Scott Butler could not stand high school. On the days he made it to class, it felt like a waste of time.
"It was hard to pay attention," he said. "I really wasn't learning anything — a lot of distractions."
When he was pulled by his parents from Wilson Senior High School and his education overseen at home, the family joined the fast-growing trend of home schooling. Once considered the realm of the ideologically or religiously extreme, home schooling is becoming a mainstream option.
"I can pace myself more, and I can learn about subjects that interest me," Scott said.
A leading advocate of home schooling says 1 million to 2 million children, representing 2 percent to 4 percent of all U.S. schoolchildren, are taught at home. The latest government numbers, from 1999, put the total at 850,000. But Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute contends the federal figure is low because some home-schooled students do not report themselves.
The easy availability of learning materials — from teach-yourself textbooks to online courses and distance-learning degrees — has helped broaden the appeal of home schooling. Companies that cater to at-home learners also attest to the boom.
Alpha Books caught the wave. In 2001, the publisher added a home schooling title to its "Complete Idiot's Guide" series.
Some companies offer full curricula along with the books and materials, and some schools — private and public — vouch for at-home learners by granting course credit, degrees and diplomas.
Home schooling options abound, partly because traditional rules do not apply. That is a sore point for critics who say home schoolers are getting special treatment.
Parents can teach their kids almost anything, in any fashion, at home. While 31 states require some kind of academic accountability standardized testing, for example — home schoolers are not bound by any federal rules.
At-home learners can cut some corners when it comes to federal aid for higher education. Traditional students must earn a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent — a GED, for instance. But home schoolers have a special line in the federal booklet on government aid exempting them from the listed requirements.
"We think the same rules ought to apply to everybody, and this appears to be an instance in which an exception is being made," said Bud Blakey, Washington counsel to the United Negro College Fund. "We don't understand why this group of kids is being treated differently."
Ninety-six percent of colleges reported a steady or higher number of home-schooled applicants last year.
In 2000, 50 percent of colleges and universities had a formal policy for home-schooled applicants. By 2003, 75 percent had such a policy.
"The colleges have responded probably as quickly as I've ever seen them respond to an admission-policy issue of this magnitude," said David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Counseling.
Home-schooling methods run the gamut from extremely structured classroom-type lessons to "unschooling" techniques, where the student's interest rather than a curriculum determine the content of the learning. Many home schoolers take at least a few classes at a local school or community college.
Craig and Ann Williams use some textbooks but no set curriculum in the education of their six children.
"We don't believe in just sitting them in a seat and putting them through a cookie-cutter process." Craig Williams said from his home in Vancouver, Wash. "We believe in natural curiosity, and as long as there's curiosity to learn, they will learn."
Last spring, the Williams' oldest child, 14-year-old James, won the National Geographic's Geography Bee. It was the second straight year a home schooler took the top prize.
Critics worry that home-schooled children are not getting a quality education. As school districts face tougher quality standards for teachers, 29 states have no qualification requirements for home-schooling parents.
The National Education Association, which represents 2.7 million teachers and other school workers, says home schooling as a parent's choice "cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience."
Home-schooler Natalie Alexander disagrees.
The 12-year-old has always added to her at-home learning by participating in outside activities and groups, such as community college courses and the New Haven, Conn., youth soccer league.
She competed in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington last spring, where nearly 10 percent of the 251 spellers were home schooled.
She is winding up her home schooling days to start high school at Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious preparatory high school in Wallingford, Conn. She said she is giving up home schooling because she's "been doing it for five years, and it's starting to feel more and more small."
High school is "going to be scary and fun and — I don't know — very wild," she said. "It's so big, and there are so many opportunities to meet people."
Her interest in the social scene speaks to another concern for the critics: that home-schooled children are not getting adequate exposure to other kids or the chance to develop social skills.