COLUMBIA, Maryland — When Elizabeth Dean was four, her mother took her out of kindergarten to teach her at home because she could already read the children's classic "Charlotte's Web" while the other kids were just learning how to write the letter "C".
That was 10 years ago and home schooling was "still on the fringe of acceptability", Elizabeth's mother Lisa Dean told AFP in between classes in the family home on the history of ancient Rome, the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, online geometry and English for Elizabeth, 14, and 11-year-old Teddy.
"Ten years ago, folks typically would list their reasons for home schooling as religious reasons or wanting to fly under the government radar," Dean told AFP.
But she gave up a well-paid job as a lawyer in Washington to become a stay-at-home mom who home schools for academic reasons and because she is a self-avowed mother hen.
"I read the same things everyone else reads about what's happening in schools — sexual activity, drugs, bullying, violence — and don't feel that kids need to experience that," she said.
Dean hailed home schooling for allowing children to choose topics they are interested in, within a set curriculum, and to advance at their own pace.
When Elizabeth, who goes by the nickname Bitsy, begins high school next term, she will enroll in Spanish and writing courses at the local community college while continuing her home schooling, which will include an online trigonometry course usually taken by kids two years older than she is.
Home schooling dates back to colonial America, but lost ground when institutionalized schooling became compulsory in the mid-1800s.
At the height of the hippy culture in the 1960s, home schooling enjoyed a renaissance as left-wingers seeking to buck the establishment taught their children themselves.
Christian conservatives were the next to embrace home schooling, and "by 1990, 85 to 90 percent of all home schoolers came from the ranks of the religious right," Paul Petersen, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, wrote in Education Next, which he edits.
The number of home-schooled children soared by 29 percent between 1999 and 2003, from 850,000 to roughly 1.1 million, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show.
In Maryland, which keeps its own statistics on home schooling, there were 2,296 home-schooled children in 1990, and more than 10 times that number - 24,227 - in 2006.
A survey conducted in 2003 by the NCES showed that the reason given most often by parents for home schooling their children was the environment in traditional schools.
Just over 30 percent of parents polled said they home schooled their kids because of worries for their safety, about drugs or peer pressure.
Slightly less than 30 percent said they chose to home school their kids for moral or religious reasons and 16.5 percent who said they were unhappy with the academics in traditional schools.
Tamara Bergen has home schooled her two daughters for the past 15 years, partly because she wants to share her Christian values with them, but also because "families that educate at home have more flexibility with their schedules."
"You can teach to your child's level, abilities, pace, interests, gifts, and talents. Home education teaches students to be self-starters and independent learners," she says on the website she has set up, theenterprisinghomeschooler.com.
The biggest criticism leveled at home schooling is that it deprives children of social contact.
"My sister said when we started this, 'You're going to turn your kids into freaks! They won't know how to behave!'" said Dean.
"But while socialization is a big problem in home schooling, it's the opposite of what you might think: there's too much of it," she said as Teddy took a break from a history lesson to play in the classroom-basement of the family home with two friends.
"The kids are always together; the problem is finding time to do the book work," Dean said.
Bitsy and Teddy share their home schooling credentials with the likes of the second-place finisher in this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, 12-year-old Tim Ruiter, and U.S. Olympic and World Cup skier Bode Miller, who was home schooled during part of his elementary education years.
Poet Robert Frost was home schooled, and flight pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright were often "allowed to stay home from school to work on their own projects," said Teri Ann Berg Olsen, creator of the Knowledge House Web site.
After rolling around on two large exercise balls with his friends, Teddy sat down at the desk he shares with Bitsy in the basement and began sounding out spelling words. Bitsy tucked into some online geometry, using headphones to block out the sounds of Teddy's lesson.
It had just turned noon, and the school day, which had begun four hours earlier over a bowl of oatmeal and an Edgar Allen Poe story, was moving on.
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