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Put your feet up, it's time for school

Back to school means back to the sofa for some home schoolers

By Lila King
"Comfy Couch Academy" class of 2004: Teacher Linda Levine and students Elisheva and Noam Ben-Avraham.
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Home school

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It's nearly noon, and 11-year-old student Elisheva Ben-Avraham is just now thinking about breakfast. She's curled up on her family's velvety brown sofa flipping through a book of math problems when the mood strikes. She pulls her bare feet out from underneath her, pads to the kitchen and comes back, pancakes in hand, to her workbook.

This is hardly the classroom familiar to most American students. There's no chalkboard, no bathroom pass, no ringing bell to signal the beginning and end of the lesson. This is home school, and if Elisheva is hungry, well, she doesn't have to wait for the lunch hour.

"At regular school you have to sit at a desk all day," she says. "You can't even put your feet up. I didn't like that at all."

Elisheva and her brother, Noam, 13, are entering their third year of home school at what their mother affectionately calls the "Comfy Couch Academy." The "classroom" is an amiably cluttered living room whose corners are stacked high with books, movies, craft supplies and musical instruments.

Noam and Elisheva's mother, Linda Levine, says she pulled her children out of public school because she felt the school wasn't addressing their needs.

"With 30 students in one room, the teacher doesn't have time for each kid," she says.

Noam and Elisheva, though bright, capable students, have learning disabilities that demand attention their busy teachers were not able to provide, Levine says.

Now, at their Georgia home, their mother says she can tailor their schedules and assignments to their needs at a pace appropriate to their learning styles.

Their school consists of a few key subjects -- whatever is interesting or pressing at the moment (for Noam, a math whiz with an approaching bar mitzvah, that means math and Hebrew) -- a set of assignments from their mother and an abundance of free time.

"[For] most people, there's a certain amount of time you do for school," Noam says. "For us, it's just a certain amount of work."

Time is one of the key differences between traditional school and home school, says Laura Derrick, president of the National Home Education Network, a web of support groups for home schooling parents and students.

Derrick points out that without the administrative necessities of traditional school -- dealing with things like attendance rolls, discipline, doctor's notes and permission slips -- educating takes less time.

"These families spend often just a few hours [a day], sometimes as little as one hour with very small children. And the rest of their time is left for them to enrich their lives," Derrick says.

Noam and Elisheva spend that extra time playing with friends (both home- and traditional-schooled), reading with their mother, and taking classes offered through their local home school support group. Noam recently finished a course in rocket science; Elisheva took jazz dance.

An increasingly popular choice

About 1 to 2 million school-age children -- who make up 2 to 4 percent of the school-age population in the United States -- were home-schooled during the 2002-2003 school year, according to statistics collected by the National Home Education Research Institute. That's a big jump from the 850,000 home-schooled children in a 1999 Census report.

Noam plays a song he wrote for piano. Music is a big part of home schooling in his family; mother Linda Levine is a trained music teacher.

Yet the statistics on home-schoolers can be tricky. They are not as easy to collect as public school rolls because not all home-schoolers will respond, some researchers say.

But anecdotal evidence also suggests that the home school population is growing, and quickly. Levine says her e-mail support group has nearly doubled in the past month.

Derrick attributes the growth to a number of factors, including what she says is a growing dissatisfaction with public schools and recent outbreaks of school violence, but her favored explanation is that the home school population has reached a tipping point.

"When people can identify something or see it for themselves, they're much more likely to see that as one of their options," she says.

Derrick's own home school support group in Austin, Texas, numbers more than 60,000.

Facing criticism

Many home schooling families belong to support groups that offer to help sort through legal and legislative issues (home schooling is legal in all 50 states, but laws about teacher certification and administrative responsibilities differ from state to state) and provide social opportunities for members. The groups also provide support for those who face resistance from families and friends who disapprove of home schooling.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, has long lobbied against home schooling, passing a yearly resolution that says "home schooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience."

During the school day, Elisheva can still cuddle with Stormy, her pet chinchilla.

Critics often charge that home-schooled kids miss out on important social aspects of schooling, such as learning to deal with other people, making friends and communicating.

"Unless we are prepared to keep our children in bubbles their entire lives, we have to give them an opportunity to have some exposure to real-world problems so they can develop coping strategies," says Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Feinberg argues that as cultural understanding becomes more valued, social interaction and exposure to different people and ways of viewing the world are necessary components of education.

"It's one thing to read about it," he says. "Much of what we learn in life is a matter of interaction. I just wonder how that takes place in a home school environment."

The most commonly cited studies of home-schoolers have found the majority of the population to be a homogenous group of white, middle class Christian families, though some recent research has suggested that the growth of home schooling may be attracting a more diverse group.

By the numbers

When it comes to the standard measures of school achievement, some studies show that home-schooled students outdo their counterparts in traditional schools. In 2000, the average SAT score for a home-schooler was 1100, compared with 1019 for the traditional student.

And 35 of the 265 finalists in the 2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee were home-schoolers. That translates to about 13 percent of finalists, though even the most generous estimates put those taught at home at 4 percent of the school-age population.

Noam and Elisheva have yet to take any standardized tests as home-schoolers -- Georgia requires that home-schoolers be tested every three years -- but their mother is not worried.

"Testing is not everything, and my kids are very good at math," she says.

Neither is she worried about another common criticism of the home school approach: the difficulty of keeping up with the increasingly tough subject matter as her children get older. When Noam gets ready to take calculus or Elisheva wants to tackle chemistry, Levine says she will learn along with her students.

"If you know how to learn," she says, "and you know your kids, you know how to teach your kids."

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