Technology: The Modem Ate My Homework

On a typical school day, 14-year-old Stephen Fivash "surfs the net" on his homemade computer, gleaning academic inspiration from the Ken Griffey Jr. posters plastering his bedroom wall in suburban Seattle. Stephen's younger sister Margot tinkers on the Macintosh in her parents' bedroom down the hall. As she logs in more hours this term at the new Puget Sound Community School, the 12-year-old will learn how to submit homework by modern, tap into congressional records and gossip with her eight classmates via e-mail.

There are no standard-issue textbooks here. No lockers. No marching bands. No bells or bullhorns. This is a virtual school, conceived and led by a former alternative education teacher--one of a handful of high-tech experiments around the nation. At least four similar schools are opening in California, Texas and Michigan, challenging the notion that classrooms need walls, that home schools are for religious hermits and that children need structured courses in order to learn, The emerging phenomenon takes the controversial concept of home schooling into cyberspace, tethering children with technology rather than truant officers.

The 10 Washington cyberschool students meet as a group in libraries, bookstores and parks, demonstrating that home schooling no longer means learning takes place only in the home. Margot assists a local private-school kindergarten teacher in her class, teaching reading, tying little shoelaces. For his apprenticeship, Stephen chose to work at night learning computer programming at a software company. Other children are working alongside a wildlife biologist, a horse trainer and a licensed massage therapist. "I want to get away from the notion that learning is only what takes place in school," says the Puget Sound school founder, Andy Smallman, 31. Smallman is a certified teacher, but he doesn't need to be. Washington state requires that home-school instructors take 45 college credits or are supervised by another teacher. Beyond that, home schools need only register their existence with the state education department and submit scores on standardized tests every year.

At home, the 11- through 14-year-olds can download classic books and artwork from Internet files, peruse university libraries, join interactive classes and collaborate on academic projects with other children around the world. They can study algebra, writing and literature or dream interpretation, veterinary science and plant life. "What's happening in Washington and elsewhere is a hint of things to come," says educational consultant Lewis Perelman, author of "School's Out," a book promoting technology in education. "Technology has made it vastly more feasible to school at home."

Not everyone believes the fix for the nation's school woes is in terminals and modems. "I think the possibilities of technology and home schools are greatly exaggerated," says Dr. Patricia Lines, U.S. Department of Education policy analyst. "Technology will never replace the pupil-teacher relationship."

While the debate continues, the numbers point in one direction. The National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore., estimates that about 1 percent of the nation's 50 million school-age children are learning at home. The number has grown 15 percent a year since 1990. Washington state, with its relatively permissive home-schooling laws, has experienced its own boom. While only 14,000 of the state's 915,000 students are home-schooled, that number has nearly tripled since 1987.

Once the primary domain of either fundamentalist Christians or free-to-be hippies, home schooling is beginning to appeal to middle-class families searching for safe havens. The Seattle group has found a way to appeal to all three. Bound by a common threat--fear of public-school violence, mediocrity and unforgiving bureaucracies--these pioneer families are paying Smallman $4,500 tuition per child for the privilege of bailing out.

"I'm teaching them Christian values that the public schools weren't providing," says Margaret Fivash, who supervises Margot's and Stephen's educations. "I also want my kids to learn to take responsibility for their actions." Other parents have more ethereal expectations. "What you do and who you spend your time with is more important than simply sitting in a room eight hours a day," says Knute Berger, editor of a Seattle alternative newspaper and father of two. "School has nothing to do with place. It is about creating a personal orbit." And at Puget Community School, you can take a course in orbiting, too.