No place like home

Thousands of Texans say they can do a better job teaching their children at home. But some local truant officers claim parents are using a massive loophole in Texas law to skip school altogether.

The Meadors embraced homeschooling as a refuge from bad experiences with public and private schools.

"We were on the fast track," says the North Dallas mom, who sent her children first to the neighborhood public school, where she feared for their safety as well as educational standards. After that, she switched to Good Shepherd Episcopal School, where she thought the academic pressures were "unconscionable," and where teachers expected too much learning to take place after school under the supervision of parents who'd already exhausted themselves at work.

"I found that they didn't know much," she says about her boys. "They didn't love learning. Now I'm doing the teaching. You can do so much more one-on-one than you can do in a classroom with just lectures."

On weekdays, the boys study four hours each morning. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are slated for math and English. Tuesdays and Thursdays are for science and social studies.

"I don't follow any prescribed curriculum," says Meador, who has a master's degree in taxation law, as well as an undergraduate degree in accounting with an English minor. "What I think is important is critical and constant reading and constant writing."

Meador works about 1,000 hours a year as a consultant, and if a client calls in the morning, she has her sons log on to their educational computer programs.

Most afternoons, the boys are free to pursue the hobbies they didn't have time for when they went to school. The two brothers recently won a Lego competition, building an eight-foot-wide miniature town. "It's a lesson in fractal geometry," Mom says as the boys show off their Lego handiwork in the garage.

"My favorite part is the pizza parlor," Robby says, pointing to tiny chairs, tables, and ovens.

Dana Meador has begun to use some standardized tests on her boys. "Just to get an idea," she says, adding that her sons have achieved above-grade-level scores. She expects to return the boys to a private institution, "probably St. Mark's" or Jesuit College Preparatory School, by the time they reach the high school level.

But at this critical age--before they're teenagers--she wants them at home close to her. "I'd rather nurture on the front end than the back end," she says, citing a few instances of families dealing with problem children well into their 20s.

The Meadors' foray into homeschooling has not been cheap. Dana Meador estimates she's spent almost as much on homeschooling materials and projects in 14 months as she did on private school tuition--about $20,000. That figure includes some learning experiences that benefited the whole family, such as a recent $5,000 journey to New York City that they wouldn't have been able to fit into their hectic schedule in the past. "The boys had to write reports when they got back," she says.

The Rudermans' educational package includes no such extravagances. Living modestly off the income of Richard, who is an assistant political science professor at the University of North Texas, as well as Chana's part-time earnings, the family manages homeschooling on a budget. (Brian Ray notes in his study that the average homeschooler spends around $500 a year to educate his children.)

Chana Ruderman's teaching techniques are decidedly low-tech. Her daughters don't use a computer for their schoolwork, although their father owns one. "I don't think it really is necessary," she says about the computer.

Chana takes the girls to the library regularly and buys most of their texts at used bookstores. Her shelves are lined with biographies published 40 and 50 years ago, when famous people's sexual proclivities weren't considered part of the story. Ruderman, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Jane Austen, doesn't allow her children to read the hip and popular author Judy Blume.

Ruderman also attends the annual curriculum fairs held for homeschoolers. Hundreds of retailers now market to this population, and business is so good that some larger publishers are jumping in.

Despite her own religion, Chana relies on a few basic texts for homeschoolers that were written by and for Christian fundamentalists. The math books are basic, incorporating many drills, and Mom appreciates that. Chava likes them too. "My mother has already ordered the book," the 8-year-old says enthusiastically about her soon-to-arrive algebra textbook.

Some of the fundamentalists' texts clash with the Rudermans' beliefs. The science book she ordered from a fundamentalist publisher had a little too much "proselytizing" in some sections, she says, so she took a black marker and inked out those paragraphs.

"I saw through," Avigail tells her mother. "And I think I know what some of the words say."

Getting her kids to buckle down and study--the bane of most parents' existence--presents no real problem, Chana says. She has always taught them at home, so they're used to the schedule. "I've always liked being a teacher better than playing with them, so they have learned that this is the way to get attention, and all kids want their parents' attention," she says.

Chana Ruderman more or less stumbled into homeschooling. She had no fundamental objection to public schools; her mother, in fact, was president of the school board in the small Minnesota town where Chana grew up.

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