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It's back to class, except for 'unschoolers'

TAMPA — Surrounded by piles of toys, paintbrushes and books, 4-year-old Sagan Lopez sprawls on the floor, diligently scribbling on a white calendar.

His mother, Susan Lopez, crouches behind Sagan — his namesake is Carl Sagan, the cosmologist — patiently responding when asked what is scheduled for today, tomorrow, next week.

"Today he's been asking a lot of questions about days and seasons and months," Lopez said. So a calendar forms his lesson plan.

As most students across the Tampa Bay area head into a new semester of classrooms, bell times and pop quizzes, a few will have no part of it.

Their families are adherents to the philosophy of "unschooling" — a principle that has been around as long as homeschooling, but hasn't gotten as much attention as the conservative Christian families where homeschoolers typically reside.

Unschooling is considered by experts to be on the other side of the spectrum, based on the idea that children themselves decide what they want to learn and only pursue their passions.

No standardized tests or grades. No recess or waiting in line or going to detention. No questionable cafeteria food.

"The great thing about unschooling is kids get to follow their heart," said Lopez, 46, who started her son on that path at an early age. "If he needs a skill, he'll learn it."

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It's hard to say how many unschoolers live in Florida. They operate under the umbrella of homeschoolers, who are not required to tell the state what educational approach they use.

In the 2012-13 school year, 75,801 students in the state were homeschooled, according to the Florida Department of Education. In the past five years, the total number of homeschooled kids increased nearly 25 percent.

Parents of unschoolers assert there's been an exponential increase in their philosophy both in Florida and nationwide. They meet on Facebook groups and chat rooms, comparing notes about the best museums in the area, planning meetups and offering advice on how to deal with an unschooler who only wants to play video games.

The Florida Unschoolers Network on Facebook has 506 members. In October, the Florida Unschooling Conference — "Un in the Sun" — is set to be held in St. Petersburg.

In Florida, it's reasonably easy to opt out of traditional school and choose to homeschool instead. State law requires that parents send a letter of intent to their school district's superintendent. Then, parents must keep a portfolio documenting what the child learned throughout the year. An annual evaluation is required to mark progress, and parents can choose that to be done by a teacher, standardized test or psychologist.

But the portfolios are seldom checked to see if they're thorough, unless someone contacts the state Department of Education to report neglect or if the child has a history of truancy.

Last year, the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, the state organization charged with overseeing homeschooling, reviewed only eight portfolios, said Dot Clark, director of charter schools and home education in Pinellas County.

Robert Kunzman, an education professor at Indiana University and expert on homeschooling, said that, in extreme cases, there's a risk of educational neglect —- that children are not exposed to valuable experiences and skills, thus suffering long-term.

"We all have slightly different standards when it comes to what it means to have a quality education," Kunzman said. "To me, it's a question of how are we providing parents and kids the flexibility to do schooling in different ways, but also have some sort of safety to protect the child from neglect."

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Adopting a lifestyle described in terms like "organic" and "natural," unschooling proponents embrace their roles as facilitators — not directors — of their child's education.

Lopez fits the part. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the London School of Economics, she traveled the world when she was younger — last count was 32 countries — and met Michael, now her husband, in Thailand.

When they moved to the United States and decided to start a family, Lopez said she learned how to be a mother by reading books, dozens of them.

When she discovered unschooling, it just felt right.

The living room of their home near Tampa is Sagan's classroom, centered on a big soft couch with pillows perfect for jumping on. His classroom is also the Museum of Science and Industry, the Bounce House, Monkey Joe's and the Jerk Hut cafe, where they recently had lunch.

Lopez's dream is to get a group of unschooling parents together to rent a community house, complete with a garden, where their children can learn together. The older kids would teach the younger ones, and the parents would supervise.

Down the road, when Sagan turns 18, Lopez said, he could attend a community college, take the SAT and apply to a university, or not to go college at all.

It'll be up to him.