No place like home

"What is a suffete?" Chava Ruderman asks. The 8-year-old has come across the curious word in an ancient book she now lugs from the desk in her bedroom to a sewing room next door, where her mother plucks stray pins from the floor.

Chava's mom, Chana Ruderman, an English teacher with a doctoral degree from the University of Chicago, has her hands full today. This weekday morning, she puts her infant to sleep in one room of her Far North Dallas home then prods her 2-year-old to recite the alphabet in the kitchen using flash cards. All the while, she supervises the homeschooling of Chava and younger sister Avigail, age 6, who are studying in their bedroom.

"I don't know what that word means," Chana Ruderman tells her oldest daughter. "Look it up in the dictionary."

A serious, soft-spoken girl in wire-rimmed glasses, Chava is the family perfectionist, her mother says. She always checks to make sure she understands everything in her studies, even "suffete," a nearly obsolete word for a supreme executive magistrate in ancient Carthage in the 100-year-old book The Young Carthaginian, which Chava plows through slowly this morning as part of her antiquities lesson. Her younger sister Avigail, by comparison, is an imp. She has a head of brown curls, a comic sense of urgency in her voice, and a tendency, her mother says, to make "silly mistakes" on her arithmetic.

But both girls get their schooling at home for three and a half hours a morning, six days a week, between mom's laundry loads, baby feedings, and part-time afternoon teaching job at a Jewish private school. Judged on academic performance, the Rudermans make a crackerjack case for the advantages of homeschooling--a fast-growing phenomenon in the state of Texas.

Chana Ruderman sticks to a strict learning regimen, one that nonetheless requires quite a bit of initiative from her girls. At 7:30 a.m. year-round, they wake up and hit the books, adhering to a weekly study plan their mother sets each Sunday night. Chava's densely written text on the Carthaginians reflects the accelerated pace at which the two sisters perform. The Ruderman girls have both tested at better than two grade levels above their age group in English and math. Chava can now handle beginning algebra problems. Avigail, although not always as fastidious about her calculations, has mastered three-digit long division at an age when most public school children still struggle with basic addition and subtraction.

To homeschooling supporters, the Rudermans would represent the best homeschooling has to offer: Children thriving in an accelerated learning environment at home among their siblings, with the added benefits of Mom and Dad's patient instruction, sound moral guidance, and loving discipline. Other homeschooling practitioners take a more political view. They don't want the government interfering in how they raise their children, and they refuse to involve their kids in the amoral atmosphere of public schools.

Yet the Rudermans' story stands in stark contrast to the disturbing tales that truant officers in North Texas are beginning to tell.

In school districts throughout the region, such as Arlington and Jacksonville, near Tyler, truant officers believe that homeschooling now serves as an effective dodge for a small but growing number of parents who simply can't or won't get their kids to school. Since Texas is one of 16 states with virtually no regulations covering homeschooling, these children can escape unnoticed.

In response to the truant officers' claims, homeschooling advocates, who want to keep Texas free of regulation, point to recent national studies sponsored by the movement itself that show their students perform as well as or better than their peers in the public schools.

But in Texas, homeschooling has grown so fast, and its proponents--as well as their allies in the Christian right--have been so steadfast in their objections to government intrusion, no one has even dared to count precisely how many parents educate children in their homes, much less how many of them do so consistently or effectively.

In the absence of laws to guide or assess the education of homeschooled children, a few parents have shown that they can and will get away with just about anything.

The number of children educated at home in Texas has exploded in the last dozen years. Researchers don't have an exact count, but they suspect that at least 100,000 children--compared to about 20,000 in 1987--study under their parents' direction rather than an outside teacher's, ranking the state's homeschooling population the largest in the nation. Some 1.23 million children nationwide now school at home, three times the number 10 years ago, researchers estimate.

In the Arlington Independent School District, which has 56,000 students, 181 have left the system just since September, with their parents informing administrators they intended to homeschool.

