It's 8 a.m. and school begins with a prayer, a song and the Pledge of Allegiance for Heather, 11, Tessa, 8, and Priscilla Ring, 5, of Ellicott City.
A few miles away in West Friendship, their friend Allison Jackson, 10, begins the day by inspecting the root systems of a sweet potato, carrot and leaf that are displayed on a window sill nearher "desk" -- the family's round oak kitchen table.
In the Patapsco area, Liesel Kloetzli, 10, reads while her younger siblings -- John, 7, and Abigail, 5, -- work on their lessons with their mother.
The seven children are among 242 in the county beingschooled at home by their parents. The parents' reasons for home-schooling are as varied as their methods, but all share a common thread -- the desire to give their children a quality education.
"I had originally thought it would be nice to home-school so that my childrencould be home with me, rather than, at the age of 5, being sent off in someone else's care," said Alice Kloetzli, 40, who began teaching at home in 1986. "I never had a long-range goal for home-schooling."
But, she said, "Each year they were flourishing, and I continued."
After researching the idea of home-schooling, Debbie Jackson, a former nurse, decided to begin home-schooling her daughter, Allison, in July 1988.
Jackson, 39, said she didn't like the "negative peer pressure" Allison experienced in public school.
"The kids were obsessed with (clothing) brand names in the first grade," she said.
All three families belong to a support group for home-schoolers that is run by the Chapelgate Presbyterian Church in Marriottsville. The group is an offshoot of the Christian Home Educators Network in Baltimore, a large organization that organizes book fairs, standardized testing and teaching seminars.
About 28 families belong to the Chapelgate group, which also offers Thursday afternoon classes in art, music, physical education and other subjects for about 46 children.
BeaEney, a Chapelgate church member and former education director of a private school in Baltimore County, coordinates the group. Initially,she did not support home-schooling.
"I had only known a couple offamilies who were doing it," she said. Three years ago, when the parents said they needed a coordinator to organize the Thursday classes,they drafted Eney.
"After getting to know the moms and testing their children, I discovered that the usual things that you associate with home-schooling are not true. . . . I used to believe that if you were not trained to be a teacher, you couldn't teach. And yet, so many of the mothers who are not trained as teachers seem to be doing a fabulous job," Eney said.
Home-schoolers rely on extensive networking and a variety of resources.
Jackson launched her teaching with a curriculum from the Walkersville Christian Family Schools, a home-schooling organization in Frederick County. For a $600-a-year fee, Walkersville recommends books, handles testing and keeps all school records. She shares $40 teacher guides with other families.
Mary Beth Ring, 39, formulated her own curriculum after talking to other educators, and she says local school officials have been "very helpful."
"They review what we have done; if there are any areas where they think we need help, they give us suggestions," she said.
Home-schooling is recognized by the state, but parents must have advance approval and most are required to file a record of each child's work to their local school board.
Critics question how children who are taughtat home learn social skills. But local parents point to many group activities and classes planned by their support group. The children's interests and hobbies also link them with their peers, parents say.
They even trade students occasionally. Allison Jackson takes art history classes once a week from a neighbor who teaches her own three daughters at home.
Ring, 39, wasn't convinced at first that home-schooling was the best answer for her family.
"It was my husband's idea," said Ring, a former private-school teacher who taught briefly after graduating from college. She
started home-schooling in 1984, when the eldest two of her five children were 8 and 7 years old.
"Home-schooling was new then, and I wasn't sure it was a good idea," Ring said. But the Rings wanted their children to learn Christian values.
"Schools are not allowed to teach what's right and what's wrong. . . . There are some (negative) things our kids pick up," she said. "Elementary kids are easily influenced."
After six years of home-schooling, the two children re-entered the public schools and now attend Glenelg High School. The couple's three younger children continue learning at home, however.
Some fathers also participate in the home-schooling. Jeffrey Ring, for example, leads a 45-minute math class for his children at 7:30 each morning before going to work.
Through her experience, Mary Beth Ring says she has learned a few things.
She says she believes that children will "take off" academicallywhen they are ready.
"When you push, it's not good," she said. Ifchildren are good in a subject, they will want to learn more, and the areas in which they are weak will eventually improve, she said. Shealso maintains that children will exhibit signs when they are ready for outside schooling. Next year her daughter Tessa, who is in the fifth grade, will go to Chapelgate Academy.
"I think she is ready; she's feeling independent, and there's a restlessness about her," Ringsaid.
Though the mothers sacrifice time -- each devotes about 20 hours a week to educate their children -- they say it's worth it and cite several advantages.
The children have a one-to-one relationship with their teacher, Ring said, and "they can't daydream."
"We never go on until she understands," Jackson said of her daughter. "Andthey (home-schoolers) can't get away with the-dog-ate-my-homework excuse," she said. "They are totally accountable."