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The new face of home schooling

More and more, African-American families redefine 'homeroom'

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The scene here in Durham may be the most typical: It's in this enormous swell of the black middle class, in particular, that home schooling is taking off. Though Durham has won awards recently for improving its inner-city schools, the Smiths worried about peer influences on their children. "We frankly didn't want our kids becoming the kind of kids we see hanging around," says Ms. Smith.

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But a chief worry for teachers, according to National Education Association, is the fact that along with avoiding school violence and unsavory peer influences, home-schooled students often miss out on positive socialization, too. No matter what their grades, the criticism goes, they're missing a crucial part of the American curriculum: fraternization with peers.

Even proponents acknowledge that large groups can be daunting for home-schooled students. So today, most home-school devotees send their children to high school, if not to middle school. Experts say it's the first "formative" years when black parents worry the most - and want to avoid the public schools. "The socialization process today is far more difficult than we really know," says Mr. Christian, the University of Maryland sociologist. A lot of parents "are simply saying that [public] school is not where they want to send their children during their formative years."

To Mr. Smith, a mortgage broker-turned-missionary, his family's decision to home-school is an implicit scolding for the public-education system - and a reminder that many black students aren't learning as much as whites. "I do look at what's going on with schools - and there is so much broken that's not fixed," says Mr. Smith. "It seems like integration didn't change people's attitudes."

Curriculum concerns - and flexibility

From Detroit's downtrodden 8 Mile District to the hardscrabble 'hoods of southeast Raleigh, public schools are focusing on their core populations - while they sometimes "lose the kids to the right and the left," says Matt Brouillette, president of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pa.

But for home schooling to fill the gap, the movement needs stringent - and more consistent - curriculum requirements, according to Lee Greene, editor of Principal Magazine. Currently, curriculum criteria vary by state - and the variation, says Mr. Greene, is vast. "We're concerned with the increasing number of groups avoiding education in a traditional setting," he says.

But for now, concerns over that "avoidance" are far from the learning den at 13 Warbler Lane.

The Smiths' flexible class schedule allowed the whole family to turn a Tennessee business trip into an on-the-road lesson on the first Africans in America, including a visit to the gravestone of "Roots" author Alex Haley.

The two oldest girls are currently writing essays about women in sports and Rumanian gypsies; the youngest have already learned to garden and sew.

Courtney is the only one who's ever set foot in a classroom - during one year of private school. She admits that she sometimes misses the hurly-burly mass of peers. But then she spots irises in the garden - and is soon pondering botany instead.

"School makes you fit into a mold," says her dad. "We're all about breaking out of the mold."