The Vermont Street Learning Center, 1706 Vt., has a few things in common with public schools: It teaches reading, writing, math, history and other common subjects. It even uses the same textbooks as the Lawrence school district.
But the center differs from most schools in that its student-teacher ratio is 2-1. Also, class is held year-round, and sometimes students are allowed to sleep in late.
That's because the center actually is the home of Anne and Stan Weil, and the students are their children, 7-year-old Michael and 8-year-old Alan. The Weils are among thousands of families across the country that are switching to home schooling as an alternative to public education.
IN THE LAST five years, the number of children taught at home has increased nearly fivefold, to between 300,000 and 500,000. The lower estimates are those of the federal government and professional educator associations, and the higher are those of groups that advocate teaching at home.
Because parents are not required to notify the Lawrence school district that they are educating their children at home, it's difficult to know whether Lawrence is following the national trend.
School officials said they are aware of 18 local students from 11 families who are attending home schools this year. That's down from last year's estimate.
Alan attended Pinckney and Cordley schools in the Lawrence school district through second grade, and Michael attended kindergarten at Cordley. However, as soon as classes were out last school year, Mrs. Weil began teaching her children at home.
Mrs. Weil does not work outside the home and spends her day caring for Michael, Alan and their two younger siblings, Maya and Nicolette.
"ONE OF THE main reasons that we took them out of school is that we feel the school day is too long," Mrs. Weil said. "It's become kind of a baby-sitting service for those who work."
And although Mrs. Weil rented her textbooks from the Lawrence school district, she said she has tried to develop some different teaching approaches.
"Alan got so burned out on workbooks that he can hardly look at one now," she said. "We do have textbooks for more formal learning, and we have sort of a regular schedule, but the idea is that learning goes on all the time.
"For example, they go to the grocery store with me, and we read the labels and talk about why we're buying this and why we're not buying that. We try to be really conscious of what we're eating and putting in our bodies."
Also, she said, Michael is learning to tell time simply by wearing a wristwatch.
"YOU DON'T need to do a lot of pages in a workbook on telling time if you have a watch and people are always asking you," Mrs. Weil said.
In other activities:
Alan keeps a daily journal and is learning to organize his writing into paragraphs.
Michael and Alan take spelling tests three times a week. They also take the unit tests that accompany their textbook readings.
The two play chess, dominoes, cards and other games and sometimes create board games of their own.
Outside the home, the boys play basketball through the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department. They both also take piano lessons, and they'll be in the Tulsa Ballet Theatre production of "The Nutcracker" tonight at Kansas University.
In a project last summer, Alan and Michael grew their own tomatoes, took them to the Lawrence Farmers Market, created a sign advertising their produce, made change for customers and bagged the tomatoes for them.
"SOME HOME schools buy a curriculum and really stick to it, and some really have a free-form method. I try to fall somewhere in the middle of those two," Mrs. Weil said. "If they're supposed to be doing some lesson, they can't go off and do other things until they've done it."
She added that home schooling "doesn't always go smoothly. There are times when they're really rebellious and don't want to sit down and do their work. There are moments when I wish we could just pack them out the door."
For that reason, Mrs. Weil said, she has "great respect" for public school teachers, who sometimes handle as many as 30 children at a time. "I certainly wouldn't want to do what they do," she said.
Vern Stephens, education program specialist with the Kansas Department of Education, said there are about 1,300 home schools registered in Kansas, compared to about 900 home schools that were registered five years ago.
Lawrence School Board President Maggie Carttar said local home schools already are subject to outcomes testing, at least when a child taught at home enters public schools.
"WE SAY that when you come into our schools, you have to be able to do certain things to be placed in a certain grade," Carttar said.
Local school officials said they've been notified that 18 students from 11 families are in home-schooling this year, compared with 38 students from 22 families who were home-schooled last year.
"We have some that attend home school half a day and public school half a day. One student does all her schooling at home except for her music class," Lawrence School Supt. Dan Neuenswander said. "We try to take the position that we're here to be a service to parents to the extent that we can within the law."
As for students' transition from home schools to the Lawrence school district, Neuenswander said, "For the most part, it's gone pretty well."
Kansas law views home schools as having private, non-accredited status.
Under state law, parents planning to school their children must notify the state board of education, at which time parents also must name their school. That's how Mrs. Weil came to call her home The Vermont Street Learning Center.
State law also requires home schools to teach their children for at least 180 days or 1,080 hours out of the year, the same requirement for public schools. In addition, home schools are required to have "competent" teachers.
STATE LAW does not define "competent," but many groups have their own definition.
Craig Grant, chief lobbyist for the Kansas-National Education Assn., said the organization's position for many years has been that "all students should be taught by certified teachers."
The Home School Legal Defense Assn. in Paeonian Springs, Va., estimates that 95 percent of existing home schools would be operating illegally if their teachers were required to be certified.
Grant said the question of whether parents are qualified to teach is just one reason to scrutinize home schools. He said some parents who school their children, especially those who do so for religious reasons, keep their children "extremely sheltered" from the rest of society.
"Interaction with other children is an important part of the educational process," he said.
MRS. WEIL said her children have very active social lives. In addition to playing several team sports, Alan and Michael often get together with other home-schooled children. In one activity, the home-schoolers make a monthly visit to Kansas University's Museum of Natural History for an hourlong lesson on animals.
Mrs. Weil added that the kind of social interaction that children get in public schools isn't always ideal.
"There, it's cool to be insolent and disrespectful, and it's not really cool to be learning and have a good attitude. Children are under that pressure to fit in with their peers.
"If the school day wasn't so long, maybe you'd have time to counteract that during the time they're at home."
Mrs. Weil said that because her husband usually is off work on weekdays instead of the weekends, he would have less time to see their children if they attended public school.
ANNA MCCOY, who also teaches two children at her home about a mile north of Lawrence, said she sees the absence of academic competition as another plus to home schooling.
"We always emphasize cooperation over competition," McCoy said.
While the K-NEA would like certified teachers in home schools, which is a state accreditation requirement for public schools, the Kansas Association of School Boards favors requiring home schools to meet all state accreditation requirements.
Mark Tallman, coordinator of government relations for the KASB, said, "We simply believe that if the state has an obligation to educate children, then it has a right to set standards that all children should meet."
But Christopher Klicka, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Assn., said such requirements would be ludicrous and would sound the death knell for home schooling.
Klicka said home schooling is protected in the U.S. Constitution by the First Amendment, which calls for religious freedom, and by the 14th Amendment, which says the state shall not deprive any person of liberty. Klicka said that includes the liberty to direct the upbringing of one's own children.
"The only way to interpret the law to protect constitutional rights is to allow a home school to be a non-accredited school," Klicka said. "When you have a fundamental right, the state has to be careful that it doesn't snuff it out with an overly restrictive interpretation of the law."
HOWEVER, the state board of education presently is proposing a new form of accreditation that is "outcome-based," in which students' performances are measured.
Said Klicka, "If the product (student performance) were to be regulated rather than the process, then I think it would work for home-schoolers. When you regulate the process, that's where you run into these constitutional rights that parents have."