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Our house the schoolhouse

For more than a million children and their Teacher Moms, homeschooling is the ultimate in freedom, flexibility - and responsibility.

Karen White spent the summer doing her homework.

While other parents delved into the latest beach read, White was poring over a hefty catalog of educational products from the Rainbow Resource Center, tabbing book and game titles (Pizza Fraction Fun, Zome Geometry) with orange highlighter.

By mid-August, she'd already filled bookcases in the middle bedroom of her Mount Airy rowhouse with crisp copies of Horizons Math 5, Voyages in English 4, and Spelling Workout Level D - the books she will use this year to homeschool her boys, 11-year-old Anthony and 9-year-old Christopher.

And she'd outfitted a large white binder with attendance calendars, diagrams of the human digestive system, and logs to track every book her sons will read.

"But I'm not checking to see where school uniforms are on sale, or running around trying to find items on a teacher's supply list," White says. "That used to drive me crazy."

In some ways, homeschooling means freedom for more than one million U.S. children and their families, including the 23,000 counted in Pennsylvania in 2004-05. No carpool schedules to coordinate, no emergency-contact forms to fill out. No bullies, no backpacks, no bus rumbling on the corner at 7:20 a.m.

On the other hand, there's the daunting task of being the person in charge of your child's education. When the opening bell sounds at Home Sweet School, a parent's job is just beginning.

Between 1999 and 2003, the number of homeschooled students in the U.S. rose from 850,000 to nearly 1.1 million, a 29 percent increase. Homeschool advocates say it's easy to figure out why: rising dissatisfaction with public schools; a strong parental distaste for the violence, competition and consumerism of "kid culture"; a desire to custom-fit education to a child's needs and a family's values.

Neil McCluskey, an education-policy analyst with the Cato Institute, says that no matter where homeschoolers fall on the political spectrum - from fundamentalists who reject the secularism of public schools to "unschoolers" who believe a child's interests should drive the curriculum - they all seek a school experience that doesn't cleave to institutional demands.

"Homeschooling gives them much more flexibility," he says. And the Internet - with its support groups, links to curriculum resources, and distance-learning options - has made it easier than ever to homeschool.

For their first two years of homeschooling, White's boys were enrolled in the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, which provided a complete curriculum online. This year, White felt confident enough to go it alone and filed the affidavits and lists of educational objectives the state requires.

She bought $500 worth of books (a bit less than the average $563 that U.S. families will spend this year on back-to-school shopping, according to the National Retail Federation). She also planned an end-of-summer family trip to Washington - for the kids, a vacation; for Mom, the stealth launch of a yearlong study of American history and U.S. government.

But lately, the boys' end-of-summer song has sounded remarkably familiar. When White lifts the August page of her wall calendar to glance at September, Christopher yelps in mock horror and runs to his bedroom. Anthony has just one question: "Mom, when can we go to the pool?"

For 10-year-old Abbey Ucci, the school year officially begins when she and her mom, Carol Plum-Ucci, make a pilgrimage to Staples and A.C. Moore to stock up on glue sticks, tape, Sharpie markers, oil paints and brushes.

They'll also buy a few of the spiral notebooks Abbey loves, like the one she and her mother used last year to cowrite a mystery novel titled The House on 26th Street.

When Abbey attended public school in South Jersey, the thought of September gave her stomachaches. "I was the new kid, and we'd just moved here. I was so nervous. I didn't know how the kids were going to treat me."

The answer was: not so well. "I felt like I was in prison," Abbey remembers.

Plum-Ucci opted to homeschool Abbey in the middle of second grade. Since then, they've followed the unschooling model, in which Abbey's interests determine what she learns: the chemistry of a volcano; the legend of the Jersey Devil; how to punctuate quotations when a character in their novel speaks.

Plum-Ucci insists on thrice-weekly doses of math, supplementing a standard textbook with games of Equate (like Scrabble, but with numbers) at the kitchen table. Once a week, they study history and science with members of a homeschool co-op.

This summer, Plum-Ucci, a novelist, made lists of books the two can read at the start of each homeschool day. She'd like to begin with A Little Princess, though Abbey is leaning toward The Swiss Family Robinson. Typically, they nestle at opposite ends of the family-room couch, taking turns reading aloud.

"For us, the first day of school is a celebration," Plum-Ucci says. "It feels great to be home, in the place where we feel safe, where you can think your own thoughts. When we start that book, whatever it is, there will be a feeling of elation."

Even for avid unschoolers like Plum-Ucci and her daughter, the calendar exerts an irresistible pull: They'll begin in September, homeschool Monday through Friday, and end sometime in June.

Although son Daniel, 18, completed his 12th-grade course work in June, Debra Leigh Scott is still doing her homework. She has yet to file his portfolio and records of his progress with their school district's superintendent.

Scott homeschooled Daniel for nearly three years in elementary school and again starting in 11th grade, when he became frustrated with the rigidity of his conventional high school.

For the last two years, Scott has ridden the wave of her son's intellectual and artistic passions: Japanese film; ancient Persian history; French government; glassblowing. She bought him a MacBook Pro, a camcorder, an electric violin. She stayed up until midnight, discussing string theory. She reviewed his final English project, a book of original poetry.

"One challenge has been keeping my own creative life [as a teacher and writer] going and making sure I wasn't completely consumed by homeschooling." Now that Daniel is finished, except for some final tutoring in calculus and abstract math, "it's opening up my time again."

"The onus is on me now to get all the paperwork in, all the documentation and assessment. He's done."

Or maybe not.

"The other night," Scott recalls, "we were sitting in the backyard, talking about political philosophy and the future of the family. It's been so exciting to see the intellectual light come back in his eyes.

"He's come to think of himself as a sojourner. I think he'll always see me as a partner in that."