is studying nursing at Missouri Baptist University. About 45 homeschoolers are dually enrolled there.

But these days, she gets fewer stares and questions when she tells people she's been homeschooled, she said. Still, she wouldn't trade being homeschooled for a traditional school environment, especially given the stories she hears from her cousins about the public schools.

It's been an adjustment being in class where everyone is the same age, and where students pass notes to each other and play tricks on teachers by changing the clocks. She's baffled by one of her students who brags every time she gets a low grade.

Her mother, Kris, said she never thought she would homeschool when she started 15 years ago.

"I thought it sounded like I fell off the turnip truck," she said.

But she decided to try it when she was living in a rural area where she didn't think the schools were up to par. She expected she would eventually send her children to traditional schools.

Then she got hooked.

Now she and her family run the Homeschool Sampler in downtown Kirkwood, near their home. It is one of about a dozen stores geared to homeschoolers across the country, she said.

Inside, the bookshelves are filled with curriculum guides and workbooks - many of which Wightman has tried out over the years. Cheery Christian music and a strong smell of potpourri infuse the store. The family's golden retriever, Sam, often lies by the counter.

In the nearly three years the shop has been open, it's had 10,000 customers, many of them repeat, she said. Some come from remote rural areas in Missouri and Illinois.

"When I opened, I expected to see a singular type of person walking through the door," she said. "But I tell you, one person is not at all like the next."

The store opens at noon, so Wightman can devote the morning to homeschooling her children. The eight Wightman children, except for the youngest, often help out in the store. It's part of their education, learning computer skills, accounting, invoicing and more.

At home, Wightman runs a veritable one-room schoolhouse, teaching children ages 3, 6, 8, 12, 13. Her older two take classes at colleges.

"If anyone's looking for the easy road, this isn't it," she said. "But it is very rewarding."

Wightman loves the flexibility that homeschooling provides her family to take vacations, the quality time she can spend with her children, the camaraderie built among siblings, the ability for them to learn at their own pace, and the thousands of dollars saved on private school.

"I am one of those people who are truly sold on it," she said.

And with a 1-year-old, she knows she still has a long way to go.

"So I'm going to be doing this for another 20 years. And I don't get retirement," she said.


An analysis released earlier this year by The National Center For Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education gave the following breakdown based on a survey from 2003:

_31 percent said they homeschooled because of concerns about the environment of schools.

_30 percent said they wanted to provide religious or moral instruction.

_16 percent said they were dissatisfied with the academic instruction of other schools.

_9 percent gave other reasons, such as family unity and individualized teaching.

_7 percent said their child had a physical or mental health problem.

_7 percent said their child had other special needs.