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That's partly because the old canard that home schoolers are hermits has largely been disproven. In fact nearly 1 in 5 takes at least one class in a public or private school, according to the Federal Government. Home schoolers participate in extracurricular activities too. Many of the home-schooling parents interviewed by TIME were just as busy as any parents scheduling baseball practices and ballet classes. Judi Thomas of Marietta, Ga., says her daughter Juliet, 9, "has tap and ballet on Tuesdays; Wednesdays, there's choir; Thursdays, she has classes with other home schoolers; Fridays, there's usually a play date or a field trip."
Home schooling's successes didn't come easily, though the practice is actually an old tradition. In the early years of this country, most children were educated at home, either by parents or tutors. Public education started in the middle of the 19th century. When, in the 1960s, a leftist education reformer named John Holt began pushing home schooling as an alternative to conformist public schools, his ideas were seen as fringe. Home schooling was illegal in many states until the 1980s and '90s, when well-organized evangelical Christians adopted home schooling as a way to escape what they saw as the creeping disorder of the campus.
Today home schoolers run one of the most effective lobbies in Washington, with connections all the way to the White House, where the President recently hosted a reception for home-schooled students. Bush's Under Secretary for Education Eugene Hickok told TIME that "we cannot blame people for exercising their choices and home schooling until we have some real changes out there."
Despite its growing acceptance, there are nagging shortcomings to home schooling. If you spend time with home schoolers, you get a sense that some of them have missed out on whole swaths of childhood; the admirable efforts by their parents to ensure their education and safety sometimes seem to have gone too far. In 1992 psychotherapist Larry Shyers did a study while at the University of Florida in which he closely examined the behavior of 35 home schoolers and 35 public schoolers. He found that home schoolers were generally more patient and less competitive. They tended to introduce themselves to one another more; they didn't fight as much. And the home schoolers were much more prone to exchange addresses and phone numbers. In short, they behaved like miniature adults.
Which is great, unless you believe that kids should be kids before they are adults. John McCallum, 20, of Wheaton, Ill., began learning at home after fourth grade. On the whole, he valued the experience. But if he could change anything about his teen years, he would want more interaction with people his age. "I don't date, and that's something I attribute to home schooling," he says. Or consider Rachel Ahern, 21, of Grand Junction, Colo., who never set foot in a classroom until she went to Harvard at 18. As a child, she socialized with older kids and adults at church and in music classes at a nearby college. "I never once experienced peer pressure," she says. But is that a good thing? Megan Wallace of Atlanta says if she had gone to high school, "I would have gotten into so much trouble." One could argue that kids need to get into a certain amount of trouble to learn how to handle temptations and their consequences.