Even a member of the state board of education, the agency that oversees the public education system, schools his children at home. And board member Don McLeroy, who doesn't, still supports Texas' unfettered environment for homeschoolers. Any more regulation "would be opening up a big can of worms," he says. "Not everything is perfect, but I still favor letting the family do it."

Texas laws are so loose that if Mom decides to homeschool, she can simply decline to bring Johnny back to school in the fall. She doesn't have to register as a homeschooler, provide the school system with any substantive written plan for the child's curriculum or study regimen, or submit to any home visits by authorities. If a parent withdraws a child from school mid-year to teach him at home, most districts, following the state education board's guidelines, require that the parents provide the school a letter stating that they plan to homeschool.

When the Texas Supreme Court ruled to permit homeschooling in 1994, it did allow that a truant officer who suspects a problem may inquire whether parents have in place a curriculum that includes "math, reading, spelling, grammar, and good citizenship" and whether they are teaching it in a "bona fide manner." But the court specifically stated that the officer cannot require the parents or children to undergo any further assessments such as standardized testing. Despite the vow of Gov. George W. Bush that "no child shall fall between the cracks," the bottom line of Texas homeschooling laws is that compulsory education no longer exists in this state.

Parents' motivations for homeschooling vary. Recent surveys by the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national advocacy group, indicate that about 60 percent of parents educating at home are Baptists, independent charismatics, or fundamentalist Christians. Those homeschoolers are often leery of the sex education and evolutionary science taught in the public schools.

For a number of parents, however, Christian and otherwise, the motive isn't primarily religious or philosophical. It's a question of quality. These parents believe they can teach their children better themselves. They often subscribe to the theories of writers such as Raymond and Dorothy Moore and John Holt. The Moores, who wrote Home Grown Kids: A Practical Handbook for Teaching Your Children at Home (1981) and a follow-up, Home-spun Schools (1982), appeal to conservative Christians. Holt, who in 1977 founded Growing Without Schooling, a bimonthly magazine, has a following among alternative-lifestyle libertarians. Both authors began raising concerns in the 1970s about the ill effects of educating children in institutions. The Moores, for instance, studied children who entered regular schools later and found that they suffered less often from dyslexia, nearsightedness, and hyperactivity.

The theory goes that Mom and Dad are the ones who cultivate genius--not some disinterested first-grade teacher. Woodrow Wilson, author Pearl Buck, and inventor Thomas Edison were all schooled at home. If it was good enough for them, homeschool advocates say, why not our kids?

Chana and her husband, Richard Ruderman, are strictly observant Orthodox Jews who are familiar with the writings of the Moores and Holt. But Chana Ruderman says she doesn't teach at home simply because of her religion or even to accelerate her children's academic performance. She keeps her children at home so she can "enjoy teaching to and learning with them." She also wants to shelter her kids from the "false sophistication" of the outside world. "Forget about the violence and drugs and stuff like that. There is just a sense that serious things don't matter" in today's society, Ruderman says.

Harriet Jones is a 37-year-old Balch Springs resident with an eighth-grade education. (Jones asked that the Dallas Observer identify her family members by their middle names and a fictional last name.) She had neither religious motivations nor lofty ambitions about improving her kids' academic performance when she opted to homeschool. Jones did, like the Rudermans, hope that homeschooling would enable her to keep closer tabs on her two teenagers in a scary world.

"I don't even like them to go down the street unless they tell me first, and then I ask them to call if they are planning on going anywhere else," Jones says of her children, Michelle, 13, and Darnelle, 14.

Last fall, however, after several on-again, off-again homeschooling attempts over a three-year period, Jones gratefully returned her children to public schools. In hindsight, she regards the homeschooling experience as an unqualified disaster. Her daughter is now one grade behind in school. Her son, two. "I had trouble getting them to do their work," she says.

