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When every day is a no-school day

At the Bianco house in Hollywood, the kids sleep as late as they want, eat whenever they're hungry, and while away the hours doing whatever they feel like doing -- 365 days of the year.

You might find Joseph, 13, Sierra, 12, and Alyssa, 7, playing video games, watching movies or teasing the cat. Or they may be researching a prehistoric fish, discussing a documentary or practicing cursive writing.

Their parents, Mary and Joe Bianco, are "radical unschoolers'' who believe their children will learn more from this type of homeschooling than in a traditional classroom.

"Children have the inherent ability to learn," Mary Bianco said. "If you nurture that, they will learn what they need to learn."

Unschoolers let the kids take the lead on their education, giving them the freedom to explore their interests without a set curriculum or tests. Radical unschoolers extend this principle to everyday life, as the Biancos do, allowing the children to make their own choices about bedtimes, mealtimes and chores.

The concept is perfectly legal. Florida requires homeschooled students to register with the county, which requires annual assessments, or under the umbrella of a private school, which allows more freedom.

Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, said 10 to 15 percent of homeschoolers nationally could be classed as unschoolers or relaxed home schoolers and guesses that about 1 percent of those are radical unschoolers.

In the 2007-08 school year, 2,923 students in Broward and 2,483 students in Miami-Dade were homeschooled, according to the Florida Department of Education. No statistics are available on unschooled students.

The approach -- and criticism of it -- dates back decades.

Catherine Emihovich, dean of the College of Education at the University of Florida, said a similar movement in the 1960s at private alternative schools let kids explore their own interests with little direction.

"What we learned from that is that kids left to their own devices resulted in a lot of self-indulgent kids who didn't know that much," she said.


Parents who are unschooling today believe their kids are learning just as much or more, with the world as their classroom -- and that they can keep the lessons relevant to their real lives.

Dartmouth graduate Justine Raphael of Coral Gables, who has embraced the radical unschooling philosophy, scoffs at the notion that her kids will lack a base of knowledge they need for the future.

"Although American schools cover some body of knowledge, it's totally arbitrary. My kids may be learning a different body of knowledge," Raphael said. "If you were raised in France, you would be exposed to a different set of facts. Does that make you less intelligent?"


Emihovich agrees that traditional schooling is imperfect -- but the academic material is not the only lesson.

"Our curriculums are very broad and shallow. Our kids are learning too many arbitrary facts," she said. The crucial difference, she adds, is looking at "not only the knowledge they acquire, but the strategies they learn to manage it. Schooled children are learning how to link what they've learned."

She fears unschooling will produce children with a narrow and poor conceptual understanding, competing in a world where people do have that structure.

"If you have somebody to give you an idea of structure, you learn relationships, and that's what an education is," Emihovich said.

Bridgit Pappas of Cooper City, mother of three, wouldn't dream of letting her sons set the agenda for their education. They "would sit and play video games all day."

She believes the structure of the school day is important.

"I feel like my kids have to learn discipline and responsibility," she said. "They get up and go to school every morning because they have to conform to society in some way. That's part of the world. When they're older, they will have to get up and go to work. That's life."


Unschoolers also play little heed to traditional milestones.

In most schools, reading starts in kindergarten. Bianco's son Joseph learned to read at about age 6 -- when he got interested in Yu-Gi-Oh cards. A friend's unschooled daughter learned at age 12.

Bianco said another friend had an unschooled 16-year-old daughter who wanted to go to college, but had no formal math training for the entrance exam. The girl crammed for three months, passed the exam and got into college.

"When the time comes for my kids to go to college, if they want to go to college, they'll be ready," Bianco said.


Raphael and her husband, Rick Weinert, have nine kids in their blended family. Three of them -- Abigail, 14; Ian, 12; and Samantha, 6 -- are unschooled.

Raphael's oldest daughter, Hannah, 19, had a mix of traditional and unschooling. An artist and jewelry maker since childhood, Hannah recently moved to California to attend art college.

Ian, an avid sailor and volunteer, doesn't spend much time on academic work, but has learned math, physics and meteorology through working with boats, Raphael said.

Abigail started a business making bags from colored duct tape, and recently won a $500 entrepreneurship grant. Samantha is teaching herself to read.

"These kids have real skills that can translate into academic terms, if need be,"

Raphael said.