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Twenty years ago, homeschooling was a crime in Florida. Parents who wanted to teach their kids at home did so in secrecy. With blinds drawn. They wanted to protect their kids from society's evils; society, in turn, thought of them as zealots.

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Ina group of parents huddled in an Orlando convention center to form an association of homeschoolers. The group, in the words of a founding member, was "pretty weird. Homeschooling has gone mainstream. It has graduations and conventions, yearbooks and extracurriculars. Kids learn at co-ops, on the Internet, at museums and even at public schools. Increasingly, it's for people who don't want to schedule family time around dual careers, piano lessons and soccer practices.

They just want more time with their. Kelly Erickson was at a park eating lunch with her 3-year-old when a herd of school-aged kids stormed the play area. It was a school day, and she wondered where the children came from. Erickson, on the other hand, was a corporate sales representative, her husband was a Delta Air Lines pilot.

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After their infant daughter Abby almost died from a strep infection, the Ericksons rethought their priorities. Kelly Erickson resolved to spend more time being a mom to Abby and older sister Kimberly. She quit work. Now, she had time to volunteer at Trinity Elementary in southwest Pasco County. Now, she could stop to notice how bored Kimberly looked in class. Four years after her brush with homeschooling "freaks," Kelly Erickson decided homeschooling offered exactly what she and Doug were looking for: the possibility of a better education for their kids, and more time with them to boot.

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With a few clicks of a computer mouse, Kelly Erickson plunged into homeschooling. As her children napped, she crept into the family's home office, took out her American Express card and began buying. Math curriculum from eBay.

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Spelling from Amazon. Grammar lessons from RainbowResource. Homeschooling used to be a solitary endeavor.

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With no outside support, parents faced daunting practical questions: Where do I get a science textbook? Can I really teach eighth-grade math?

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But homeschooling has evolved into a remarkably communal activity, conducted via the Internet, the public schools and an elaborate system of community and commercial programs. Example: each month more than homeschool kids take classes at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry.

The of homeschooled students in Florida has jumped from 22, a decade ago to about 51, Vouchers get a lot of attention, but homeschooled students out Florida's voucher-educated almost 2-to What is now mouse-clickable for Kelly Erickson was a monster challenge for Brenda Dickinson.

InDickinson worried about how her daughter would fare in kindergarten because of her profound fear of strangers. To ease the transition, Dickinson wanted to sit in on some of Wendy's kindergarten classes. The principal's response shocked her:. Dickinson decided to teach Wendy at home. She just wanted to buy a year before placing her daughter into public school. But as a strong Christian, she soon came to regard homeschooling as one avenue to pass her faith on to her children.

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The only curriculum Dickinson could find in those days was a phonics program advertised in a newsletter from Phyllis Schlafly's conservative Eagle Forum. Dickinson mostly relied on library books, basic math concepts and her own research.

A year passed before she met another homeschool family. No surprise. Homeschooling was illegal. In that atmosphere, a smattering of parents gathered in Orlando in and organized what would become the Florida Parent Educators Association. Some of the folks, in founder Larry Walker's words, were "pretty weird. The next year, prodded by Dickinson and her husband Craig, the Legislature legalized homeschooling.

After Craig died inBrenda became the movement's standard-bearer. When her son wanted to play sports, Dickinson pushed for a law allowing homeschoolers to participate in public school extracurricular activities. When her daughter wanted to prove her viability as a college applicant, Dickinson pushed legislation to allow homeschoolers to dual-enroll, tuition-free, in community colleges. Thanks to pioneers like Dickinson, mainstream Florida families have in homeschooling another palatable alternative to conventional public schools.

In part, that's because a new generation has redefined "mainstream. Consumer research, of all things, helps explain the trend. Generation X mothers ages 26 to 40, by some definitions are more likely to stay at home with their children than their Baby Boomer predecessors, according to a study by Reach Advisors, which sells marketing advice.

While Baby Boomers sought to "have it all" through work, family and possessions, Generation Xers are increasingly likely to forgo a second income, it said. Homeschool parents, he said, "give up income and suspend a career aspiration for a while.

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But you get this kind of unstructured, unscheduled time with your kid, which is something that otherwise only really affluent people can do. It's a Tuesday, in the spring ofthree months into the Erickson's plunge into homeschooling.

Kimberly's siblings, Abby, 3, and Austin, 2, zip around the living room, excited from their midmorning dance break. Kelly and Doug spent the past three hours tag-teaming breakfast preparation for five, pajama shedding and teeth-brushing for three, math for one, coloring for two and counting in Spanish for four.

Before the Ericksons started homeschooling, Doug rarely saw Kimberly. Now, they spend hours and hours together. Dad and daughter settle in on the couch with a biology textbook. He hears her giggle when they turn to the off-color parts of the digestive system. He's there when she aces a math exam, struggles with her Spanish vocabulary, becomes anxious over a word problem.

A generation ago, when Brenda Dickinson homeschooled her daughter, she had to create lesson plans. If Dickinson was weak in a subject, there was no one to help. The law requires access to extracurricular activities. The Pinellas Parent Educators Association co-op has member families.

When she was 14, she took a physical science class at home via video before heading to Pinellas Park Middle at 9 a. Make that homeschool yearbook, where 10 Pinellas homeschoolers and three moms gathered to clip and lay out photographs of dozens of homeschoolers, their families, their lessons, their field trips, their social events, even their proms.

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Leja is the youngest of three Apple children, all homeschooled. Neoka and Dennis Apple, both 58, began homeschooling inthree years after the Florida Legislature legalized it. They are practicing Christians, but it wasn't their faith that led them to homeschool. Neoka had just given up a fast-paced career as a traveling nursing consultant to spend time at home with her little ones. Dennis was a psychologist with Pinellas County public schools.

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When their son's private kindergarten closed, someone mentioned homeschooling. The family started on a "let's see" basis and never stopped. They were among the first local homeschoolers to enroll part-time in public school. Now 15 and in high school, Leja takes all her classes through the dual-enrollment program at St. Petersburg College.

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Florida allows public, private and homeschooled students to take tuition-free classes at community colleges for high school and college credit. By the time Leja graduates from high school, she also will have completed her associates degree in college. The annual homeschool convention in Kissimmee brings together more than 3, families and vendors, packing two days and seven conference rooms with scores of seminars.

Some offerings: "Piecing together the high school puzzle," "Making math meaningful," "Nurturing competent writers," and "Orientation to homeschooling and Florida law. Inthe statewide homeschool graduation ceremony served just eight .

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The this year: The Florida Parent Educators Association is wrestling with how to represent homeschool families increasingly diverse in background and philosophy. Christian fundamentalists fueled the growth of homeschooling in the s. They could teach creationism and protect their children from "worldly" influences.

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These parents still make up the bulk of the homeschooling ranks.