MODESTO, Calif. — As neighborhood schools grapple with pared budgets and pressure-cooker tests, not every family shares the strain. For a hardy few, the living room doubles as classroom, and kids drive the curriculum.An estimated 2 million students, or 3.6 percent, are home-schooled nationwide, twice as many as in 1999.
Home schooling has two main branches: private or public. Private is the purist’s choice. A family creates its own school or joins a "cover school," signing up through a friend, church or fee-based service provider. There are no state tests or mandates, and no state funding.
Public home schooling, generally through a charter, includes funding and testing. The dollars pay for teaching sessions and tutors, state-approved textbooks and group lessons in anything from art to horseback riding.
Last week, trustees for California’s Turlock Unified approved contracts for dance training, swim lessons, gymnastics and fitness activities for their eCademy Charter online students.
The Gonzaleses of Oakdale, Calif., chose the private route. Savannah Gonzales, 16, an aspiring scientist, left public school after fourth grade and never looked back.
"You don’t get to be yourself, if that makes sense," Savannah said. There’s too much social pressure to conform, she added. Academically, she said, "I like the freedom to be able to do what I want."
Savannah takes online courses, reads voraciously and attends a Modesto Junior College history class, where her first paper came back last week with a solid A, said mom Stacey Gonzales.
"When you’re a home-school mom, it’s like, yeah!" she said, pumping her fists in the air.
Gonzales, a teacher by trade, left her job as a public school librarian to home-school three daughters.
"I was tired of thinking we were in such a rush to get this into their heads so they could regurgitate it by Tuesday, forget it by Wednesday. It’s more like jumping through hoops than really learning," she said. "I just wanted them to love to learn. I wanted them to feel capable."
Sabrinna Gonzales, 12, rocks in chemistry but said she struggles in math. Her church and home-school group activities keep her phone ringing. Middle school and the wider tween scene do not appeal. "There’s too much drama. ‘Oooh, I need a boyfriend!’" she mimicked with a grimace.
Home-schooling of teens is less common, experts say, with many parents opting back into the system for higher math and science lab classes, sports teams and orchestra. High schools offer a paved path to college, instead of a hand-hewn road.
Valley Charter High School Principal Susan Nisan said some parents want those entrance criteria in place. Others stick it out and have their children take junior college courses or post high scores on the SAT and ACT exams to document their skills.
"It is a challenge to home-school K through 12," Nisan said.
Parent Lorri Wickenhauser of Coulterville, Calif., called it "60 million times more work" than sending kids to school. Having kids home 24-7 means that issues and attitudes have to be dealt with. That’s a good thing, she said.
"You have to know how to persist, how to handle things," Wickenhauser said. That can mean talking about how adults lose it, too, for example, at town council and school board meetings.
"The discussions we’ve had on the way back — some, where adults had behaved very badly, and then there were others who were really noble," she said. "Those have been the joys. Being a part of seeing their character grow and develop."
Her son is at a military college. Her daughter, 15, is a sophomore still learning at home.
"I want them to think and dream and create and invent," said JulieBeth Lamb of Oakdale, mother of five. As youngsters, chores such as counting socks or stacked dishes became math lessons. Weeding the garden was a science lab. Playing in the back yard doubled as P.E. Kids couldn’t be expelled, but they could be spanked.
Lamb advises those considering home-schooling to organize their lives and set priorities for their time. She registers her home as a private school, which takes filing a simple form. She keeps a log of attendance and subjects covered. There are no requirements for expertise, curriculum or minimum hours.
A small movement within home schooling takes full advantage of those freedoms. "Unschooling" families read good books, travel and explore where interests lead, ignoring traditional grades and ages for reading or times tables.
More home-schoolers, however, pick from among a wide array of home-school curriculums and plug away in a planned progression.
Watching her children play at a home-school soccer game, Allison Rodgers said she home-schools through a "cover school," a private school of any size that handles the legal filings. She said she pays to have extras such as field trips, science fairs and classes with a tutor.
"I teach my kids what I feel is important, not what the government says is important," Rodgers said.
At the same soccer game, Betsy Cypress said private schooling allows her to teach her children a Biblical worldview, seeing subjects through a Christian lens that does not include talking about the contributions of gays in history, a public school law that Cypress said reaffirmed her decision to home-school.
Nationally, eight in 10 say they chose to home-school because they wanted religious instruction for their children. Christian curriculum covers the same topics as public schools, including human evolution. But where an AP biology class counts it as foundational knowledge, faith-tailored texts typically present it as an alternative, widely-discredited theory.
Another mom cheering on soccer players, Annie Lasiter, chose to home-school through a public charter, with its secular texts and tests.
She likes keeping her kids close. "We’re always together. I know where they are, what they’re doing," Lasiter said.
Grandparent Betty Craig had much the same observation. Of her 17 grandchildren, 11 are home-schooled.
"The nice thing about having home-schooled children in your life is you can talk to them," Craig said.