Michelle Jones, a sweet-faced, ponytailed teen, sits with her knees pulled up to her chest and sucks on a lollipop during an hourlong interview at her family's home earlier this month. "Way boring," she says, when asked to describe her homeschooling. Her brother Darnelle, who's had discipline problems since he returned to school, refuses to discuss homeschooling with a reporter.

For the Jones parents, it was easy--and perfectly legal--to pluck their children from public elementary schools in Richardson, where they were living at the time, and install them in an improbable environment for studying even the vaguely defined curriculum required of a Texas home school by the state Supreme Court.

Harriet Jones and her husband are long-haul independent truckers, and money weighed heavily in their decision to begin homeschooling their kids in 1996. The Joneses calculated that if they took their kids on the road, they could earn twice as much income by having both adults share the driving and delivery chores. Around February of that year, they pulled the children out of school. "We said we were homeschooling, and no one asked any more questions," Harriet says.

On the road, Michelle and Darnelle supposedly studied in the back of the truck, using workbooks their mother had bought at educational stores. Sometimes, the highway presented the day's lesson. "Sit in the front and look at the road," Michelle remembers her mom would tell her. Harriet says she thought her kids could learn something--she doesn't specify what--from the scenery on cross-country trips. "But they're kids. It's all the same to them," she says she later realized.

"I damaged my children's education in some ways. It was not their fault," Harriet says. She adds, "It was real easy for me to do."

She was willing to tell her story to a reporter, she says, because she believes the law should be changed so that some authority will question and warn parents about the effort and expertise it takes to homeschool properly.

The Joneses and Rudermans represent two extremes of the homeschooling spectrum. Homeschooling advocates contend that the vast majority of parents provide, like the Rudermans, high-quality education for their children, usually better than what they would receive in public schools.

As evidence, they point to a recent study of 5,402 homeschooled students, conducted by Brian Ray, a researcher at the National Home Education Research Institute, an Oregon-based think tank that advocates homeschooling. On average, the students in that study outscored their public school peers by 30 to 37 percentile points on standardized tests in all subjects.

Moreover, the study showed that homeschoolers now go on to college or other post-secondary education almost as frequently as their public school counterparts. Ray's numbers showed that while 71 percent of public school graduates pursue post-secondary education, a comparable 69 percent of homeschoolers did the same.

But in North Texas, truant officers at several school districts as well as a justice of the peace who oversees cases of schoolkids with frequent absences say they recognize another trend. They are seeing a relatively small but growing number of instances in which parents have chosen homeschooling to evade truancy laws and are probably educating their children about as successfully as the Joneses.

Can a parent who is having trouble getting his kid to school in the first place possibly keep the rigid schedule required to educate at home? These officials say no, while acknowledging that the law has so few teeth that they can do little to stop even flagrant abusers.

"I hope they sue their parents when they grow up," says Janean Aaron, a truant officer for Arlington schools who has overseen 10 cases this year in which parents who received multiple calls from truant officers simply opted to "homeschool."

In Jacksonville, a town about two hours east of Dallas with a relatively small school district of 4,500 students, there have been 43 such cases of fake homeschooling since August, according to James Cunningham, an administrative assistant in charge of attendance. "I feel my hands are tied," Cunningham says about his attempts to curb parents' pulling their kids from school to evade truancy prosecution.

By state law, school districts are supposed to send a warning to parents of a child who has five or more unexcused absences within a six-month period. The district attendance officers, as they're typically called, are then required to monitor the child's attendance. If the child has any more unexcused absences, the district can file a complaint in municipal court or with a justice of the peace against the parents, who may end up paying a fine of up to $500 a day if the judge deems it appropriate.

Last year, when Cunningham asked a judge to demand that a family "show cause" to avoid prosecution under truancy laws by proving they were indeed homeschooling, the parents came to the judge with an all-in-one workbook that incorporated math and spelling--something they could have purchased at a drugstore on their way to court, Cunningham says. "I just looked at the judge," recalls Cunningham, "and he said, 'Well, it appears on the surface they are homeschooling.'"

