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Homespun Three R’s Win Foothold in Greater Number of Families

Times Staff Writer

Eight-year-old Lorien Evans doesn’t go to school. She wakes up there.

Lorien, who lives in Eagle Rock, is one of a growing number of children who are being educated at home for reasons that range from their parents’ conviction that the Bible mandates it to dissatisfaction with public education.

No bells ring in Lorien’s school. No principal’s voice booms over the public address system. There are no exams, no grades, no competition for the teacher’s attention, no schoolyard pals--or bullies.

Lorien’s teacher is her mother, Linda Evans, a former school librarian who devotes several hours a day to teaching Lorien and her siblings, Sarah, 5, and Andy, 3. While children in conventional schools are wriggling in their seats, Lorien curls up in the living-room rocking chair to read the library books that are her textbooks.

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Nobody knows exactly how many children are being taught at home. A U.S. Department of Education spokesman recently estimated that 250,000 children attend home schools nationwide, double the number of three years ago. Proponents of home schooling put the figure as high as 1 million.

Fred Fernandez, a consultant on private schools to the California Office of Education, estimated the number of California home schools at 1,800. In the Los Angeles area, hundreds of children study long division at kitchen tables, pledge allegiance to dining-room American flags and call the teacher “Mom.”

Home schooling is permitted in all 50 states. California law does not speak directly to the issue (much to the chagrin of critics of home schooling), but it does allow parents who wish to teach their children at home to do so if they file an affidavit with the state declaring their homes to be private schools.

Oversight of California’s vague private school statute is left to local school districts. The law requires, for example, that private-school students must be taught the subjects taught in public school. The law also requires that private-school teachers, including home schoolers, be capable of teaching, although it doesn’t specify who should make that judgment.

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Not surprisingly, officials in the 1,100 school districts in California vary in their views of the desirability and legality of home schooling and, thus, in their tolerance of home schools. The educational Establishment voices many concerns about home learning, ranging from questions about the quality of education most parents can provide to fears that children educated apart from their peers may suffer socially or psychologically. Home schoolers insist that those fears are largely groundless.

Lorien’s school, which has never been visited by an education official, is called the Questing House.

Unlike Lorien, the younger children are not yet legally required to be in school. But as Linda Evans said, “We don’t send the younger ones into the other room, so they all pick up on it.” As a result, Sarah already outshines her older sister in math, a situation that might be harder for Lorien to bear if she were not such a gifted artist.

Although Linda carries most of the family’s pedagogical burden, her husband, Steve, an insurance agent, also teaches. Steve, whose office is nearby, reads to the children when he comes home for lunch each day and again at night. He leads them through math games and has taught them a smattering of Spanish and Swedish. And Steve was the one who helped Lorien bind last year’s schoolwork into a handsome volume titled “Lorien’s Frist Grade Workbook,” lovingly preserving her almost correct spelling of first.

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Like many other home schoolers--as many as 80% by some estimates--the Evanses are devout fundamentalist Christians. Home schooling allows them greater control over the values their children absorb with their phonics and other academic lessons. But Steve Evans said their reasons for opting for home schooling are as much secular as religious. Indeed, the burgeoning home education movement has created strange bedfellows--a large number who want to turn their homes into God’s classrooms and a secular minority who read the reformist work of educators such as John Holt and Ivan Illich and decided that the best school is no school at all.

The Evanses are a little of each.

Advocates of “de-schooling,” the Evanses try to make learning part of the natural flow of their family day, a day imbued with their belief in God.

In the Evanses’ view, making a batch of blueberry muffins is a better lesson in reading and measuring than any classroom exercise. “The more homelike we make our schooling, the more successful it is,” Steve Evans said. “As soon as we make it class-like, it becomes less successful.”

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‘An Impossible Situation’

The Evanses believe that they can do a better job than the public and most private schools. “We’re very impressed with the quality of some of the teachers we’ve seen, but they’re up against an impossible situation,” Steve Evans said.

From her school librarian days Linda Evans recalled how frequently even good teachers were overwhelmed by the demands of teaching 30 children at once. “The odds were against the individual child because the teacher was always tied up with the bright kids or the slow kids,” she said.

