WASHINGTON —When Helen and Mark Helm started home schooling their son Greg, the first of their four children, home schooling was barely a blip on the screen of cultural awareness. “We worried that a social worker might show up and take our kids away,” she recalled.

That was 11 years ago. Now, with the likes of William Bennett, Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler and popular radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger singing its praises, “Things are different,” said Helm.

She lives on Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. “These days, many kids around here are home schooled and you see them out and around during regular school hours. When you mention home schooling, more people admire you instead of shaking their heads as if you were weird or nuts or something.”

Greg, now 15, and his younger siblings can take their books out to the yard and study in the sunshine without fear.

Statistics confirm the Helms’ experience. In 1980, close to 100% of American children attended institutional schools. Within two decades, the number of home schooled children jumped to between 1.2 and 1.6 million (compared to 52.6 million students enrolled in Grades K-12 in 1999).

“If this trend were to continue at a modest 7% annual growth rate,” said Dr. Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institution in Salem, Ore., “about 3 million students would be home educated during the fall of 2010.”

What many believed a passing fad has become an established movement. Ray, who has studied home schooling for 16 years, said he knows why. “Because home schooling works, plain and simple. Year after year, studies have shown that home schooled children perform at a higher academic level than their peers in conventional schools.”

Ray's largest-ever nationwide study of home education showed home schoolers score, on average, at or above the 80th percentile in all areas on standardized achievement tests. The national average is in the 50th percentile. In other words, the home schoolers out-performed their public-school peers by 30 to 37 percentile points across all subjects.

The Opposing View

But not everyone endorses home schooling. The National Education Association states bluntly on its Web site, “The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience.” However, the NEA declined to discuss the reasons for their position with the Register.

“I'm really not surprised,” said Ray. “What can they say? They're a teachers’ union. I think the evidence that home schooling works is so overwhelming that almost no one will say anything.”Ray added that the most common complaint about home schooling concerns “socialization”—that is, a fear that home schooled children will not be able to interact adequately with their peers and with people of different faiths or races.

Tim and Miki Hill of Woodstock, Md., have home schooled their eight children for 20 years.

The co-presidents of the National Association of Catholic Home Educators dispute the prevailing wisdom regarding socialization. “My argument against the classic school environment is that there is only one period of your life that you're going to be in groups of people all the same age,” said Tim Hill. “It's artificial. In the real world, you have to deal with people young and old and people of different abilities. I think home schoolers get a more real-life experience.

“In most home schooling families, there are several children, so that's an opportunity just within the family to learn the dynamics of getting along with different age groups,” he continued. “Home schoolers are typically involved in community sports—several of our kids play in a band formed of home schooled kids and kids from Catholic and Christian schools. Home schooling families generally have weekly activities with each other — history clubs, and what have you.”

In fact, Ray said, research has shown that 98% of home schoolers are involved in at least two outside-the-home activities, such as Scouts, music, ballet or Bible classes.

A Student's Perspective

Benjamin Smedberg, 22, of Sterling, Va., can discuss the socialization issue from the inside. Home schooled from sixth grade through high school, the graduate of The Catholic University of America is now the musical director of St. Patrick's Church in downtown Washington. “What about those poor public school kids who don't know how to be socialized because the only people they ever deal with are kids their own age?” Smedberg asked.

The eldest of seven children, Smedberg is glad that his parents removed him from public school. “I found it boring,” he admitted. “Everything goes so slowly there. Once they teach something, they teach it again and again and again rather than moving on.” At home, Smedberg and his siblings covered their academic subjects in three to four hours per day. Much reading was accomplished, including the entire Bible, the ancient Greek classics and some five hundred other books he listed on his college application.

Just about the only thing Smedberg regrets about his home schooling years was that he couldn't play soccer. Some local boards of education will not allow home schoolers to participate in high-school sports and the official position of the National Education Association is that “home-schooled students should not participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools.”

In his teen years, while officially home schooling, Smedberg took several science labs and upper-level math courses in calculus at a local community college. His mother, Marian Smedberg, explains that taking community college classes is common among older home schooled kids. “Also, we home schoolers do some things cooperatively,” she added. “For instance, I teach a Latin group for the mothers who can't.”

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Youngstown, Ohio, is a robust supporter of home schooling. In his recent pastoral letter, “Catholic Schools: A Commitment Renewed,” Bishop Tobin stated, “Nor should our strong affirmation of and commitment to Catholic schools be a source of envy or competition for other forms of religious education or other ministries of the Church. Home schooling is a legitimate option for some and it deserves the recognition and support of the Church.”

Una McManus writes from

Columbia, Maryland.

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