Robert Forman, a justice of the peace who hears truancy cases for DISD, says, only partly in jest, that the number of parents using homeschooling as a way to conceal truancy has grown so rapidly that "I could stand outside my court asking people if they wanted to buy a letter saying they were homeschooling and make so much money, it could be my retirement." Forman says the law gives him little recourse once parents claim they are homeschooling.

Of the 500 truancy cases Dallas school officials filed in court this academic year, in about 10 instances, caseworkers suspected that parents fraudulently claimed they were homeschooling when they appeared before the judge, says Martha Hawkins, who heads DISD's truancy program. She believes other parents with chronic truants have withdrawn their kids to "homeschool" them before the matter even reached the courts or her caseworkers. Truant officers typically detect such cases only when a registered student stops showing up at school. There's no way to gauge how many children with attendance problems were never registered by parents in a new school year and then began taking advantage of the loopholes in homeschooling laws. "It is a hidden population," Hawkins says.

One mother, a single parent who was raising her 15-year-old daughter in the Lewisville school district, concedes she had trouble getting her daughter to school. Because of her absences, the girl had fallen behind in some subjects. The teachers had threatened to make her attend summer school. "I decided to take her out," says the mother, who asked not to be identified. "It's not like it was when we were in school. They were going to give her a nervous breakdown."

With the best of intentions, the mother ordered workbooks for homeschooling and decided to educate her daughter herself. But she worked at an office while her child stayed alone in their mobile home. The mother would come home and discover that her daughter had watched TV all day. "We finally just gave up, because we knew we were not homeschooling," the mother says.

Three months ago, the mother and daughter moved to a house in a new school district. But by press time, the mother, who'd lost her job and claimed she was getting hassled by her ex-husband, who was recently released from jail, still had not managed to complete all the registration documents for her daughter to attend classes. The girl has missed almost two-thirds of the school year.

Both Judge Forman and Jacksonville district administrator Cunningham say that in recent months the increase in suspicious homeschooling situations has troubled them so much that they've contacted state legislators. They want Austin lawmakers or even the TEA to come up with some standards for homeschooling--as well as put some bite into enforcement.

In New York, homeschooling parents must notify their public school; submit curriculum plans, lists of materials, textbook names, and instruction plans; file quarterly reports documenting the hours of instruction and evaluation for each subject (although school districts are not supposed to judge these); and file annual assessments of their children's progress. Starting in the fourth grade, the kids must submit to standardized tests at a place of the parents' choosing. The children are required to score in at least the 33rd percentile.

Although they believe the need for similar rules exists in Texas, Forman, Cunningham, and others concerned about lax homeschooling laws aren't optimistic that the state will toughen up anytime soon. "It's a mess, this homeschooling, and it's a sacred cow," Forman says.

Homeschool lobbyists want to make sure Texas stays unregulated. Why should public school authorities--who, they argue, are doing such a bad job educating kids--check up on homeschoolers?

When the subject of tougher laws has come up, homeschool supporters have strongly resisted any change. In the 1997 legislative session, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston proposed a bill that would require school officials to flag the records of children who have been abducted. Under the bill, which eventually became law, parents or guardians would be notified if anyone sought the school records. Thompson initially proposed having homeschoolers' records tracked and flagged in kidnapping cases as well. But when word got out, homeschoolers responded en masse. Tim Lambert, president of the Lubbock-based Texas Home School Coalition, which has 30,000 member families, says 500 of his people contacted Thompson. "Our PAC did not give out much money," Lambert says. "It's with numbers that we do it."

Patrick Johnson, an aide to Thompson, says he recalls getting nearly 1,200 calls. Thompson's office was so inundated, the aide says, that the legislator revised her bill and took out the language on homeschoolers. "They wanted their kids to be kidnapped; we said, 'OK,'" the aide recalls sarcastically.

