NEW PORT RICHEY
Logan Chow hunched over his laptop computer Thursday morning, Geo Slay by his side, as the 12-year-olds programmed directions for their Lego robot.
Across the living room, Logan's older sister, Madison, put together a robot with Madison Veeneman, aiming to perfect the design for its task of "saving" a paper lady on a trapeze.
Younger sister Chloe, 7, zipped in and out, stopping to help when she could. Their mom, Michele, hung out in the kitchen with other mothers, talking chemistry lessons and preparing to lead the kids in a literature discussion on The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
"I really like homeschooling," said Madison Chow, 14, whose entry into kindergarten launched her family into home education. "You get to learn about whatever you are interested in, and you get to have really neat experiences, like cool field trips and the robotics team."
A growing number of Pasco County families are heading down that same path.
At the start of classes this fall, 1,804 students from 1,108 families were registered for homeschooling. That 13.5 percent increase in students, and 19.5 percent growth in participating families, outstripped the state rise over the same period.
District officials said the number grew to 2,121 homeschooled children within the first month of classes, making home education the most popular option for luring students out of Pasco's traditional public schools.
School Board members have expressed concerns with the numbers of families leaving the schools, which, in turn, reduces the funding for district programs and activities. Each Pasco public school student generates about $6,334 in state and local funds for the district. By losing more than 2,000 students to homeschooling, the district is missing out on roughly $13 million.
Board members have asked the administration for more details about why parents are departing, so they can look for ways to retain them.
"We cannot afford to lose any more funds than we've already lost," board member Steve Luikart said at a recent meeting.
It might be hard to get a single answer on the growth of home education's popularity, though.
"There's really a wide range of reasons," said Shelly Clegg, who leads the Victorious Home School Group in Wesley Chapel. "It's a personal reason for each family."
Some are driven by religion. Some want their children to have more one-to-one attention. Some don't like the social atmosphere of schools. That's just a start.
"As a parent, we know our children best," said Clegg, who home schools her four children.
She said she decided to homeschool when her oldest, Jazmyn, was in first grade at Quail Hollow Elementary. Her goal at the time was to have more quality family time, which, in turn, allowed her to instill more faith in their lives.
Also, Clegg added, by focusing on her children's personal interests, the lessons are more exciting, creative and fun. That means they remember more, she said.
"It has been a decision I have not regretted," Clegg said.
The Tampa Bay area offers a wide array of support for homeschooling families. They have learning cooperatives, websites and conferences filled with materials and instructional advice.
Parks, community centers and attractions welcome homeschool groups for field trips and activities such as proms and spelling bees.
"Florida is very friendly for homeschooling," said Dan Edgar of Land O'Lakes, whose three sons are homeschooled.
That hasn't always been true.
Nine years ago, when Michele Chow started homeschooling because of her son's severe nut allergies, people would stare and tsk when they saw her out with her kids during a school day. Homeschool parents felt like they had to buck the system, she said.
"It's become a viable option," she said, noting that many parents now comment on how they wish they could do it, too.
Shelley Kappeler of Land O'Lakes took the plunge with her son, John David, a year ago and found it a "wonderful experience."
Kappeler, a teacher and one-time parent-teaching association president, said that she didn't see a commitment to science and technology in Pine View Middle School, where her son was to begin as a sixth-grader. He wanted to pursue collaborative science projects, such as robotics.
The administrator who greeted the families for open house opened with "How about those Rays?"
"We turned in our forms to homeschool the next day," Kappeler recalled. "We had the opportunity to say, He is only young once. We are going to take this opportunity."
John David got to focus on robotics. The family got to take extended trips without worrying about missed lessons and tests. Florida Virtual School and other national programs supplemented the sixth-grader's lessons such that, when all was said and done, his scores on standardized assessments shot up.
Only after finding the Learning Gate charter school in Hillsborough County, which Kappeler said better met her son's learning needs, did she decide to send him back to school.
"I certainly hope that Pasco wakes up," she said.
While some parents and children might be looking for something better from the public schools, others simply aren't. Many don't even know the name of the schools they're zoned to attend, because they don't care.
"We sometimes hear people talking about how they can't wait for school to start so their kids will be out of the house," said Edgar, the Land O'Lakes dad. "We don't long for them to be away. … There are so many benefits to homeschooling."
The kids learn together. They are close as a family. They have plenty of opportunities to make friends, get physical activity and receive a well-rounded life.
"It's really a rewarding experience," Edgar said.
Geo Slay couldn't agree more.
"I love it," he said,. "You get to meet all these interesting people, hang out with your friends all day, do the math and science. The only thing I can see in school is to hang out with friends, and I have friends here."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.