On a recent school morning, Daire Gaj is perched next to his desk with a sly grin and flight plan.
"Here's my invention," he says as he proudly transforms a sheet of paper into an airplane and launches it across his classroom.
The stunt would normally earn a sharp reprimand or a ticket to the principal's office. But Daire's learning environment is far different from most: His mom calls the shots and his classroom has no boundaries.
"[We have] more of a congruence between play and school," says Daire's mother, Phoebe Wells, who has been home-schooling both her sons in Cambridge, Mass., for years. "He just finished reading a book on air and flight."
Frustration with large class sizes, low academic standards, and peer pressures at public schools has traditionally driven parents like Mrs. Wells toward private institutions, or more recently, the burgeoning charter-school movement. But increasingly, many adults are deciding they can go it alone, and their actions are fueling the fastest-growing entrepreneurial movement in alternative education: home schooling.
"It's happening in urban areas, suburban areas where parents aren't happy with school, and in rural areas," says Pearl Rock Kane, an education professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "I think that home schooling is part of the general movement away from traditional schools, whether it's charter schools or vouchers."
About 1.2 million - or roughly 2 percent - of school-age children are educated at home, say experts. But the number of those taught at home has increased by 15 to 20 percent a year since 1985.
For parents-turned-formal educators, it requires willingness to delve into new subjects and to innovate on the fly. Parents do much of their own research, seek out the growing networks of home-schooling families, and troll the Internet for new resources and connections. They create a classroom that blurs the line between forced learning and natural interest that typically doesn't impose rigid schedules or tests. And their offspring-students get one-on-one, focused attention that often shortens the average school day to three or four hours, allowing for baseball practice, violin lessons, or Girl Scouts.
"Semesters are an artificial way to end intellectual exploration," says Susan Sulcs of Cleveland, who has home-schooled her son, Peter, from second to eighth grade. She lets him explore topics to his heart's content.
Parents traditionally opted to teach kids at home for religious reasons or because they weren't pulling in good grades. But as more people desire to exercise greater control over their children's education, the approach is becoming more mainstream.
"It's very much a middle-class, urban phenomenon and always has been an upper-class one," says Mary Ann Pitman, an associate professor of education and head of educational studies at the University of Cincinnati, who has studied home schooling.
Until recently, many school officials and parents were skeptics about teaching kids at the kitchen table. Indeed, it became legal in many states only in the mid-1980s, says Scott Somerville, staff attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association. Whereas 30 states prohibited it in 1980, home-schooling has been legal nationally since 1993.
Parents have largely driven the movement, creating their own education niche. They've pushed schools and libraries to add home-schooler programs: field trips or extracurriculars, such as sports or science fairs.
Further fueling the movement is evidence that home-schoolers perform better than expected. A recent study by the Home School Legal Defense Association says that those students scored significantly higher than their public- and private-school counterparts in every subject of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The study, based on 20,000 home-schooled students, said that home learners in Grades 1 to 4 perform a grade level higher than their public and private school peers, and that by eighth grade, the average home student performs four grade levels above the national norm.
"You get to go at your own pace," says Eoin Gaj, Wells's other son. "You don't have to wait for the slowest kid in the class." While Wells has never taught in a traditional classroom before, 1 in 4 home educators has, according to the Home School study.
Wells leans heavily on the Cambridge Public Library's home-schooler program and her library card. But extracurricular activities are the guts of her lesson plan: On a typical day her sons could play soccer, read books, rehearse for plays, or practice piano. These activities, her sons say, feed their social development.
Critics charge that children taught at home miss out on developing key social skills such as learning to share with others, taking turns, participating in group discussions, and meeting children from varied backgrounds. Parents don't always make the best educators because they lack objectivity or proper qualifications, they add.
"Sometimes it's lonely when [children] are home all day," Ms. Sulcs says, adding that one disadvantage in Ohio is that home students can't play on high school sports teams. "Younger kids can't lose out with home schooling, but I think there's a place for standard school at the high school level."
Measures are in place to track home-schoolers' performance, but they vary from state to state, Somerville says. Usually parents must notify their districts first, and their children need to take courses similar to those mandated in public schools. Wells, for example, submits a curriculum plan every year for each child to the Cambridge school district for approval, as well as last year's portfolio.
The process will only get easier as home schooling flourishes, predicts Ms. Pitman. "I think [it] will continue to grow until other alternatives start catching up," she says. "As the charter movement expands, that may attract back families who home-school and want more say."
The Internet will also spark more online schools and extension classes, she says. The Internet Home School, started in July 1997, offers K-12 math, science, and language programs for about $150 a month, says Frank McCollum, the school's education administrator. The school, which boasts a long waiting list and 85 students who range from gifted to special needs, lets children talk to teachers online.
"Education as we know it today is going to become obsolete just as the one-room schoolhouse became obsolete," Pitman says. "It's going to continue to change."