To support his view that Texas doesn't need any more homeschooling laws, Lambert notes that in the Brian Ray study, homeschooled children in highly regulated states scored no better on tests than their counterparts in Texas or other states where homeschoolers face little red tape.

Lambert doesn't see tougher homeschooling laws as much of a threat in Texas, so these days he concerns himself with other issues, such as getting laws passed to allow homeschoolers to compete in interscholastic sports. He says homeschool kids have begun to shed their image as sheltered, poorly socialized children who don't know how to play with others. With the Internet, homeschooling associations, and all sorts of extracurricular events for children in the decade of the soccer mom, homeschooling families don't have to be isolated.

They do worry, however, about getting colleges to give their kids equal standing in the admissions process. A deputy director of admissions at the University of Texas told the Houston Chronicle that a homeschooled applicant must score at least 1,200 out of a possible 1,600 on his SATs to be considered for admission, whereas a student with school transcripts can get in with lower scores.

At the TEA, the notion of further policing for homeschoolers isn't even close to making the agenda. "If we make our public schools all that they should and could be, then people wouldn't look for alternatives," says TEA board member Judy Strickland.

State board member McLeroy doesn't think tougher laws are necessary either, truancy problems notwithstanding. "I don't want to screw up the whole system for some 30 kids," he says.

Texas has come a long way since 1985, when the TEA did view homeschooling as a threat to public education. Back then, the agency wanted Texas school districts to seek out homeschooling parents and prosecute them for truancy. "Educating a child at home is not the same as private school instruction, and, therefore, not an acceptable substitute," read a TEA policy statement issued that year.

Around that time, Gary and Cheryl Leeper of Arlington were having problems getting their oldest son, Chris, to school. "He had allergies, and he missed a lot," Gary Leeper recalls.

The couple wasn't happy with the public schools for other reasons. Their son had trouble in math, for instance, and the teachers seemed incapable of helping him.

So in 1985, the Leepers removed Chris from the third grade and started homeschooling the boy and his brother Brandon, who is two years younger. "Once we got the boys out of the cesspool known as the public schools, [the allergies] weren't that bad," Leeper says.

The Leepers didn't wait for the Arlington school district to prosecute them for truancy. Instead, the couple and their lawyers--some of whom were homeschoolers themselves--filed a class-action suit that included as named plaintiffs the Leepers and seven other families.

It took until June 1994, after the Leeper boys had completed their schooling, for the suit to wind its way through the state Supreme Court. In an opinion written by Justice Nathan Hecht, the court upheld the Leepers' right to educate their sons. "If the parents used some sort of curriculum consisting of books, workbooks and other written materials and they met 'basic education goals' by teaching reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and good citizenship," Hecht wrote, then they could not be prosecuted for truancy. The court made it clear that the TEA had erred in assuming that home schools were not a form of private school. It also specifically stated that homeschooling parents are not required to give standardized tests, but that the school districts could ask to review them if they do.

Within a year of that ruling, the TEA completely reversed its policy, stating that homeschooling parents must only cooperate with "any reasonable inquiry from an attendance officer." The TEA commissioner said the parents should provide a written letter ensuring that their home curriculum met the requirements. "If the district has reasonable cause of some evidence to believe that the assurance is not true," the policy stated vaguely, "action on the part of the district in regard to further investigation may occur."

Gary Leeper, a corporate tax accountant, and his wife, a former homemaker who now works at a bookstore, are out of the homeschooling loop these days. Their boys, now 24 and 22, have opted to work rather than attend college. "I'm still trying to convince them to go," Gary Leeper says. He's proud of his sons, who each run independent contracting businesses. "Both of these boys are self-starters. They may not have received the best homeschooling, but they are out there doing it."

He doubts that any significant number of parents are using homeschooling as a cover for truancy. "You are going to the worst possible sources--truant officers," he says. "I wouldn't get too upset about it. They just don't like that kids are leaving their schools because of the money," he adds, referring to the state system of allotting funds on the basis of school-district head counts.

