The Learning Place

UPDATED 02/26/2001 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/26/2001 at 01:00 AM EST

When the school bus stops by a modest house just outside Austin, Texas, on weekday mornings, a gaggle of neighborhood kids climb aboard, but the Golden children are not among them. They are inside, asleep. No bell will ring as their class assembles—they meet for an hour or so whenever they aren't busy doing homework, extra curriculars or just hanging out. "You may report to the sofa," says instructor John Golden, 61, at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon. Rachel, 11, and Zachary, 15, settle on either side of their father. Jacob, at 5 too young for this session, hovers nearby. History comes first. Rachel lets the dog out. Then Hebrew. Gabriel, 17, a recent grad of the Golden academy, gets back from selling popcorn at a movie theater. Latin. Alumna Judith, 19 and home from college, helps mother Beverly, 41, set the dining room table. "Okay, that's enough," says the teacher. School is out.

The Golden family is on the front lines of a growing rebellion against public schools. As a new President vows to revamp education, parents are already taking their children's curricula into their own hands. As many as 2 million kids are now being taught at home in the U.S., and their numbers are increasing by some 15 percent a year. "Homeschoolers are finally getting the recognition they deserve," says former Secretary of Education William Bennett, himself the father of two boys in parochial school, who hopes to cash in on the movement as chairman of the fledgling online school K12.

Tutoring, parental or professional, has long been popular with showbiz parents. Sometimes the kids are the stars (Britney Spears, Frankie Muniz of Malcolm in the Middle), or the parents are (John Travolta and Kelly Preston, country singer Lee Ann Womack) and want their children with them. The notion caught on in the '80s with evangelical Christians who wanted to control their kids' exposure to secular culture. When parents became frightened by school violence in the '90s, homeschooling went mainstream. In the past decade, the Goldens' support group, the Austin Area Homeschoolers, has grown from 25 families to 250. "We have lawyers, physicians, musicians, people on welfare," says John Golden, who as a part-time Spanish teacher at Austin Community College is more qualified than many parents for his role as domestic schoolmaster.

Texas usually lands near the bottom in national measures of public education—last year, 5 of the 15 members of the state's Board of Education homeschooled their own kids or sent them to private school. But many critics fear that without standards for parent-teachers, children may be as poorly taught at home as anywhere else. Rules for homeschooling vary from state to state. Texas, for instance, demands no proof of a parent's competence and requires no tests to assess progress. "If my child had appendicitis, I wouldn't read medical textbooks and decide to operate," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. "I'd want a professional."

For the most part, parents seem to be giving professionals a run for their money. Studies show that when homeschoolers do take standardized tests, they tend to score 15 to 30 percent higher than their peers. A more nagging concern is socialization. "The movement is relatively new, so we're years from knowing if it's a problem," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Often, homeschoolers are socializing with children with the same value system," he says. "But in a democracy, you've got to hang out with people who don't swim in the same gene pool."

The elder Goldens make sure that happens. Their kids are signed up for Girl Scouts, music and a course on China. On Wednesdays, it's a Shakespeare performance class for homeschoolers ($55 a month per child) at the Zachary Scott Theatre in downtown Austin. On the way in from their suburb of Cedar Park, John checks the rearview mirror of the minivan, muttering, "Gabriel's at work. Zack's here. Rachel's here. Jacob's in his car seat." Juggling everyone's schedules requires extraordinary flexibility. Yet that willingness to accommodate the needs of each child, no matter how different, may be one secret of the Goldens' success.

"Homeschooling is just an alternative," says Beverly, who programs mainframe computers for the state. "We're always looking—is this the best way, is this the best year, is this the best thing for this kid?" For Zachary, who would be in ninth grade, the answer is yes. Home-schooling, he says, is "pretty much freedom to do whatever strikes my fancy." Rachel, however, switched to public school in fourth grade. "In a few weeks I got to know everybody. I had a great teacher," she says. "But the fifth graders were, like, bossy. I was worried about getting beaten up and stuff." For fifth and sixth grades, she came back home.

Older sister Judith chose to spend her junior and senior years in high school. "I've always been a withdrawn, quiet person, and public school seemed very scary to me," she says. But with plans to be a veterinarian, she worried about her competence in math—not her father's forte. "I didn't know how other people my age were doing," she says. "I wanted to prove to myself that I could perform." Adds Beverly: "She was going stir-crazy with her little brothers and sister. She wanted to grow up, get a life."

Homeschooling was initially an outgrowth of the Goldens' travels: In the first decade of their marriage, the couple moved 13 times. It was nothing new to John, though. The sickly son of a Watsonville, Calif., chicken farmer who died when the boy was 6, he was homeschooled himself until fourth grade. High school never really took. "I'd cut school, go to the library and read all day," he says. Later he joined the Marines and, after a test showed he had an aptitude for languages, was sent from Vietnam to the Defense Department's language school in Monterey, Calif. Two decades later, Beverly wound up there too. Bored by high school and within a credit of graduating in St. Clair, Mo., where her father had an electrical business, she enlisted in the Air Force and trained as a Russian translator. But she didn't meet John until both enrolled in a Hebrew class at Fort Meade, Md., in 1977. They married in 1980 and relocated to Zaire, where John worked for the State Department. Judith was born in Tennessee, Gabriel and Zachary in New Mexico (while Beverly got a B.A. and John worked on a Ph.D.), Rachel in Turkey.

The Goldens began homeschooling on the island of Crete when Beverly was posted there by the Air Force. Gabriel was in kindergarten and, he recalls, "the teacher was a real control freak." When his father, who taught Spanish at the school, found the kids hiding from her under their desks, that was it. John and Beverly enrolled Gabriel in the Calvert School, the granddaddy of home-schooling programs, launched in Baltimore in 1906 for kids kept home during an epidemic. Today, supplies, textbooks and tests for some 23,000 courses are mailed out each year at a cost of $20 to $615 apiece.

In 1990 the Goldens settled in the Austin area, planning eventually to send their children to the low-cost University of Texas. But when neighborhood elementary schools proved to be plagued with violence, John took over, piecing together programs for each child. Judging by the finished products, he hasn't done too badly. Judith graduated in the top 5 percent of her high school class and is majoring in biology at the University of Texas. Gabriel, now in his second semester at Austin Community College, has an equally impressive record. At 16, he took a statewide test to see if he needed a remedial math course; instead he scored so high that a counselor suggested he begin college. Cecile Durish, who teaches government, considers Gabriel one of her top students. "I didn't know he was homeschooled or just 16," she says. "He was way beyond his years."

Some experts believe that the Goldens' cafeteria-style approach to education will eventually become the national norm. "The Gap can customize clothing," argues Arthur Levine of Teachers College. "We expose kids to 180 days of schooling in matched age groups and expect them to learn all at the same clip." He sees the role of the professional teacher evolving into that of diagnostician, identifying the way a child learns and prescribing customized software for use at home or school.

"If I had to choose between a good teacher via the Internet and a not-so-good one in person, I know which I'd pick," says Bennett, adding that since his online courses require parental participation, children won't be home alone in front of a computer. Which brings up one problem in the Golden household: With Gabe wanting to do homework, Zack to play magic games, Rachel to feed her virtual pets and Jacob to listen to music—all on a single PC—squabbles occur. Still, every family member relishes hours spent with another kind of data-storage device: the book. And that's a matter of parental pride. "I taught my child to read," says John. "I'd like to have that on my tombstone—what better epitaph could you have?"

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