DEKALB, Ill. | By the time Michael Jaros was 4 years old, he was reading at a first-grade level.
Michael learned the alphabet at 18 months and was reading when he was 3. His father, George, had not planned to home-school his exceptionally bright son, but he feared he wouldn't fit in a public school setting. He would have to be at a grade level fit for his capabilities.
"You couldn't really put a kid with fourth-graders in school because they would tower over him," George Jaros said.
The schools also wouldn't allow him to advance more than one grade level, so his father settled on home schooling as a way to give Michael the freedom to learn at his own pace and in a more comfortable environment.
Home schooling is becoming a popular choice for parents who want their children to have an education public schools can't offer, said Jaros, one of the founders of the DeKalb County Home Educators. The group began last summer with two families, and more than 20 families have joined since, he said.
According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, an estimated 1.5 million students were home-schooled in 2007. The number increased from 1.1 million in 2003 and 850,000 in 1999.
Families have different reasons for home schooling their children. Some want the freedom to offer religious instruction. Others are concerned about the state of public schools.
Patty Ruback, the co-founder of the DeKalb County Home Educators, said she decided to home-school her 5-year-old daughter, Saige, because she didn't feel Saige was emotionally ready for preschool. Ruback didn't want to push her daughter into an uncomfortable situation and dampen her budding learning career.
"What I want for her to experience in life is a lifelong love of learning," Ruback said.
Illinois is a home-school friendly state, Jaros said. Home-schooled children are not required to register with the state and there are no testing requirements. Every couple of years, lawmakers try to make state registration and testing a requirement, he said. That goes against the idea of home schooling altogether.
"That's an ongoing battle to keep our freedoms and educate our kids the way we feel is best, without having to answer to our government," Jaros said.
Michael Jaros, now 7 and still learning at home, is bright beyond his years and an exception in needing home education.
What isn't an exception is the fear most parents face when thinking about home schooling: Socialization. Jaros said his parents, who were teachers themselves, argued Michael wouldn't have friends if he was home all the time.
Although the socialization Michael receives through home schooling is different from what is offered in public schools, it is not inferior, Jaros said. His son knows how to interact with children of different ages and even adults because he is around them all the time. Children who are taught outside the public school system are not kept at home, he said.
Through the DeKalb County Home Educators groups, families and their children collaborate on a variety of educational activities. They'll take nature trips and visit educational festivities.
Jaros's wife, Julie, a former high school science teacher, holds sessions on scientific topics for children in the group. Another teacher in the group may know Spanish and teach children Spanish, he said.
Jaros works from home and his wife is a homemaker. They made the decision to forgo the paychecks she was getting from her job as a teacher to educate Michael and their other son, 3-year-old Sam.
Jaros said he realizes it can be difficult for some families, especially single-parent families, to home-school their children.
Ruback said the costs of home schooling can vary depending on the family's curriculum. She spends about $300 to $500 a year but cuts down on costs by using the library and online educational materials.
Although he doesn't send his two sons to a public school, Jaros said he sees the need for a public school system and is aware of the struggles the system faces.
Ruback doesn't know if her daughter will someday go to a traditional school instead of being home-schooled. For now, she enjoys it. The flexibility and self-directed nature of their curriculum allows the family to explore whatever may interest them.
"We basically take advantage of learning in life," Ruback said.