For Leeper, the prospect of government interference in the home seems much worse than suffering a few truants. He doesn't trust public-education officials to check up on homeschoolers. "It's not that I agree with truancy," he says. "I think all kids should have to be schooled. But it's like having the inmates police the guards."

In the Meador family's living room, the decorating scheme is formal and feminine. The couch is upholstered in floral stripes, with two matching chairs in dusty blue. More than a dozen delicate figurines of angels and ladies in fancy dress adorn the mantel.

Dana Meador's two strapping boys, Robby, 12, and Sean, 11, each sit on the edge of a chair. Their mother relaxes on the couch. Each boy holds a red pencil for checking and a copy of a composition Mom has written and intentionally riddled with grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. Line by line, mother and sons scour the essay for errors.

"Sean, you're up," Mom says, calling on her younger son.
"The T-O-O needs to be T-W-O," he says.
"Robby," Mom asks the older boy next, "What is the preposition in the following sentence?"

As the lesson goes on for 45 minutes, the boys get a little fidgety, but they persevere through the grammar and punctuation exercise before tackling a Robert Frost poem, "I Am One Acquainted With the Night."

"Is there a particular pattern to Frost's rhyming scheme?" Mom asks Robby.
"Uh, no."
"Oh, come on, Robby," she says, sounding like any other slightly frustrated English teacher. She counts off the syllables of the first few lines of verse.

Dana Meador, who is married to a CPA, started teaching her boys at home 14 months ago. She knew it would require tremendous effort, and she has since scaled back her work as a consultant, spent significant sums of money on books, software, and educational travel, and committed four hours a day to teaching her children. She doesn't plan on taking her boys all the way through 12th grade; she wants them to attend high school so they can receive instruction from specialized teachers and date.

Unlike some other homeschoolers, she doesn't have a problem with authorities checking up on her. In fact, she'd welcome it. "I'd love to have them come in and see what I'm doing," she says.

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.

But as her oldest daughter started to reach school age, she visited the public schools and decided they were inappropriate. Her daughter was already too far advanced, she concluded. The administrators told her not to worry--that the children all evened out by the third grade. Not surprisingly, Ruderman wasn't the least bit comforted by the notion that all kids would ascend or descend to the same level by then. "Sure, they all evened out by the third grade, because she would stop learning so fast," she says.

Ruderman believes she'll keep her children at home in the foreseeable future. "Sometimes I think, 'Why don't I just put them in school? I could have coffee breaks,'" she says. But she sees her daughters developing a zeal for learning on their own and figures that will be helpful when they reach high school level and will need to tackle subjects Chana isn't equipped to teach on her own. "What's really hard to develop are good habits," she says.

When Michelle Jones talks about homeschooling, she still sounds angry. "I was mad because she took me away from all of my friends," the 12-year-old says, pointing at her mom.

When she started public school in Mesquite this year, Michelle told her new friends that her time on the road "was boring and stupid."

Michelle now says her favorite subject is science, especially learning about plants and cells. Her mother says she's always been a fast learner.

Mother and daughter sit in the family room, where one wall is adorned with family photos, many of which feature the long-haul rig in the background. Michelle glares at her mother and says in a mocking voice, "I would like to finish at this school to the eighth grade." It's as if she knows her mother might pull her out again.

In November, Harriet Jones learned she suffers from a fatal disease, which she didn't want named in this story. She is too weak to drive with her husband for long distances. He's looking for a job where he can sleep at home more often, because she and the children need his care.

Michelle is now in the sixth grade, and Darnelle is in the seventh. But Harriet admits the lure of extra money has made her think about withdrawing her children to "homeschool" them on the truck again. After all, the family earned $75,000 when everyone was on the road, compared to $40,000 other years. And she recognizes the consequences.

"It was never questioned out on the road," she says. "I just said, 'I'm homeschooling.'


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