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School bells in more homes

Those opting to educate their own children find strength in numbers

When Penny Wayne-Shapiro first let it slip to her Wayland friends that she was thinking of home-schooling her son, then just a toddler, the idea drew plenty of raised eyebrows and blank stares. But nowadays, people don't bat an eye when she tells them she's turning her back on the highly regarded Wayland public schools to home-school Ben, now 4, after he finishes preschool. Once stereotyped as a fringe movement for libertarians, religious extremists, or New Age nonconformists, home schooling is progressively elbowing its way into the mainstream.

 

"It's normal people now, not just left-wing hippies or right-wing fundamentalists," Wayne-Shapiro said. "It's your neighbor down the block or your friend across town. There's a whole community around this, and there's strength in numbers."

Paulette McKenzie, a Shrewsbury mother who for years has taught her 13-year-old daughter at home, said that home schooling's improved image has left the days of being branded a "fruitcake family" behind.

"I don't feel like a leper anymore," she said.

In many ways, McKenzie's family epitomizes the new face of home schooling. Integrating Christian teachings into her children's education helped sway her decision, but academics, she said, were her foremost concern. So while Erika and her mother begin the school day in prayer, regimented, rapid-fire lessons quickly follow. Working on a laptop in her den, her mother nearby, Erika spends mornings diagramming sentences, unsnarling algebraic equations, and traveling back to America's colonial era. The curriculum is steeped in the basics, McKenzie said, with frequent quizzes and papers. Top marks are hard to come by.Every other Friday, Erika and her mother spend the day in Bolton, where four other home-schooling families gather for debate and public speaking lessons. And, by spending more time at home, Erika can help care for her 4-month-old brother, Ayrton.

"That's a class unto itself," McKenzie said.

While the government does not formally track home-schooled children in Massachusetts, parents, home-schooling authorities, and public school administrators agree the number is steadily rising.

The Massachusetts Homeschool Organization of Parent Educators, a Christian home-schooling group, has 20,000 families throughout New England participating in its support groups.

"We've gone from [holding our annual convention at] a church, to a hotel, to the Worcester Centrum," said Carol Arnold, the organization's support group coordinator. Attendance has risen from 100 a decade ago to 3,000 this year, she said.

Home-schooling parents and those who study the trend say that while many are choosing to remove their children from public and private schools for religious and moral concerns, more are doing so out of frustration with public schools' inflexibility and one-size-fits all teaching methods.

Rising class sizes caused by budget cuts and teacher layoffs and the focus on standardized assessment have made these drawbacks -- and the backlash against them -- more acute.

"Any kid who's out of the ordinary, the schools are not set up for them," said Trish Ramey, a Framingham mother who has home-schooled her two children for two years.

Cindi Clapp, a Wellesley mother who next month plans to start teaching her 12-year-old daughter, acknowledged it can be difficult at first to "realize that public schools don't have all the answers." But with her daughter "bored and frustrated" with her classes this fall, Clapp began poking about for the latest home-schooling information and came away stunned by the wealth of support groups, online education plans, and cultural activities.

"I was astonished at the explosion of resources," she said. "It's very hard to be outside of the box, to do things differently than the norm. But it's easier when you know there are other people out there in the same situation."

While home-schooled children represent a small fraction of all students, roughly 2 percent according to most surveys, their numbers are climbing as much as 17 percent a year, said Brian D. Ray, author of "Worldwide Guide to Homeschooling" and president of The National Home Education Research Institute. The latest government report, a 1999 survey by the US Department of Education, found 850,000 home-schooled children nationwide. Estimating that the actual figure may be as high as 2.1 million children, Ray said many home-schooling parents don't register with local school districts out of fear of government involvement.

Tammy Rosenblatt runs the Family Resource Center in Salem, which organizes field trips for home-schooling families. She sees 100 new families a month, four times as many as three years ago. "It's just an educational option that people consider right away now," she said. "They think public school, private school, and home-schooling ."

Yet for all home-schooling's public relations progress, the practice still carries a stigma, said Kenneth Danforth, the director of a Hadley community center that helps coach 30 home-schooled teenagers toward adulthood.

"People still worry, `How can you succeed in this world if you don't play by the rules?' " he said.

Families come to his center for many reasons, Danforth said, but frustration over the standards movement has recently emerged as the leading cause of unhappiness and boredom at school.

"Kids are always telling me, `It's the same thing day after day; I can't take it anymore,' " he said. "MCAS is a major reason why a lot of people are here."

Programs designed for home-schoolers are both responding to the demand and fueling it, observers say. The MetroWest YMCA in Framingham has held Friday morning recreation classes for home-schoolers for a year and a half. At the start, just a handful came; now some 30 kids attend. And online vendors of home study materials, which report a steady increase in sales, help new home-schooling parents feel more at ease in their new role. Home-schooling parents also said the movement's growing acceptance gives them confidence their children's schooling will not be held against them when it comes time to apply to college.

This emerging support network has spurred more parents, like Wayne-Shapiro, to decide against public schools before even giving them a try.

"Home-schooling used to be more reactive, but it's become more proactive," said Tom Washburne, who directs the Home School Legal Defense Association's national center for home education. "People want to try this not because they had a bad experience, they just thought this is a better option."

While regulations vary by school district, public schools must approve individual home education plans yearly, but parents say oversight is minimal.

Wayne-Shapiro, a violinist and violin teacher, considers one-on-one teaching "a vastly superior method" to the classroom setting. She said that Ben, who was reading at age 3, will thrive in a less structured environment that lets him explore his interests at his own pace.

But at the same time, she is happy to avoid what she calls the "negative socialization" of the public schools, the cliques and peer pressure, and focus on the latest trends. She was taken aback, for example, when Ben was given a hard time at preschool for having a Winnie the Pooh lunch box. She quickly replaced it with a SpongeBob SquarePants model, and all was well. But the experience stuck with her.

"I was shocked that would happen at such a young age," she said. "A lot of people say a child should go to school for socialization, but a lot of that socialization is negative."

Information on the Web: Massachusetts Home Learning Association: www.mhla.org

National Home Education Network: www.nhen.org

Metrowest Homeschoolers: http://jillmkk.tripod.com/

metrowesthomeschoolers

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com

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