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More moms are home-schooling

Nine-year-old Tyler Jones has an easy commute to school.

He rolls out of bed, dresses, bounces down the stairs of his family's Coral Springs home, and slides into a seat at the kitchen table.

Today's lesson: possessive nouns.

Tyler's mother, Carrie Jones, lugs an oversize whiteboard into the kitchen, props it on an easel, and leads her son through a dozen exercises in his grammar workbook.

''Piece of cake, mom,'' Tyler says afterward. ``What's next?''

Tyler is one of several thousand South Florida children for whom home doubles as school. Statewide, more than 55,000 students are home-schooled -- a remarkable number, experts say, considering that the practice was illegal in Florida a little more than two decades ago.

What was once seen as an alternative for parents seeking a faith-based education is increasingly becoming a choice of mainstream parents.

Over the past decade, the trend has given rise to a multimillion-dollar industry. Co-ops and support groups abound. Online, virtual support groups and lesson plans are just a click away.

''There's this notion among some parents that the public schools are failing, and that they can provide a better education to their kids,'' said Eugene F. Provenzo Jr., an education professor at the University of Miami. ``They believe they're presenting their kids with a less technocratic culture, and one that's more desirable.''

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that there are 1.1 million home-schoolers nationwide -- a little more than 2 percent of the school-age population.

In Florida, parents wishing to home-school their children need only notify their local school district in writing. There are no state standards for curriculum. While home-schooled students are not required to take the FCAT, they are required to have an educational evaluation at the end of each year.

There are almost as many reasons for home schooling as there are families pursuing it.

''In a home-based environment, parents can use pedagogical methods that most teachers can only dream of,'' said Brian Ray, president of the Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute.

Ginny Pared of North Miami chose to home-school her son Jason when she discovered that the boy was having trouble reading. Pared later learned that Jason, now 7, is dyslexic.

''At his school, they couldn't give him the type of help he needed,'' Pared said. ``I can really work with him.''

Other parents worry about safety and bullying in traditional schools, experts say. Some point to the culture of testing and evaluation that has developed around the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

Whatever the reason, making the transition from traditional schools to home education can be a challenge.

NEW WAY OF LEARNING

When Veronica Isakson of West Kendall decided to home-school her daughter Cristina, she had never thought about things like curricula and pedagogy. She left her part-time job in retail -- and started to do some homework of her own.

''At first, you worry that you're hurting your child,'' Isakson said. ``The hardest part is understanding that just because they are at home doesn't mean they aren't learning.''

For parents new to home schooling, the Internet is a huge asset. Online, parents can peruse and purchase lesson plans. They can seek out support groups, and connect virtually with other parents across the country.

It wasn't always that way.

When Brenda Dickinson started to home-school her children in North Florida in the early 1980s, she had never heard of the home education movement. For Dickinson, home-schooling her children was the only option: Her kindergarten-age daughter had a profound fear of strangers but needed to start her formal education.

At the time, home schooling was illegal in Florida. In 1984, the state filed truancy charges against a handful of parent educators, Dickinson said, adding that some parents lost custody of their children.

''It was not a friendly environment,'' Dickinson recalled.

In 1985, Dickinson's husband, a lawyer, helped draft the legislation that legalized home schooling.

Brenda Dickinson is now a full-time lobbyist for home education. She is president of The Home Education Foundation, a group that works to safeguard home-schooling legislation in Florida. Her daughter Wendy is on her way to finishing her doctorate in counseling psychology at Georgia State University.

Dickinson's efforts helped give home-schoolers opportunities to participate in sports and other interscholastic extra-curricular activities at public and private high schools. They also helped students gain the right to dual-enroll in community colleges free of tuition.

Still, many home-school parents say they are not yet treated equally. Many who were interviewed for this report said they often feel forced to defend their decision to other parents.

''Everybody questions you,'' Pared said. ``Everybody has an opinion on home schooling. You deal with it on a daily basis.''

For years, home education has been a subject of intense criticism. Teachers unions across the country have blasted the practice, saying that parents are underqualified to teach their children.

Dickinson dismisses those claims.

''The proof is in the children,'' she said. ``Many of our children finish their associate's degrees before they finish high school.''

Psychologists have also raised concerns about socialization. But Monica Dowling, a child psychologist at the University of Miami, said that educating children at home does not necessarily inhibit social development.

''Home schooling by definition does not mean that you are keeping the child from having those types of peer relationships,'' Dowling said. ``A lot of parents plug in to local groups.''

SUPPORT AVAILABLE

There are many home-schooling support resources available to South Florida families.

In Miami-Dade County, members of the Parents' Association for Teaching at Home meet weekly at Evelyn Greer Park in Pinecrest and Salvadore Park in Coral Gables. The group recently took two dozen home-schoolers and their parents camping in Castello Hammock Park.

''These kids are like siblings,'' said Anne Klein, PATH's treasurer and a home-schooling mom. ``The little kids learn from the bigger ones. Sometimes they fight. Sometimes they're too busy making up games.''

The Broward County Homeschool Parent Support Group plans science fairs, spelling bees and musicals -- even a prom and a graduation ceremony.

Of late, the group's drama club has been rehearsing for an upcoming production of Grease. More than two dozen teenagers are involved.

Some of the students say they've met others through the group who became their closest friends.

''Most people think that we don't have any friends and we don't get out much,'' said Loren Pizarro, 18, a spirited and well-spoken teenager from Davie. ``That's totally not true. We have a lot of fun together.''

Their parents agree.

''It's nice to know there are other people doing the same thing,'' said Lorraine Mitchell, who home-schools her two children in Broward. ``If I didn't have other home-schooling parents, I'd probably go a little crazy. It can be very challenging.''

PHYSICAL EDUCATION

There are athletic options, too. Hundreds of South Florida children participate in the Christian Homeschool Athletic Association of Florida -- or Saints, as it's better known. The organization provides physical-education classes at eight Miami-Dade and Broward sites.

In addition, hundreds of high-school-age students also play for the South Florida HEAT -- the Home Education Athletic Teams. The organization fields competitive teams in a dozen sports ranging from volleyball to cross-country track.

Experts caution that home schooling is not for everyone.

''For some kids, it's great,'' said Dowling, the UM psychologist. ``For others, it doesn't match with that child's learning style. Some parents aren't cut out to be teachers. You could have a really good match or it could turn into a nightmare.''

Parents like Pared, however, say home schooling is perfect.

On a recent morning, Pared and her 7-year-old son Jason sat in the family's ocean-blue Florida room, classifying dozens of sea shells. Jason recorded the entire exercise in his journal.

''He's thriving,'' Pared said after Jason left the room. ``I feel extremely lucky to have this opportunity.''

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