When Michael Polino's playmates trudge off to school, the 7-year-old stays at home, where the dining-room table becomes his desk and his parents double as his teachers.
The Lemont, Ill., youngster has started first grade at home in what has become an increasingly popular but much debated alternative to public school.
Dismayed at the troubled state of public education and certain they can do better, hundreds of thousands of parents have begun teaching their children at home. In the last five years, the number of children taught at home has increased nearly fivefold, to between 300,000 to 500,000 from between 60,000 and 120,000 children. 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.
Educators say that the movement is ill-advised because it leaves some students vulnerable to well-meaning but unqualified parents and can strip youngsters of the chance to develop social skills.
Even 500,000 children represent a small a fraction of the 46.2 million students enrolled in public schools, but the recent surge in growth has been startling. In the 1970s, government and home-school groups estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 students were taught at home, most in families doing so for religious reasons. Now a broader group of parents is choosing to teach their children at home.
"You're seeing more yuppies come into home-schooling," said Sandy Hall of Seattle, a spokeswoman for the National Homeschool Association who teaches her two children at home. "A lot of that has to do with knowing that it is an option. So many people still assume that you have to send your child to public or private school."
In the past, those dissatisfied with public school tended to think their only alternative was private school, and for many, that was too expensive. But with increasing concerns regarding drugs and crime in public schools and a decline in the quality of teachers, parents who cannot afford or dislike the notion of private school have felt compelled to find another option.
"These parents feel it is their duty to raise their children, and they enjoy being with them," said Patrick Farenga, president of Holt Associates Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., research and publishing company, which publishes curricular materials for home-schooling. "Also, they don't want them to be hurt spiritually, physically or mentally -- and all those fall into a reaction against public school."
Home-schooling has long been used by families with fundamentalist religious backgrounds, but its growth beyond that group has made professional educators and state education departments jittery.
Attacking what they call an abandonment of public education when it needs help from all, officials in many states have moved to tighten rules for education in the home. In some states, like Michigan, that has set off lawsuits from home-school families who are upset over attempts to enact more rigid regulations. But all states permit home-schooling.
On any given day, Michael Pollino tackles math from a first-grade math workbook, aided by numbered blocks set up like an abacus. His mother, Mary, teaches him reading and writing, while his father, Richard, shares computer skills. One or the other sits down with him for formal lessons for two to three hours a day, they estimate. His education is rounded out by trips to nearby Chicago museums.
"I was against the idea of home-schooling at the beginning," said Mrs. Polino. But her sister had been doing it for a few years, and Michael liked the idea, partly because he had seen his cousins being taught at home and partly because he had hated the local elementary school when he visited.
So Mrs. Polino, who was worried about the quality of public education anyway, decided to try teaching Michael at home. She sold the women's clothing shop she owned, and the family now lives on the income from her husband's restaurant.
She initially fretted about Michael's social skills and academic progress, but after four months of home education, Mrs. Polino is confident on both counts.
Michael has completed one-third of an alphabet and reading curriculum designed for home-schoolers and intended for use through the third grade, she said. He seems to be benefiting from personal attention and the allowance to learn at his own pace.
The first-grader also has joined a soccer team, alleviating his mother's concerns about mixing with other children his age. He takes ice-skating lessons and will start karate in the spring.
"He has more time to do the work," said Mrs. Polino, explaining Michael's progress. "And it's nice that he has time to do other things."
In Seattle, Mrs. Hall said she started teaching her children at home because she was worried they would not get enough attention from the teacher. The biggest difference between public school and home-schooling for her 9-year-old son, Kyle, and 8-year-old daughter, Cassandra, she said, is Mrs. Hall herself.