It started as an experiment more than 25 years ago.

Ahwatukee Foothills mom Diana Smith, along with husband Jim, were exploring education ideas for their 5-year-old twins. The boys were completing their first year of preschool, but the couple wanted to look beyond their neighborhood kindergarten for the following year.

While both boys were very bright, one suffered a brain injury during birth and had some issues with gross motor skills. The Smiths didn't want the boys separated at school, nor did they feel their child needed to be in special education.

"Children in our modern system, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. That spurred us into reading," Diana says.

A friend invited Diana to what was then the second Arizona State Homeschool Convention. It guided the Smiths into an idea that's grown for them - and thousands of others across Arizona.

"We decided to do it for one year. The years have gone on and on and on to 26 years. It's been a great blessing for our family," Diana says.

Diana has since home-schooled all nine of her children. The oldest seven have graduated and have either completed or are pursing college.

Home-schooling is the fastest growing segment of education in the country, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The National Home Education Research Institute estimates more than 2 million children are home-schooled in the United States, making up just under 5 percent of the school-age population. But, when the Smiths began, there were only about 20,000 nationwide.

Arizona is one of the most open states for home-schooling. To get started, families just register with a county superintendent and agree to teach reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science. Other states require parents to send in students' test scores or submit curriculum for approval.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation that updates Arizona's definition of "home-school" to read: "a nonpublic school conducted primarily by the parent, guardian or other person who has custody of the child or nonpublic instruction provided in the child's home."

Before getting started, Diana Smith recommends parents decide their educational philosophy to guide them.

Parents should question: "Why am I doing this? What am I doing this for? What's going to keep driving and motivating my choices?"

"Our overarching goals were to train their character, develop in them a love for learning by giving them the tools for learning. If parents can find a vision, they can find the tools to help them achieve that vision," she says.

What that looks like may vary by each child.

‘A neat time'

In the home of the Casteel family in Gilbert sit multiple three-ring binders with lessons on spelling, science, history and more. Kari Casteel is the family's mom, principal and teacher, and she has been for almost a decade.

Kari began home-schooling with her oldest daughter, Grace, now 14. Today, her students include the family's oldest six children, including lessons for 3-year-old Hazel. Nine-month-old David is awaiting his turn.

Kari keeps a color-coded schedule, but as any parent knows, she stays flexible.

On the day a reporter visits, Kari starts with spelling tests. She sets the kitchen timer as first Joel, 11, then the other children, come to her at the kitchen table for their quiz.

When not with mom, the children work at their own pace. Sophia, 7, practices handwriting. Grace studies math in the dining room.

Kari herself was home-schooled for a few years. As an adult, she worked in schools. But as her children reached school age, she returned to the home-school approach.

"At first, it was pretty selfish reason," she says, noting her desire to be with her children. "I think it's been a neat time for my family. I'll never regret spending this time with my kids."

Scheduling freedom

Ahwatukee Foothills resident Lisa Jisa said home-schooling her three children gives her freedom to create her own schedule and individualize the instruction for each child.

"Each of my kids is different in the way that they learn," she says. "It's what God called me to do, but it's not for religious purposes, only. We have the ability to go on more field trips and revolve the teaching around our schedule."

Her son, Ben, 18, is taking college classes and wants to continue his education at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in the fall.

"He is very well suited for it," Jisa said. "He has also been able to come to Uganda twice with me because of the freedom."

Gaining independence

As home-school children get older, they become more independent, parents say.

Chandler resident Rachel Callahan, 18, is a good example.

"The last two years I've been doing all my school on my own. Every day (mom) makes me a list and I finish that," Rachel says.

While Rachel jokes the best part of home-school is "going to school in my pajamas," she talks most about the relationships she's developed with other home-schoolers through history or writing co-ops or weekly physical education sessions in Gilbert. Those opportunities have helped address the social aspects students normally encounter in public school.

"I really enjoy the friends I've made," she says. "We didn't socialize all that much in my younger years. Now we're really connected. I have a lot of really, really close friends. I like the one-on-one time with my mom."

Rachel recently enrolled in a college class, a move she made to see "where do I stand and what am I good at?"

"You have to be strong willed. My parents are competent and strong willed," she says.

At her house, school starts at 9 a.m. and typically doesn't end until 4 p.m. Like other families, her mom, Roxanne Callahan, began home-schooling Rachel early on.

Each year, Roxanne evaluates curriculum - which can be reviewed at the state convention - and purchases what she needs. She and her husband, both engineers by training, take a cooperative approach.

"Over the years I bet we've spent from $150 a year for two kids to sometimes something expensive, like $600 for a year," she said. "We buy the books that custom fit to our kids."

She also tracks every lesson her two children have undertaken.

"I have a journal of everything they did, every day," she said.

When it comes to graduation most colleges will look at home-schoolers' ACT or SAT scores, Roxanne says.

"Colleges will be seeking them out. They know they've been trained to work more independently a lot of times," Roxanne adds. They've had that one-on-one tutoring. They'll strive for leadership positions and sometimes they'll have more maturity because they had that," Roxanne adds.

Mixing and matching

It doesn't have to be an all or nothing situation, either. Some families home-school some of their kids, while sending siblings to public or private schools. Some parents may home-school one year, but not the next.

That was the case for Courtney Asher, 17, a home-school senior in Gilbert. But she prefers home-schooling.

"My relationship with my parents has grown from being home with them and spending more time with them," she said.

"I didn't like public school that much, mostly because of the atmosphere I was in. It was a little crowded. I was used to being home with my family. I can usually get my work done and I can spend as much time as I want to."

By the numbers

Home-school families must register with the county. The Maricopa County Education Services Agency reports 9,300 home-school students - more than some Arizona school districts.

Statewide, Arizona Families for Home Education estimates 25,000 students are being educated by a parent or guardian.

Don't confuse distance or online learning with home education, advocates say. If a student is taking an Internet-based course offered through a school district or charter school, they are counted as part of their enrollment.

Some students do take a class or two with their local public or private schools. Mesa Unified School District's Eagleridge Enrichment program offers that opportunity. About 500 students have done that each of the past few years.

But most parents purchase curriculum or participate in co-ops to deliver education on their own, said Carol Shippy, board member and legislative liaison with Arizona Families for Home Education.

"It's just been a real great experience for our family. It's not for everyone, but it works for those who choose it," she said. "Our last convention was our best-attended convention ever with 4,800 attendees."

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