The Evanses spend about $50 a year for an elementary-school curriculum devised by the Oak Meadow School, a private school in Ojai whose home-study curriculum is used by about 3,000 children nationwide. The Evanses do not hesitate to modify the curriculum as they see fit. Paper is their biggest school expense.

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The Evanses said they would consider sending the children to a conventional school if the youngsters wanted it. But so far the Questing House is just fine with Lorien. “I have more time to play,” she said as she dashed into her bedroom for her latest arts-and-crafts project, a house for her teddy bear.

Katherine Duffus of Pasadena decided to teach daughter Jacklyn, now 12, at home when she realized that the youngster had a serious reading problem. Jacklyn attended second and third grade at the Waldorf School, now in Altadena, a private school in which Duffus knew Jacklyn would be able to learn at her own pace. Even there, Duffus said, “my daughter was very aware that other children were reading well. That made her feel real dumb, even though she’s plenty gifted.”

Duffus kept Jacklyn home for fourth and most of fifth grade. Duffus, a practicing Christian, explained, “I wanted to pass on my belief system and just wanted to spend that time with her.”

She also wanted to help Jacklyn learn to read. They spent hours together poring over the “Little House on the Prairie” books that Jacklyn loved, Jacklyn painstakingly sounding out the words using what she had learned about phonics, her mother there to help her when she faltered.

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Jacklyn is now a sixth grader at San Gabriel Christian School. “She’s reading fine,” her mother and former teacher said proudly. “She’s earning straight As. I think she’ll go on and do whatever she wants to do.”

Gayle Guzman, who lives in Long Beach, became a home schooler out of dissatisfaction with the public school experience of her now-grown son, an underachiever who could not find his educational niche.

“I could never communicate with the teachers,” she said. “There always seemed to be an us-and-them feeling. If you wanted any changes made, you were more or less told to go to a private school.”

Impressed by the philosophy of the late home-schooling guru John Holt, Guzman decided to teach her younger child, Lily, now 11, at home. A secular home schooler, Guzman said that it appealed to her counterculture side. “I’d say I’m a question-authority type of person,” she said. She noted, with a laugh, that she has gone through a vegetarian phase and that Lily was delivered at home by a chiropractor.

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Lily stayed home for fourth and fifth grade. “She was happy to be out of school, but she wanted to be sure she was up with everybody else,” said Guzman, who administered standardized achievement tests to her daughter largely to reassure her that she was not falling behind.

This fall, Lily started sixth grade at a public magnet school in Long Beach. Ironically, one reason Guzman, a single parent, abandoned home schooling is because she became a full-time public school teacher.

“I originally wanted to get credentialed so I could teach her,” Guzman said. Being in the classroom has given her enormous insight into the problems that public school teachers face, Guzman said. But it has not changed her mind about the legitimacy of home schooling and other forms of alternative education. “I feel that people who want to do it should be able to,” she said.

No Official Problems

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Some home schoolers encounter no problems with education officials.

Elizabeth Hamill, who runs Gardensong School for her two young sons, lives in Berkeley.

Gardensong’s curriculum is a far cry from most schools’. On a recent morning the children worked alongside their mother at a soup kitchen for the homeless. Seven-year-old Harrison’s math lesson consisted of counting the number of people who wanted to take showers and dividing that number into the amount of time available for showers. He was responsible for telling those taking showers when their time was up.

The Berkeley Unified School District sent a representative to the Hamills’ house shortly after they filed their private-school affidavit. He verified that Elizabeth, who majored in neurobiology in college, was keeping attendance records (she marks the children present seven days a week), teaching in English and meeting the other requirements of the law. The district has not contacted the family since.

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Not every parent teaching at home finds the authorities so amenable.

In Lancaster recently, the district attorney pressed charges of violating the state education code against a Palmdale couple, Gary and Mary Clevenger, who took their children, Kay, now 7, and Tony, 8, out of their local public school, filed a private-school affidavit with Sacramento and began teaching them at home. Mary Clevenger said the family, which is Christian, did not do so for religious reasons but because she and her husband were unhappy with the local school.

