TAMPA — I learned on Facebook — where else? — that Crystal Pepkowski was homeschooling her three kids.
It had been awhile since Pepkowski moved out of our Carrollwood neighborhood at the height of the foreclosure crisis. She found a sweeter rental deal in Polk County, but the schools were a big disappointment.
There was little parent involvement in her oldest child's school, she said. They were zoned for a failing middle school. Things were better at her son's school. But Pepkowski and her husband didn't like having to pay $25 each for a background screening to take part in school activities.
In Hillsborough there is no charge to parents. "I took that for granted," she said.
She took a lot for granted.
Teachers in Polk kept telling her things were not in their contracts, she said. She had to practically stalk a math teacher for a conference.
Since her youngest son was just shy of the cut-off age for kindergarten, Pepkowski was teaching him anyway.
One thing led to another.
The family got involved with a Pentecostal church. They learned about homeschool co-ops. They met homeschool families. They saw how those children behaved. "I want my kids to be like that," she said.
Here's where you need to know that Pepkowski does not have a lot of formal education. High school is as far as she went. She worked in retail until the recession cut so far into her earnings, she couldn't afford the day care. Her husband, construction manager for a pizza chain, is the one with the college education.
But Pepkowski is confident she can navigate homeschooling with the correct guidance — from fellow homeschoolers — and curriculum products, which generally include parent guides. There's a ton of information offered online by the Florida Parent Educators Association, which serves 6,000 member families.
After attending an FPEA convention recently, she pulled together a curriculum from several sources, including the faith-based Christian Light Publications. She paid about $400 for all three kids. Back when she sent them to school, "I spent more than that on school supplies," she said.
There are enough clubs available to homeschoolers to get her kids out every day. There are graduations. There are proms. And with the activities her kids already enjoy — Scouts, soccer, volleyball and church — they'll socialize plenty.
When we spoke, Pepkowski's 12-year-old had already made the transition to homeschooling — despite an argument about whether she needed to take the FCAT this year. (Pepkowski verified she did not.)
Her 8-year-old was finishing the school year, complaining that other kids were teasing him, saying he wanted to kiss a girl. That made Pepkowski like her choice even more. She thinks school forces kids to choose between bullying or being bullied. "And I don't want either one."
If you believe the widely quoted estimates, more than 1 million U.S. children were homeschooled in 2003, and that number is approaching 2 million. That's in addition to charter schools, vouchers used for private schools and other alternatives to conventional public education.
What does Pepkowski think has fueled this exodus?
"A lot of it is the other kids," she said. "I say if you're sending your kid to school so he'll learn how to defend himself, you've got it backwards. And when my daughter is told she is an idiot for being a virgin, that's not okay. That's crossing the line."
She has met moms who spend big bucks on high-tech programs that essentially sit the children in front of computers. That's not an option for Pepkowski, also an accomplished coupon clipper.
If this sounds like a lot of work, consider the time wasted in school for attendance, behavior problems and announcements — so much, she said, that you can probably finish a day's instruction in two hours.
She realizes when her kids get to high school she'll be learning alongside them.
"I don't know what my plan is for next year," she said. "But I have a plan for this fall."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.