It's not every day you see wholesome-looking families carousing Bourbon Street, but that's the sight this weekend at St. Charles' Pheasant Run Resort as 1,100 homeschoolers attend the 12th annual InHome Conference.
Although homeschooling is largely associated with religious conservatives, it's a growing field, with almost as many reasons for parents to teach their own children as there are homeschooling families.
The InHome Conference promotes "Illinois nonsectarian homeschooling options for a meaningful education," and Amish or Mennonite men with jawline beards, Muslim women with their heads covered and dads in polo shirts and khaki pants all blend into a crowd of all races and classes.
It's just a little incongruous to see them strolling Pheasant Run's faux Bourbon Street area.
Yet if that's a visual clue that distinguishes this group of homeschoolers from religious conservatives, who hold their own statewide conference elsewhere, so be it. They're more than welcome at the InHome Conference, which is all-inclusive, but it doesn't cater solely to them.
"We have Muslim homeschoolers and Jewish homeschoolers and atheist homeschoolers, and everybody has a place here," said Coleen Davison, of Naperville, treasurer of the Home Educators Conference Fund, the nonprofit, all-volunteer agency that runs InHome.
"It has changed dramatically," said Christine Field, of Wheaton, who has written several books on the subject while homeschooling four children. When she left her job as an attorney to start out in it, 14 years ago, an estimated 85 percent of homeschoolers were Evangelicals. In recent years the overall number of homeschoolers has grown 8 percent annually, to the point where 1.5 million to 2 million students are learning at home, perhaps as much as 3 percent of all U.S. school-age children.
"It's certainly grown through the years," Davison said. "Because when I started people would say, 'Homeschooling, can you do that? Is it legal?' And now everybody knows somebody who homeschools.
"Illinois is a very homeschooling-friendly state," Davison added. In fact, "because Illinois does not register you as a homeschooler, it's really impossible to say" how many families statewide have opted to open what amounts to their own private schools.
Yet there's no doubt the practice is growing, and each family seems to have its own reasons. Why did Davison?
"It's sort of a natural extension of our parenting style," she said. It was a matter of stressing "creativity" and "academic excellence" in her children, Field said.
"The numbers are growing," she said in giving a workshop on "Homeschooling 101." "Why? Because it works. ... One-on-one tutoring. You can't get that in a schoolroom with 30 kids."
That's the same conclusion reached by Laura Endres, a former schoolteacher from rural Davis outside Rockford. "I never imagined in a million years that I would homeschool," she said. "I was going to teach, and I loved it. I loved the kids. I don't like the system. That's my criticism. ... So we decided to give it a try, and we never went back."
Field is the first to say it's not for everyone. Although she knows some single-parent homeschoolers, it all but requires a stay-at-home parent, almost always the mother, and it has to suit both the parent and the child. It's also no free ride. Parents are expected to teach their children, and they can be challenged by state agencies to show they're doing so in a proficient manner.
There are several basic curriculum styles, ranging from a religious-minded education to a classical education to "unschooling," Endres' approach, which stresses a more free-form based on a child's natural curiosity.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find two families that homeschool in the same way," she said. "It's a wide range of philosophies and styles."
Yet all emphasized the rewards and the way it brings families - especially siblings - together.
All pooh-poohed critics who suggest formal schooling is necessary to socialize a "normal" child.
"It's almost like they think we have the kids in the crawl space memorizing Leviticus," Field said. "...What I like to think is that we're teaching our kids to get along with kids of all ages ... not just on the peer-to-peer level."
When it comes to making friends, Endres added, there are many more opportunities than just going to school. "If your kid wants to play baseball, he'll play baseball," she said.
Davison's older son entered school as a sophomore in high school and is now a senior at Benet Academy in Lisle. He's looking to attend Carthage College or the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall, as homeschool kids are suddenly sought after by colleges out to expand their diversity. (Field points out they also tend to score slightly higher in exams like the ACT.)
Endres' older son tried high school in order to play soccer, but found he missed the freedom of learning on his own. At 16, he's now mixing homeschooling with community college classes.
"If you teach your kids to love learning and how to learn and how to study, they'll be ready," she said.
Field's "Homeschooling 101" workshop was filled with parents and small children who are just beginning to contemplate what they'll be doing in a few years. The early teacher-student relationship was evident, as a toddler in a stroller in the aisle worked at learning how to reach for and grasp a spoon and a Tupperware lid and how to play peek-a-boo with his mother.