- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

The young teens are peering into microscopes, examining slides of rat cells when Kelly Jimenez, the adult in the room, suggests they try something else on a slide. A house plant? An apple peel? This science class is small and flexible.

Technically, it is not a class. Mrs. Jimenez, who has a science degree as well as teaching credentials, is leading a club. The half-dozen students, including Mrs. Jimenez’s daughter Belinda, are all home-schooled. Meeting on Mondays at Mrs. Jimenez’s home near Manassas is just one part of a week that is balanced with lessons at home and group activities with other home-schoolers.

“There is so much out there for kids to do, it is mind-boggling,” says Tracy Usatch, a Centreville mom who home-schools her three sons and whose middle son, Taylor, attends Mrs. Jimenez’s science group.

“In fact, sometimes the social stuff gets in the way of academics,” Mrs. Usatch says. “There is always that criticism of ‘Isn’t socialization an issue?’ when you home-school. But I always say, ‘No.’ There is an amazing network out there. It is so easy to socialize.”

As home-schooling has grown in popularity, so has the cooperative spirit among families, says Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. Mr. Ray’s organization estimates that more than 1.5 million American children are home-schooled and that the numbers are growing annually. In the densely populated Washington area, that means opportunities abound to team up for subjects, go on field trips as groups, hold a prom, print a yearbook or play in a band.

“I always liked to call home-schooling ‘home-based’ education,” says Mr. Ray, who also estimates that the average home-schooler is involved in five outside activities. “It is never just Billy tied to his mother’s apron strings. Being with other children has been a key part of home-schooling all along in one way or another. The allegation that home-schoolers are isolated is so far from the truth.”

Katie Deibler, a 13-year-old Chantilly home-schooler, agrees. She says she went to school until third grade but loves the flexibility home-schooling provides. Katie is in Mrs. Jimenez’s science club as well as on a home-school swim team and in a club at her Centreville church.

“I love being home-schooled,” Katie says. “Whenever you are done with your work, you can go play. Most of my friends are home-schooled, so they are available when I am. We have tons of activities. One time, my friend slept over on a Monday night.”

‘More time for perks’

In most states, students are just required to meet standards of learning in the basics, such as math and language arts. Because there are no requirements for electives, families can pick and choose according to their child’s interests, says Sue Ivins, president of the Virginia Home Education Association.

“It is unusual to find a family who doesn’t address their children’s other needs,” Mrs. Ivins says. “Home-schooling absolutely leaves more time for other activities, more time for perks and more time to let them expand a strength or interest.”

Many businesses and community centers are tapping the home-school market, she says.

Traditionally, spots such as ballet studios, art studios and indoor pools were empty between the morning preschool-age classes and the late-afternoon lessons for school-age children. Increasing numbers of home-school classes are being taught during those in-between hours, which is a win-win situation for the children and the business operators, Mrs. Ivins says.

“As our numbers grow, they are finding out we are a lucrative market,” she says. “It works out beautifully for us.”

The Internet also has proved to be a vital, virtual bulletin board for the home-school community. Hundreds of home-school networks communicate by e-mail and Web site postings.

A popular source for Washington-area home-school parents is ShareNet, a biweekly listing service that posts such things as meetings, classified ads, field trips and formation of classes.

ShareNet has more than 1,700 subscribers and lists everything from the casual, such as groups that meet to play in the park, to the very specific, such as teens who want to study together for Advanced Placement exams.

“We have a lot of great groups in the area,” says Susan Smith, a home-schooling mother from South Riding, Va., who co-founded ShareNet six years ago.

“With 1,700 families on our list now, if you are looking to start something, you know you can get 10 people who are interested,” she says. “I think in home-schooling, there is so much out there, you really have to choose to be isolated.”

Parents getting involved

Many home-schooling parents take it upon themselves to form a group around their children’s interests. Shay Seaborne, a Prince William County woman who home-schools her two daughters, started a cultural group in which the children learned geography, history, and foreign language and customs by celebrating holidays such as the Russian New Year or Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

In the past, Ms. Seaborne’s daughters, Laurel and Caitlin Keller, took a dance class. Another student’s mother, unhappy with the offerings nearby, found a professional dancer to teach the class.

“She let them pick the music,” Ms. Seaborne says. “They made the sets and costumes. It was a wonderful experience.”

Laurel, 10, and Caitlin, 13, have since become involved in the Young Peoples Theatre, a home-school drama club with more than 40 members, and have been busy working on a big production. The group’s spring performance, “The Great Ice Cream Scheme,” has its last performance tonight at the Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre in Woodbridge, Va.

Young Peoples Theatre was founded a decade ago by a home-schooling mom. Home-schooling parents and students serve as set designers, makeup artists and costumers for the productions.

“You don’t need school systems to provide you with this,” Ms. Seaborne says.

Mrs. Usatch’s sons are interested in science fiction, so she started a science-fiction club. The teens work on projects, read books and are looking into attending a science-fiction convention together.

Her two teenage sons, Jonathan and Taylor, also are involved in Teens at Play (TAP), a social group founded by a home-schooling mother. That group meets weekly to do what teens want to do most, hang out with their peers.

“TAP was founded because one mom saw that there are not as many home-schoolers who are in high school,” Mrs. Usatch says. “So she wanted her kids to have the opportunity to get together socially. We do simple things, like going to a skateboard park or [a water park] or rock climbing. We had a Halloween party, which was a blast.

“There are some kids who say, ‘I need something to replace what I would have in public school,’” Mrs. Usatch says, “but we can do that without that shark mentality. These kids are actually forming some quality friendships. And the kids are getting to know other adults through these groups and learning to treat them with respect.”

Sometimes groups form out of necessity. A child who wants to play soccer or basketball, for instance, can’t be a team of one.

He or she also can’t petition to play on the local high school team, either. Just 12 states allow home-schoolers to play on their local public school teams. The Maryland House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee last month rejected a bill that would have allowed Maryland home-schoolers to play on school teams.

Virginia and the District also do not allow home-schoolers to play on school teams. Home-schooled students are finding sports opportunities, though, through recreation leagues, Amateur Athletic Union teams, Christian school teams and, more recently, teams made up of other home-schoolers.

Chris Davis, a Linden, Va., father of three home-schoolers, started the Home-school Sports Network five years ago to give home-schoolers more athletic choices. His network, organized primarily via his Web site, organizes teams and tournament sports such as soccer and basketball for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“When I started this in 1997, it was hard to find teams,” Mr. Davis says, “but we are constantly growing now. We recently had a state basketball tournament here in Virginia with 26 teams. We had eight varsity boys teams, four varsity girls teams, a junior varsity division and a middle school division.

“The number one question I get is about football,” he says. Football needs considerably more players, facilities and equipment than soccer or basketball.

“We might do indoor flag football. It’s not the whole thing, but it is OK. We are a cooperative effort. We do what we have to do,” Mr. Davis says.

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