BLOOMINGTON - Libby Nelson was curled up on the living room couch, her nose buried in an American history textbook.
She was learning about Manifest Destiny, how the fledgling United States of America grew by annexing territory.
"History isn't one of my favorite subjects," said Libby, who is 15. Her teacher, Shelly Nelson, who's also her mother, is aware of that and hovered nearby to check Libby's progress.
As a home-schooled student, Libby is part of a growing trend across the United States and Central Illinois. The number of home-schooled students in the United States ranges from 1.7 million to 2.4 million, based on estimates by the Home School Legal Defense Association and the National Home Education Research Institute.
Both organizations agree the number of students being home schooled is growing from 5 percent to 15 percent a year.
Ian Slatter, director of media relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association, said while home schooling has been around since the Founding Fathers, it started growing in the 1960s with the counterculture generation.
The movement became dominated by evangelical Christians in the 1970s and really took off in the 1980s, Slatter said. Today, two-thirds of families who home school identify themselves as Christian, he said.
When the HSLDA was founded in 1983, only five states recognized home schooling. By 1993, all 50 states did, Slatter said.
There are two main reasons driving the increased interest and participation in home schooling, Slatter said
- What he termed the "negative socialization in public schools," including concerns about crime and drugs.
- The ability to teach from a religious perspective.
Other reasons include concerns over the educational quality found in public schools and a desire to have more family time.
Whatever the reasons, Brian Ray, president of the Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute, said home schooling works.
Home-schooled children, though not required to take standardized tests, score well when they do, he said. He also thinks home-schooled children are better socialized than public school children. "When you think about it, they should be. Their parents are paying attention to them," he said.
Not without its critics
But not everyone is an unabashed fan of home schooling.
Barry Reilly, assistant superintendent of human resources for Bloomington's District 87 whose three children go to public school, said the quality of home schooling "comes down to the quality of instruction and curriculum as well as the dedication of the kids."
Referring to public schools, he said, "I can't imagine them getting a better experience anywhere else."
He added, "They get a richer experience when around other kids, a setting you can't duplicate in a home school."
Alan Chapman, superintendent of Normal-based Unit 5, said parents' decision to home school doesn't necessarily reflect negatively on Twin City public schools.
"We think we have a program that provides great opportunity for students," said Chapman, who like Reilly is proud of the diversity public schools offer.
"Learning to get along with others and becoming stronger through diversity is one of the big advantages of a public-school environment," Chapman said.
Interaction with other students also is emphasized by the National Education Association, which represents the public school system.
"We believe all children should have access to great public education and the possibility of interacting with students of different backgrounds and cultures," said NEA President Reg Weaver, a former teacher, who is bothered by the lack of standards for home schools.
Tracking home schools
In Illinois, home schools are considered private schools and have few regulations. The Illinois State Board of Education, in fact, has no count on the number of children being home schooled in Illinois.
Ray's organization estimates it's 80,000 to 105,000.
Phil Rixstine, of Washington and president of the Association of Peoria Area Christian Home Educators (APACHE), agreed with that number. The annual convention APACHE holds at the Peoria Civic Center draws about 1,300 people, said Rixstine, whose family home schools three children.
McLean County trend
Evidence indicates home schooling is growing in McLean County, too.
Sherrie Magee, coordinator of the Bloomington-Normal Enrichment Group, formed to enrich children's home school experience, said the group began with four or five families in 1987. There are 10 times that number today and a short waiting list, she said.
Shelly Nelson, who started a private e-mail network for parents who home school, estimates there are close to 200 families home schooling within a 45-minute radius of Bloomington-Normal.
Magee, who home schools four children, said it's a huge commitment and acknowledged, "It's not for everybody."
But it is for the Nelsons, who also teach 17-year-old Alex at home. He finds the experience relaxing and stimulating.
"You're not constantly moving from class to class," said Alex, who began his home schooling halfway through the seventh grade. Libby began in sixth grade.
But it's not always easy at the Nelson home school.
Alex, for example, has been studying Greek, physics and British literature. Though standardized testing isn't required, Shelly Nelson has used it.
"Both tested above their grade level," she said.
Nelson probably isn't the typical home-school teacher because she's a certified teacher. Neither she nor her husband, Mark, has anything against public education.
"It's not broken, but it's not individualized either," said Mark Nelson, a supervisor in the auditing department at State Farm Insurance Cos.
For his family, he thinks home schooling has worked well. "Our son is reading things I didn't read until college," he said.
That accomplishment, however, hasn't come without sacrifice. For one thing, Shelly Nelson hasn't worked outside the home because of her teaching duties.
"You make choices," she said. "We drive old cars and wear used clothing. We don't have cable and have used furniture."
Home-school rules in Illinois
- Compulsory ages between 7 and 17
- No teacher qualification
- No notice, recordkeeping or testing required
- Attendance is generally 176 days a year but is not mandated for private or home schools
- Subjects required are language arts, biological and physical science, math, social sciences, fine arts, health and physical development
- Home schools are considered private schools
SOURCE: Home School Legal Defense Association
Compiled by Bob Holliday
Here's some advice from Twin City area parents about how to get started home schooling your children:
- Use online resources and talk to other parents who home school.
- Seek resources in the community that work with home-school parents.
- Establish a curriculum from the resources available.
- Review state law. While some states have tough laws, Illinois mainly requires the lessons be taught in English, and that they are the same core subjects as required by public schools.
- Get connected by attending home-school conferences and meetings.
- Mark your calendar with dates of museum, library, zoo or 4-H programs that might fit into lesson plans.
For information on home schooling, the following Web sites might be helpful:
www.hslda.org: The Home School Legal Defense Association, a legal group that represents and advocates for home schooling
www.cahsa.info: Crossroads Area Home School Association
www.chec.cc: Christian Home Educators Coalition
www.apachecentralillinois.org: Association of Peoria Area Christian Home Educators
www.bneg.org: Bloomington-Normal Enrichment Group; the site includes a local event calendar and links to other home-school sites
Christian Home Educators
SOURCES: Home-schooling parents Teresa Fulling of Bloomington and Karley Houchin of Mackinaw
Compiled by Phyllis Coulter and Bob Holliday