CHARLESTON, Ill. -- While public school students are back in the classroom for a new year, home-school families are hitting the books in a different way.
Some children will sit around the dining room table for daily lessons, while others will read on the backyard trampoline. A typical day may start with breakfast and Bible study as a family or be a mixture of schoolwork and a part-time job spread throughout the day.
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Regardless of the curriculum, teaching style or daily schedule, home-school families in East Central Illinois share a common goal with each other and their counterparts in the public school system -- to ensure their children receive a high-quality education.
The East Central Illinois Home Educator's Network is a home-school support group with more than 40 member families. The organization officially meets once a month to build relationships among group members, talk about curriculum, see what other families are doing and host social activities.
"Home schooling is a whole family thing," said ECIHEN member Elisabeth Boggs of Charleston.
Boggs is the primary teacher to her two sons, Nathan, 8, and Luke, 6. But with home schooling, the family has the opportunity to learn together.
"We're getting a second chance at an education," she said.
Boggs is in her fourth year of home schooling and uses a classical model of education in her lessons. With the classical model, the focus is on mastering the tools of learning, she said.
"They are given the tools to learn anything," Boggs said. "There will be majors in college that we don't even know about yet."
Boggs uses what are known as living books to teach her sons about topics ranging from the Vikings to destinations the family visits on vacation. Living books look like a typical children's book with text and colorful pictures but are more focused on learning, she said.
While Boggs has her own extensive library in their home, she also orders from websites such as SonLight.com and utilizes the Charleston Carnegie Public Library for additional materials.
"Libraries are great sources. They (librarians) share the passion for reading and learning," said Laura Robey, a mother of two from Arcola.
Robey began home schooling her 8-year-old daughter, Nancy, four years ago because she had a late birthday.
Like Boggs, Robey will be using the classical model with her daughter this year, but she originally started with a kit.
"There's so much to choose from. You find what you like and what fits your family," Robey said. "It's very different than it used to be. Twenty years ago, there wasn't enough to pick from. Now, there is so much."
Last year, she and group member Bethany Stewart of Charleston completed a unit study with their children using the Little House on the Prairie books and took a family trip at the end of the summer.
Robey's husband, a graphic designer at Libman in Arcola, read the books for the first time along with their daughter.
"He's picking up on stuff he missed, too. He's more involved because we home-school," Boggs said.
Stewart, who home-schools her 7-year old daughter, Eliana, and 4-year-old twin sons Josiah and Jeremiah, in addition to caring for 2-year-old Asher, uses an eclectic model for her family.
"We try different things and see what works," she said. "We adapt and change."
While this is the Stewart family's fourth official year home schooling, it is something she and her husband always planned to do, she said.
Stewart explains the home schooling process as "fascinating."
"I don't think it (the curriculum) was all connected. Now, I get to see how it all works together," she said.
Home schooling allows for flexibility in the Stewarts' weekly schedule. They take their weekend on Thursday and Friday to coincide with her husband's work schedule, she said.
Flexibility is one advantage that Debbe Scott enjoys as a home-school parent to her five children, ranging in age from 12 to three months.
Her family volunteers at a nursing home in Neoga, something they may not have time to do if it wasn't a part of their home-school routine.
"We tend to be pretty structured because I need it," she said. "We don't stick to set times, but we have a routine."
Scott's children begin the day with breakfast, chores and Bible time. Using an eclectic model that combines traditional textbook methods with the classical model, they study reading, writing and math before breaking for lunch and recess. An afternoon consists of reading, science and history. They also have music and art lessons or visit the library each week, she said.
"We get up and move about the world freely," she said.
Getting out and about in the community is another of the perks that members of the ECIHEN enjoy.
The parents plan activities for the children in group such as outings to local parks, and several of the area libraries have weekly or monthly programs for home-schooled children. Douglas-Hart Nature Center near Mattoon also does a home-school program once a month. The group's website has a list of events that are accessible only to the members, Robey said.
"When the kids get together, they all play together. They feel confident with other kids," Scott said.
Kris Rensner of Effingham has home-schooled six children. Although she is not as active with the ECIHEN now as in the past because her children are older, she doesn't find socialization to be an issue with home-schooled children.
"Once you quit thinking that socialization means just spending time with kids who are in your grade, you realize that our kids socialize all the time," Rensner said. "They participate in our church's youth group, play sports through our local park district, take music lessons, give music lessons, mow neighborhood yards, hold down jobs, go to summer camp, attend activities with our home schooling group, hang out with their buddies and make friends everywhere they go."
"There used to be a fear that home-schoolers were private people," Robey said. "Illinois is more open. It's welcomed and accepted. Family and education are so important in our small towns."
State law regarding home schooling is a topic that Robey and Scott both recommend for anyone interested in home schooling research.
For example, Illinois does not require home-school students to participate in standardized testing. However, the parents in the group host a testing once a year for the members who wish to have their children tested, Robey said.
Rensner's oldest daughter recently began her freshman year in college at Concordia University in Seward, Neb. She took the PSAT and ACT at area schools and took the SAT test.
"We prepared our daughter, and are preparing the rest of them, by offering her a solid, college preparatory curriculum through high school," Rensner said. "We contacted colleges early and asked a lot of questions about the admissions process. We prepared a transcript that gave a good picture of the classes she took and the grades she earned. We experienced absolutely no problems with admission. They were very accepting and eager to have her as a student."
"The most important thing is to get connected," Boggs added. "It gets rid of the myths."