Byline: MARY MARAGHY
When Caleb Powell came to the breakfast table with a question about a bug, he and his mother, still in pajamas, spent the next several hours researching the insect.
This is a joy of home schooling, said Penny Powell of Eagle Harbor, who home-schooled her only son for second and third grades.
"That question led to a lesson. I could teach to his style and follow his interests. My mission was to keep him excited about learning," she said. "Here I have this gift of a child. It didn't feel natural at that time to send him off for six hours."
Many Clay parents said home schooling lets children escape a hectic world and learn at home, at their own pace, using their learning style without distractions, crowded classrooms, peer pressure or negative influences. Many said they chose it for religious reasons and for more bonding time with their children.
"Our world is so fast-paced now. God and family have taken a back seat," said Rhonda Biroschik, a Middleburg mother of five, who is home-schooling her middle sons. "I want to make sure they appreciate God and family."
Home schooling in Clay County, though difficult to quantify precisely, is a growing trend, said Vanessa Albright, president of Clay Home Schoolers, a non-profit support group that was created in 1996 and has grown from a few families to 72.
Albright said she chose to home-school her children because private school was too expensive. But now she does it to protect her children from negative influences.
"Rather than them being influenced, home schooling gives them a good foundation so they can influence the world, stand up for who they are and what they believe in, and not vice versa," Albright said.
It's impossible to get an accurate number, said Princess Evans of Argyle, a leader of Home Educational Resources and Information, or HERI, a volunteer support organization for North Florida home-schooled children. Evans estimates that about 1,400 students in Clay County are being home-schooled, which means taught at home by a parent, an educational option with minimal requirements that became available 20 years ago in Florida.
Home-schooling parents must register with their local public school district, or with select private schools across the country, not necessarily in their home state. Many choose the latter, Evans said, because the private school's administration often will maintain a transcript for the child. Most parents would rather not bother with that paperwork, she said. For this reason, it's not possible to know exactly how many families are home-schooling, she and Albright said.
To become a home-schooling parent requires no education or experience and the parent selects his own curriculum, teaching methods and hours for instruction.
There are 690 home-schooled students registered with the Clay County public school system for the 2005-06 school year. Last year, there were 694.
"It's been pretty steady. They come and go a lot," said Norma Martin, director of student services, whose department is charged with monitoring home-schoolers but receives no state funding to do so. "We've always supported parents who want to do it. It's been a very good thing for some students. For some students, that one-on-one attention is ideal."
School districts are funded based on the number of students enrolled -- about $3,667 per pupil, Martin said. About 2 percent of the county's school-age population is home-schooled, which is not a significant loss of funds, she said.
George Copeland, the school district's assistant superintendent for business affairs, said home schooling actually saves money for the growing district, which has no shortage of students.
"It's a pro and con thing. In the long run, we'd rather have the kids. With the funding they would bring, we could be a great educational resource for them. …