The Holiday Inn banquet hall was packed with teens clad in tuxedos and taffeta. They danced the macarena, sipped lemonade, and cast interested sidelong glances at one another. The Orlando, Fla., event had all the trappings of a standard high school prom, with one exception: There were no high schoolers present.
All the teens at the Orlando prom were home schoolers.
There are approximately 2 million home schoolers in the United States, a figure that has increased 15 percent in the last 20 years, according to the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore. As home schooling enters the mainstream, the adults who promote it have sought more ways of getting home schoolers out of the house, to broaden their social circles, and help them acquire the leadership credentials needed for college applications.
What's been helpful are the homeschool "networks" that have sprouted up across the US. As a result, studies show that almost 90 percent of home school students are now involved in group activities.
"Most of the social opportunities that are available to non-home schooled kids are available to our kids as well," says Bruce LaSalla, a physics teacher from Ephrata, Pa., who with his wife has home schooled all four of their children. These include sports, field trips, quiz bowls, science fairs, band, orchestra, choir, and dances, including proms.
"Home schooling isn't just for hermits anymore," says Susan Richman, a home-school mother of five who founded PA Homeschoolers in Kittanning, Pa., with her husband to provide standardized tests, online classes, transcripts and diplomas to home school students in the state.
The Richmans recognized a need for networking among Pennsylvania home schoolers 12 years ago, so they started a home-schooling newsletter statewide. "Back then, there weren't any home schoolers to know. It has been phenomenal to watch the network grow," Mrs. Richman says.
It often requires creativity to launch extracurricular programs without the kind of expertise or resources typically found within a school system.
When the Richmans dreamed up the Pennsylvania volleyball tournament five years ago, their five home-schooled kids, who range in age from 15 to 25, were thrilled.
"But there was one problem," Richman says, laughing. "None of us knew how to play volleyball." To learn the game, they studied videos and books. They found a gym in a local church and assembled several home school teams. A home-school dad who had been a college volleyball star volunteered as coach. The competition now includes 25 teams.
In New Haven, Conn., home schoolers founded the Shakespearean Youth Theater and have performed seven full-scale Shakespeare productions at a small local theater. But because the group has only 14 members ranging from age 11 to 17, each play requires heavy editing to elminate extra characters. Students are responsible for condensing the script, designing the set and costumes, handling the mailings, fundraising, advertising and taking publicity photos.
The students do all the work themselves, exhibiting a degree of enthusiasm and energy some adults say they rarely see elsewhere.
"It is a lot easier working with home schoolers," says Dana Sachs, who directs a local theatre group for adults, teaches at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School in New Haven, and also oversees each home school production. "They are more engaged, more prepared, more dedicated. All of the kids who are there want to be there."
There will only be one home school prom in the state of Florida, and this year Beverly Orris, homeschool mother of 10 from Kissimmee, is in charge of it. The prom isn't until June, but Mrs. Orris anticipates more than 100 attendees. She's already disseminating invitations through e-mails and online postings on Florida's home schooling websites.
Last year, home schoolers from Sarasota, Jacksonville, and Miami attended the prom, including Beverly's daughter, Jessica, age 17. Out of the 110 people in the banquet hall of the Holiday Inn last year, Jessica only knew two - her parents, the chaperones.
But it turned out that nobody else knew anyone either, so Jessica, an adopted Japanese-American who describes herself as shy, asked the boys to dance. "If you're going to stand there doing nothing, after a while you might as well dance," Jessica explains. Soon the dance floor was packed. By the end of the night, nobody wanted to go home.
"She had a ball," Mrs. Orris says. "It was so important to her, she talked about that for weeks. "
For the past 10 years, the Creightons, a family with 15 home schooled children in Romoland, Calif., have competed in a regional home school science fair. Approximately 80 home schoolers from the Riverside, Inyo, Mono, and San Bernardino school districts compete in the science fair every year. The top six winners advance to the county science fair and compete with public school students; from there, winners go on the state science fair in Los Angeles.
Every year for the past 12 years, at least one home schooler has advanced to the state fair. The Creighton kids have made so many friends through the fair that they now teach a class of 20 home schoolers how to create science fair projects.
Irene Miles, a homes chool mom from Marietta, Calif., has five kids who all compete in the science fair. Like many home schoolers, her children juggle other group activities: piano lessons, club soccer, youth church group, and home school field trips. "Our problem is not a lack of socialization," she says. "Our problem is making sure we have enough time to do the school work."
Home schooling is not only getting out of the house, it's getting on the air. Warner Brothers will be airing a half-hour sitcom, "The O'Keefes," in which, according to the television treatment, two parents (played by Judge Reinhold and Kirsten Nelson) home school their three gifted and multilingual kids in order to protect them from a materialistic society.
According to the WB, the O'Keefe siblings can speak six languages, "but have no idea how to talk to kids their own age." An air date for the sitcom has yet to be scheduled, but the proposed show has already stirred commotion among the home-schooling community.
"All studies find home schoolers to be very well socialized and able to deal with their peers better than their high school counterparts," says Chris Klicka, senior counsel of the Home School Legal Defense Association of Purcellville, Va., who has home schooled all seven of his children.
"To have a show opening whose main theme says that these kids aren't very well socialized is a complete myth." Mr. Klicka, who has received dozens of e-mail complaints from home schoolers about the show, hopes that his organization can give the WB input before it airs.
"We want it to be entertaining, but we want it to be accurate," Klicka says. The show was created by executive producer Mark O'Keefe and produced by Hamcat Entertainment in association with Turner Television. A spokesperson from the WB would not comment.