Frustrated with a school's approach to her son's learning disability, Whitney Turner wanted better. She withdrew her children from Howard County public schools and began teaching at home.
"I was astounded at how superior home schooling is to public school," said Turner, who home-schools three children ages 6, 13 and 17. "The children get back this love of learning that all children had when they were 3 or 4 years old."
Home schooling, once considered by some to be a fringe practice, is a rapidly growing trend that attracts parents for a variety of educational, religious and personal reasons.
Across Maryland, home schooling grew exponentially in the 1990s, first among certain religious groups but later among a broader segment of the population, according to home-schooling advocates.
Growth has slowed somewhat but still remains high. The number of students in home instruction has more than doubled in Howard since 2000. Now, about 1,425 county students are being taught at home, or almost 3 percent of the school-age population, according to county statistics.
Although home schooling has become more common, many people harbor misconceptions, proponents say. "We're sort of portrayed as being in the fringe, as religious fanatics or odd," said Turner, a Columbia resident. "When people hear [that] you home-school, they put a wall down. They say, 'I could never do that,' and that's the end of the conversation."
According to parents who home-school, it is a lot easier to do than people think. First, throw out the notion of large classrooms or of needing a degree to teach, they say. "You have to throw out the paradigm we have embraced for education, that it involves 25 children and a teacher at a chalkboard for six hours a day," Turner said.
Home-school programs are as different as the families that use them. Some say they teach from 45 minutes a day to six hours, depending on the age, child and curriculum. Some teach year-round with breaks as needed, while others follow a traditional school calendar. They may combine one-on-one instruction with independent work, using worksheets and computer programs.
Many companies manufacture curricula for home-schoolers that amount to "a school in a box," they say. Some parents opt for one company's curricula, but others mix and match curricula or assemble their own from books.
Home-schooling curricula make teaching easy. "It's not really rocket science," said Monica Dombrowski, an electrical engineer who home-schools two children in Columbia. "They tell you everything to say and do."
Turner uses a mix of teaching materials for her children. For her middle child, who has dyslexia, she began by focusing on handwriting. First, she had him copy words and sentences, then switched to using grade-level grammar workbooks. He flourished, she said. "The key was there was no one making fun of him," as had occurred in public school.
After 2 1/2 years of home schooling, she said, he has made great gains. "I would predict [that] when he goes to college, no one will even know he's dyslexic."
She gave her oldest son the choice of staying in public school or being home-schooled. He chose home schooling and plans to attend Howard Community College next fall. Her youngest, at 6, has never been to a public school.
Turner is not alone in choosing home schooling because a public or private school was not meeting a child's academic or social needs.
Manfred Smith, who founded the Maryland Home Education Association in 1980, said today's home-schoolers "are trying to meet the needs of their specific children."
They may have bright children who are not being challenged in school, or children with learning or social disabilities who are languishing, he said. "Some parents say, 'My child is being ground up in school through violence or bullying.'"
Many families continue to home-school for religious reasons, but that stopped being the main reason about a decade ago, said Smith, of Columbia.
Statewide, the number of home-schooled students increased ninefold, from 2,296 in the 1990-1991 school year, to 20,676 in 2002-2003, said Bill Reinhard, a state Education Department spokesman.
"Home schooling is now for everyone," said Smith, a teacher whose wife home-schooled their three children, now adults.
Jim Chandler opted for home schooling after being dissatisfied with public and private schools. His older children, now adults, attended Prince George's County schools before switching to private school. "We spent a lot of money and weren't that happy with the results," he said of private education.
He decided to leave his information technology job to home-school his youngest children, 6-year-old twin boys. When the family moved to Highland last fall, the Chandlers visited the local Howard County public school but decided to continue home schooling. The school seemed "very rigid," he said. "We would like to have a little more control over the learning experience."
Monica Dombrowski's children enjoyed and excelled at a private Christian school, she said. But she, too, wanted to individualize their education. She opted for home schooling so she could provide one-to-one instruction using a Bible-based curriculum.
"Academically, it serves my children better," said Dombrowski of home-schooling her children, ages 10 and 8. Her daughter works independently on some assignments and sometimes chooses to rise as early as 5:30 a.m. to begin her school day, she said.
Home schooling, along with charter schools, is siphoning students from private schools, said one private school official.
"For many families, when they look at the dollars involved, they consider home schooling," said Mary Anne Carlson, marketing and public relations director at the Young School in Columbia. "All of this is about parents exerting an influence about how they want their children to be educated."
Maryland offers many options for home-schoolers. Children are not required to take tests or use a specific curriculum. Parents must provide instruction in the subjects taught in public school to children of the same age, but they may use any teaching materials they choose.
Instruction must be supervised, but parents have several options. They can undergo a biannual or annual review by the local public school system of their teaching materials and work samples.
Howard County reviews 300 families a year, said Maura Hudson, a county pupil personnel worker assistant. About 98 percent of those families receive satisfactory reviews, she said. A parent who provides no proof of instruction may be asked to return in 30 days with books or work samples, she said.
Parents also can be supervised by a nonpublic school or an education ministry sponsored by a religious organization. Those groups are responsible for reviewing their members to make sure children are receiving instruction. The county does not oversee those groups.
Parents say they often are asked whether their home-schooled children get enough interaction with peers. Lisa Dean, a founder of the Columbia Homeschool Community, says jokingly that home-schoolers do have a socialization problem: There's too much of it.
CHC is a cooperative of 70 families that provides activities common to schools. It sponsors classes, field trips, spring musicals, parties, field days, sports clinics and science shows to supplement what its members are teaching at home, she said. "We don't attempt to teach academic subjects. We try to enrich what you do at home," Dean said.
During a recent week, her children, ages 8 and 10, took part in home-school Scouting; attended field trips to Port Discovery children's museum in Baltimore and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; exercised during an open-gym time at Gymnastics Plus in Columbia; and took a hip-hop dance class for home-schoolers, she said. CHC has a waiting list of potential members.
Dean, who used to work as an attorney, said she finds the home-schooling experience enjoyable. "Home schooling is as much an educational choice as it is a lifestyle choice," she said.