WHILE OTHER 15-YEAR-OLDS ARE struggling through geometry, the periodic table and the agony of high school social life, Gabriel Willow is blissfully pondering the body angles of fish, the mysteries of evolution, origami and anything else that intrigues him. "I've got a pile of about 12 fish books," says the teenager, who lives in rural Maine. "I'm looking for fish with the most exaggerated shapes that I can do in origami, things like puffer fish and angler fish, barracudas." What educational institution allows such freedom? None. Gabriel has spent virtually all of his school years at home. For an exceptionally bright, self-motivated kid, home-schooling is a salvation, he says. "Everything isn't divided up into half-hour learning periods," he says. "I can pursue my own interests as far as I want to take them."
Although there are no statistics on how many gifted students are turning to home schooling, educators who work with such kids say they believe the number is increasing. Financially beleaguered public schools across the country have cut gifted programs in recent years, figuring that bright kids will do fine in a regular classroom. But they don't. A recent Department of Education study found that smart kids desperately need work geared to their abilities. Students like Gabriel Willow, who live in rural areas, have the toughest time. They don't have many cultural institutions, like museums or colleges, for after-school stimulation. "Home-schooling is often their best choice," says Kathi Kearney, a specialist in gifted education at Columbia University who works with home-schoolers.
Although it sounds radical, home-schooling is legal in all 50 states. The Department of Education estimates that more than 350,000 children are homeschooled (out of 49 million kids in grades K through 12). A majority come from fundamentalist families who want to teach morality along with the three R's. Other parents just want to get their kids out of deteriorating public schools, says Patrick Farenga of Holt Associates in Cambridge, Mass., which publishes a newsletter for home-schoolers. Home-schooling isn't popular with many educators, who worry--legitimately--that the average parent doesn't know enough to teach at home. To help make sure that home-schooled kids get what they need, each state has its own rules. This is a daunting challenge for even committed parents. For guidance, they can turn to groups like Farenga's, specialists in local school districts and community-college faculties.
Dealing with the educational bureaucracy is just the first step. Try keeping up with a kid who never stops learning. Jo-Ann LaRue's 7-year-old son Adam was reading at 19 months. When she went to enroll him in nursery school at 4, she was told that he'd never fit in (his IQ has been tested at 192, she says). So she turned her Saratoga Springs, N.Y., home into a school for one. On a recent day, Adam worked on a seventh-and eighth-grade spelling book, algebra, geography, a computer math game and the piano. LaRue, trained as a software engineer, says she just gives him books or software and lets him go. "So far, I haven't found anything he doesn't like," she says.
For gifted children and other homeschoolers, making friends takes some effort. Some states and districts allow these kids to participate in extracurricular activities at the local school; in other areas, parents sign up for sports leagues or Scout troops. Adam LaRue, for example, takes swimming, karate and piano lessons. other home-schoolers band together for group activities. Gabriel Willow took a class on writing a research paper with other home-schoolers.
It's not easy being a teenager under any circumstances, but some homeschoolers say being away from regular school actually is a relief Barbara Alexander took her sons Elye and Ben out of their local public school in rural Vermont a decade ago when Elye was in sixth grade and Ben was in third grade because both boys were academically frustrated. As they got older, the community became their classroom and they worked with a retired college professor, a veterinarian, farmers and woodsmen. "If you're just used to being with kids your own age, you lose touch with everyone else," says Elye. He thinks his home-schooling experience made him more self-reliant when he entered Harvard four years ago. The adjustment wasn't difficult: "No one else had come to college before either." But his mother has had a hard time adjusting since Ben went off to Cornell this fall. For home-teachers, she says, "this empty-nest thing isn't easy."
Home-schooling isn't for everyone. It helps to have a close family, like the Alexanders, and parents who are committed to letting their children follow their own paths. "If the siblings detest each other and detest their parents, it's not going to work," says Elye. With gifted children in particular, the parents have to be willing to look for extra help. Gabriel Willow gets special tutoring in theoretical math. Does he miss having a teacher the rest of the time? "If I'm reading from a book, I'm learning," he says, "so the book is my teacher. If I'm out by the pond, I'm learning, so the pond is my teacher." And the best part is: he never has to worry about being late for class.