CATHY PHILLIPS withdrew her third-grade son, Jonathan, from a suburban Boston public school in January and hasn't sent him back since. Now that she's teaching him at home, she says he's learning more than he was in school. Mrs. Phillips has designed a curriculum for Jonathan and plans to teach him at home next year also.
``I don't see anything positive about school anymore,'' Phillips says. ``There are so many wonderful things to learn besides sitting at a desk.''
``Home schooling,'' an alternative educational approach that's been growing since the 1960s, is entering a new era of legitimacy, according to Donald Erickson, an education professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. ``A great many people who now patronize public schools do it unwillingly,'' he says.
Some parents who view today's schools as too regimented or ill-equipped to serve individual needs are taking their children's education into their own hands.
``There's all sorts of thrashing about for alternatives in the public arena,'' says Patrick Farenga, president of Holt Associates, a Cambridge, Mass., clearinghouse on home-school issues founded by the late home-schooling pioneer, John Holt. ``Everybody is talking about how we have to school for progress and have a better society in the year 2000. But parents are asking, `What about my child now?'''
In the 1970s, home-schooling families tended to be in communes or rural areas, Mr. Farenga says. Many fundamentalist Christians began schooling their children at home in the '80s so they could impart their own values to them. While religious home schoolers still outnumber those deserting the schools for other reasons, the late '80s and '90s are witnessing a more mainstream group of home schoolers.
``Both public and private schools are now losing students to home schooling,'' says Michael Farris, president of Home School Legal Defense Association in Paeonian Springs, Va. ``Ten years ago it was basically the geodesic dome crowd that was home schooling. But,'' he says, ``the biggest growth in the movement has been among white-collar, conservative Protestants.''
HOME schoolers are mainly middle-class, two-parent families, but single parents and low-income families are a growing segment of the movement, Farenga says.
Precise figures on the number of children being taught at home are difficult to pinpoint because many home schoolers remain ``underground.'' But home-schooling groups estimate that 250,000 to 500,000 children are now being taught outside of schools in the United States.
``The growth is phenomenal,'' says Farenga, who estimates that there were only 10,000 to 25,000 children being schooled at home in the '70s.
Many children who were home schooled in the '70s are being accepted into well-respected colleges and doing well academically. Their success gives the movement some convincing evidence of long-term effectiveness. [See related story below.]
But many educators remain concerned about the effects of home schooling on students. ``Home schooling is an extreme kind of recourse,'' says Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. ``It's self-defeating to give up on the schools. Eventually those home schoolers reenter the school system. If it's not at the high school level, where it usually occurs, it's at the university level.''
Mr. Shannon and others contend that home-schooled students are shortchanged academically and socially. ``For the most part, it's an education program that's minimal at best,'' Shannon says.
Research on home schooling is limited, but a recent survey of about 1,500 home-schooling families throughout the US found that home-schooled students scored above the 80th percentile on standardized tests, according to Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Seattle.
Twelve-year-old Owen Ozier of Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood has spent only one year in school - and that was back in second grade. But he knows some Latin and is already doing high-school-level geometry. In fact, he hopes to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass.
``Several astronauts have gone to MIT, and I want to be an astronaut or space engineer,'' Owen says.
Many home schoolers enroll their children in school before they reach high school. But Owen plans to keep learning at home until college.
``We're a little worried about the lab sciences,'' says Owen's mother Linda Ozier, who teaches Owen and his seven-year-old brother, Drew, at home. But, she says, they'll find mentors - real scientists - to help out.
Mrs. Ozier taught in a public school for one year after graduating from college. ``I vowed to myself at that time,'' she says, ``that I would never send my children to public school. It's a terrible place for kids to try to learn things.'' Even the best of teachers cannot provide individual attention to a class of 20 or 30 students, she says.
In the Ozier's sprawling 100-year-old Victorian home, Owen and Drew sit at the kitchen table working out some math problems. On a bookshelf sits a globe and a mug full of pens and pencils.
``There are as many ways to home school as there are home schoolers,'' explains Ozier. She submitted a curriculum for both boys as required by the state but remains flexible about their studies.
There's no distinction, she says, between her role as parent and educator. ``We can be grocery shopping and a question will arise and I will begin teaching.''
Most mornings, the Ozier boys sit down by 8:30 or 9:00 to work on the basic subjects and write in their journals. A book-filled room upstairs is neatly arranged with two desks. But, Ozier says, ``no matter what we do, we end up doing schoolwork in the dining room.'' Drew, who would be a second-grader in school, devotes an hour or two of the day to academics while Owen spends three or four hours.
Ideally, home schoolers say, the structure of learning should come from daily life experiences. The whole idea is to break free of the segmentation and regimen of school. That kind of structure is detrimental to children's natural curiosity and interest, they argue.
``School has a life of its own that's separate from the rest of the world,'' says David Swank, who teaches his four children at home in Boston. ``School is getting further and further away from real life.''
``We tend to focus so much on teaching and measuring that we forget that we learn constantly. What we need to do is realize the educational value of real life,'' Farenga says.
But what about socialization? Can young people who don't attend school learn how to get along with others?
Like any parent, Ozier says, ``I want to launch my kids into the world able to deal with most situations.'' But they can do that without going to school, she says. ``They interact quite a bit with the community. And I think that's genuine socialization as opposed to the sit-down-and-be-quiet socialization of school.''
While some home schoolers take a deliberately isolationist stance, Farenga says, the majority see the community as an integral part of their children's education.
Home schooling doesn't start and end at the kitchen table, Mr. Swank says. His family goes to the library at least once a week, visits museums frequently, and is involved in a variety of activities.
Owen and Drew Ozier play on community sport teams almost year-round and participate in a range of activities from a book discussion group at the library to a drama club.
Although Owen says he wouldn't mind having a few more friends, Drew says, ``I don't need 27 friends when half of them are mean.''
The real difference between home schoolers and other students, says Ozier, is their keen interest in learning. ``It's natural for us to explore the world, to question what's going on. Because school is something they do at home, [the children] don't see it as something they leave behind them.''