The complaint was filed by the superintendent of the Eastside Union School District, Jack E. Killian, who believes that the Clevengers failed to establish a legal home school. He advised them to modify their home program or to hire a state-credentialed tutor.

To help avoid or successfully negotiate such legal battles, about 7,000 home school families nationwide have joined the 5-year-old Home School Legal Defense Assn., based in Great Falls, Va.

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For a $100 annual fee, member families are advised on the legal ramifications of home schooling in their states. More important, should members encounter legal difficulties, the association will, as co-founder J. Michael Smith said, “become their attorney for home school problems.” The Clevengers are members, for example, and the association has provided them with an attorney at no charge.

Fundamentalist Christians

Most, but not all of the association’s members are fundamentalist Christians. When defending secular members, Smith said, the group’s lawyers usually opt for a 14th Amendment or privacy defense, rather than their usual First Amendment, religious freedom defense.

Smith, who recently moved to the Washington area from Santa Monica, is among those who believe that home schooling is a scriptural obligation for Christians like himself.

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Smith said his group has become involved in about 370 “hostile contacts” between home schoolers and education officials in the last year. In recent years, he noted, a growing number of states have passed legislation that explicitly allows home schooling.

“Every state is going to have to resolve this one way or the other, so there is an objective standard and people know where they stand,” Smith said.

When John Boston of Escondido in San Diego County decided almost a decade ago to teach his son, Sean, at home, the local school district advised him to fill out a private-school affidavit. “I call that cooperation,” Boston said. A former teacher who dropped out to raise avocados, Boston assumed most of the responsibility for overseeing Sean’s education, in part because his wife worked outside their home.

Boston, who has taught everything from kindergarten to Juvenile Court school classes, has a teaching credential. But Boston said that formal training in education is rarely necessary for successful home schooling.

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Eighteen-year-old Sean is now a student at Palomar Community College, his father reported. Boston never had Sean tested for academic achievement once he left school, although Sean had himself tested at 14. As Boston explained, “He was considering high school because that’s where all the girls were.”

Open to Other Families

Because Boston “wanted to give other parents the same kind of freedom I had,” he opened his home school to other parents who want to educate their children themselves. For $65 for the first year, $45 for subsequent years, parents can become official volunteer teachers in Boston’s School of Home Learning. In the four years the non-traditional educational enterprise has existed, about 155 families in California and seven other states have signed up.

Boston, who started his home school for philosophical and practical reasons, not reasons of faith, does not inquire into the motives of his prospective teachers.

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Parents who sign up for Boston’s program can legally teach at home without filing affidavits of their own with the state. Boston also helps them with such chores as transferring school records.

Benji Wei of North Hollywood is one of the School of Home Learning’s 250 students. Benji, 11, was in a gifted magnet school in the San Fernando Valley before he began studying at home with his mother, Ann Wei. Theirs is not a Christian home school. “I’m Buddhist,” Wei said.

Wei said she decided to teach Benji at home because he was bored with school. Moreover, Wei said, the school had not been understanding about Benji’s missing classes when he worked as an actor on such television series as “Webster” and “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” despite the presence of a credentialed teacher on the set.

Benji is now in sixth grade, following a curriculum from a Hawaii-based organization called Learning at Home. His mother, who knows no other home schoolers personally, freely modifies his lessons and encourages him to pursue his own passions. Benji is expected to do schoolwork at least three hours a day, usually in the morning. What he does not do during the day becomes homework at night, Wei said.

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Benji, who sometimes joins his mother in her children’s store, Reruns for Wee Ones, is thriving, Wei said.

Benji’s one complaint, Wei said, is that home schooling is “too easy.”

Opponents of the movement worry that home-schooled youngsters may be shortchanged academically. They also express concern that home schools have enormous potential to isolate children and prevent them from interacting normally with their peers.

Home schoolers respond by pointing out that the method has worked successfully for decades in Alaska. They also point to such home-schooled success stories as Grant and Drew Colfax, who were taught at home on a Boonville, Calif., ranch and recently went on to do well at Harvard.

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