SHIFT FROM CLASSROOMS BRINGS LEARNING CLOSER TO HOME.
SANTA CLARITA - Behind the closed garage door of a Canyon Country home on a recent Wednesday morning, a group of grade schoolers prepared to experiment.
They needed just a few items: a blowtorch and corn starch.
Vicki White, the ``Science Lady,'' blew the starch into the air as 11- year-old Zack Leighton released the fire.
``Ahhh,'' the crowd of grade-schoolers marveled at the chemical reaction during that day's chemistry lesson.
This group of home-schooled children gather in this garage and others like it once a month for a chemistry lesson from the ``Science Lady.''
They are handful of Santa Clarita children registered with the Los Angeles County Board of Education as home-schoolers, though it's difficult to keep track of their numbers because state restrictions only recognize private schools of six or more children.
Nationwide, the number of home-schooled children has increased from 12,000 to 2 million children during the past 20 years, officials said.
``It's really an incredible change,'' said Brian D. Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute. ``It's the fastest growing alternative education in America.''
But traditional educators and others question some parents' motives and accountability and the quality of education these children are receiving.
A LONG HISTORY
Home-schooling has existed throughout history, beginning with parents reading the Bible to their children to royal families hiring tutors. The number of institutional classrooms didn't start to increase until around the 1900s, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.
The concept of home education became smaller and smaller until the late 1970s when John Hope, a public educator, became negative about the classroom experience and began advocating home schools.
His word sparked the interest of many, once again making that form of education popular. It's continued to grow since, especially as the nation faces a surge in school violence coupled with decreasing family values.
``Home-schooling is the revival of the initial kind of education that occurred in early America,'' said Mike Smith, president of the National Center for Home School Education. ``Most of the education took place in small, private schools and there was very little public funding. Most of the education took place at home and the wealthy hired tutors or taught their own children.''
Until 1993, it was illegal in some states to teach a child at home unless a parent was a certified teacher.
Smith, who also is president of the National Center Home School Legal Defense Association, said he has been defending parents who want to home-school their children since the mid-80s.
While it's legal today, there are still issues of how much authority the state has over home-schoolers. The National Center for Home Education monitors legislation about home-schooling while offering educational seminars about the topic.
The reasons to home-school include school violence, religious beliefs, peer pressures and family values. Some said they wanted to spend more time with family while others said they became uncomfortable with traditional schools after the Columbine High School slayings. That incident alone caused home-schoolers to increase by 15 percent.
Sally Angel, director of the Alternative Schools of California and former Newhall School District teacher, began teaching her children at home after teaching a little girl who had previously been home-schooled.
``That just opened my mind to different options here,'' she said. ``At the same time, my seventh-grader came to me saying he hated school and so we decided to home-school.''
Angel taught her son through high school, she said. When he turned 16, he started classes at College of the Canyons, which prepared him for college.
Susan Graham, director of education at Smarter Kids, which generates material for home educators, said studies have shown that children are easily distracted and aren't adequately challenged in larger classes.
Most studies have shown that home-schooled kids excel in small groups, she said. They also are active in extracurricular activities, such as sports and reading groups. Because they aren't in a constant social situation throughout the day, they also learn to become more assertive and self-reliant, Graham said.
``What I've always found really neat about home-schoolers is how very well-versed they are in education,'' she said. ``They really have taken an active role to find out what are the best practices and find out what's going on out there and get involved as parents.''
A FAMILY CHOICE
Home-school teachers will be the first to say that it's not an option for everyone. It's an individual choice that takes a serious commitment and time.
Parents become a child's primary educator from the time they are born, they said. From there, it is about learning more, and if a parent needs help, there are experts available.
But there isn't a lot of regulation at home schools, Graham said. Traditional educators are concerned about uninformed parents teaching a child incorrect information, children learning in an uncontrolled environment and receiving a narrow view of education and subject matter.
There are also lack of instructional materials, more out-of-pocket expenses, and if a child has special needs, there isn't a guidance counselor around to help, Graham said.
Robert Lee, superintendent of the William S. Hart Union High School District, said while home-schooling is a viable resource in many homes, educators wonder whether these children have a strong foundation to head into life and handle education, social situations, self-esteem, success and failures.
``In the overview of home-schooling, especially from sixth grade on, is the socialization necessity,'' Lee said. ``It's extremely valuable though it doesn't necessarily have a yardstick to measure it.''
The school district is currently discussing whether to start a program that would offer services to home-schooling parents to help them become better teachers, with special attention to the high school curriculum.
``Personally, my hat goes off to them,'' he said. ``It's a challenge to keep the balance of the family to bringing the education arena into the home.''
Lisa Fillmore, who hosted the chemistry class in her garage, started home-schooling her daughter so the family could spend more time together.
Her child not only has time to explore subjects that interest her, but time to pursue other interests, such as dance, because she doesn't spend three hours a night working on homework.
``Most importantly, home-schooling equals more time spent with family,'' Fillmore said. ``I have more time to teach and model our own personal family values. I have more time for intimate contact with my child. I have more time to talk with my child about anything.''
(1 -- 2 -- color) Eileen Elliott, above, who home-schools her sons, works with Ben, 10, while twins Chaz and Carter, 4, wait their turn. At left, Joshua Kimmis, left, and Ben Elliott don special glasses for their weekly science class.
(3) A science experiment in their home classroom results in a sour concoction that is sampled by, from left, Ben, Chaz, Carter and their mom, Eileen Elliott.
(4 -- 6) Zach Leighton holds a propane torch, above, while teacher Vicki White blows corn starch into it during a science experiment. At left, Frank Hoffman leads home-schooled children on a nature walk. Below, science teacher Vicki White conducts an experiment on the front lawn of one of her students' homes.
David R. Crane/Staff Photographer