By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Dec 21, 2009 at 3:01 PM

The object of admiration, suspicion or even derision, homeschoolers  -- like all families -- are not easily categorized. There are nearly 20,000 home-schooled kids in the state, and each family has its own unique set of circumstances as to why they opt out of the system.

On a recent morning, Margie Flood and her three children -- two grown college students and one teen -- sat around the fireplace of the Flood's Cedarburg home to lend some insight into homeschooling.

"Homeschooling is difficult to explain, because every family does it differently, and there are so many prejudices against it," says Sam Flood, 21, who was homeschooled for elementary and high school. Sam is currently an English and theater major at Lawrence University in Appleton. His sister, 19-year-old Ariana, also attends Lawrence.  Their youngest sibling, Clara Margaret, 14, is currently learning at home.

"A lot of my friends at college don’t believe me that I was homeschooled," says Sam. "They say ‘but you’re not weird!'"

Homeschooling stereotypes are plentiful, including that home-schooled children don’t receive enough socialization.

"People have the notion that we don’t see people our own age,"  says Ariana. "But there are group learning experiences and support networks, and extra curricular activities where we have plenty of opportunities to socialize."

All of the Flood children were permitted to try public school at any time. Ariana, for example, chose to attend public school in third grade.

"I wanted to see what it was like. I enjoyed it a lot, but I liked homeschooling better. I missed my homeschooling friends, and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by being at home," says Ariana.

Homeschooling is a lifestyle choice that works for some families, but is not ideal for all families.

Margie says she and her husband Rick decided to home-school when Sam was about to enter kindergarten. At the time, the family lived in Ohio, and they were unhappy with the number of students in the public kindergarten classrooms and were concerned about bullying. While researching alternatives, Margie heard about a homeschooling group.

"Up until that point, I thought home-schooling was just for creationists / fundamentalist Christians, but then I realized homeschooling doesn’t have to have anything to do with religion," she says. "It’s about learning together, growing together and schooling at home and in the community."

In Wisconsin, all children between the ages of 6 and 18 must receive at least 875 hours a year of instruction, including reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and health. Parents who decide to homeschool must submit a form of enrollment in their private school to the Department of Public Instruction. (Homeschools in Wisconsin need to meet the same requirements as any other private school.)

About 1.5 million kids are homeschooled in the United States. According to the Department of Public Instruction, 19,358 students were homeschooled in Wisconsin, which is 1.92 percent of the state’s total student population.

According to Margie, the homeschooling community in Milwaukee is strong and it continues to give her the support she needs as a homeschooler.

"Milwaukee has a very vibrant homeschooling community," she says. "The parents have very diverse skill sets."

Since the height of homeschooling’s popularity in 2000, the number of homeschooled children continues to slightly decrease. Some of the reasons for this might be the appeal of charter and Waldorf schools and / or the fact that both parents need to work outside the home as the economy struggles.

"I would like to say homeschooling is not hinged on finances, but both parents can’t work full time and homeschool successfully," says Margie, who is a freelance violinist.

Larry Kaseman is the founder and executive director of the Wisconsin Parents Association (WPA) in Madison. He homeschooled his four children, all of whom are now grown.

"The WPA ensures that parents are aware of choices in education, particularly in the area of homeschooling," says Kaseman.

Kaseman believes homeschooling is a solid choice because it accommodates kids’ individual learning styles, exposes children to social situations with people of many different ages, establishes strong relationships with parents and siblings and instills problem-solving skills.

Some homeschooling families use an online or book-based curricula. Margie Flood, however, taught her kids based on what they were interested in at the time and infused their learning with necessities like math and grammar. When the kids were young, the family spent hours every week at the library, researching various subjects.

"If I become intrigued by something, like a point in history, homeschooling gives me the freedom to learn about it all day," says Clara Margaret.

Cardinal Lemoine, with the support of her husband, Jeff, plans to home-school her children, Griffin, age 5, and Iris, 2.

"Homeschooling is about learning things when it makes sense to the learner, rather than because that person has reached a certain age or is compelled to do so by some arbitrary authority," says Lemoine.

Sometimes home-schooled children are taught in small groups by other homeschooling parents. Sam Flood, for example, spent three years studying Shakespeare with a group of homeschoolers. He says the experience allowed him to develop friendships with kids and adults of a variety of ages. He says it also inspired him to study theater in college.

Over the years, Margie Flood kept records of her kids’ learning progress. These records, along with SAT scores and a personal interview, were the basis for Sam's and Ariana’s admission to Lawrence.

Ken Anselment, director of admissions at Lawrence University, says home-schooled applicants can be very appealing.

"We'll often see home-schooled applicants who are intellectually curious and have worked through a curriculum that not only satisfies their curiosity, but prepares them to be quite capable college students, fully equipped with the independent drive and motivation that helps them take advantage of all (that) a place like Lawrence has to offer," says Anselment.

Margie admits that, at times, she was concerned that she wasn’t teaching her kids everything they needed to be successful. However, she realized that when she started to worry about whether or not her kids were learning enough, the homeschooling process became more stressful and less successful. Eventually, Margie learned to trust herself.

"I sometimes worried if we were doing enough," says Margie. "But by the time the kids were in high school, I knew it had worked."

Sam admits that he studied less math than his peers, but it wasn’t a big deal. "I took a calculus class, and I realized I never studied trig," he says. "So I spent the first three weeks of school teaching myself trig and then I was fine."

Lemoine says not being bound to school schedules allows her family more freedom which reduces the amount of day-to-day stress.

"We are close as a family and enjoy living in a slow rhythmic way," says Lemoine, 42. "We enjoy spending time together and watching and helping our children learn, and we don’t want to give that up." 

Some families choose homeschooling because they believe it fosters lifelong learning.

"I like the idea that learning happens all the time, wherever you are, rather than just 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, nine months out of the year," says Kay Ehlers, who plans to home-school her 4-year-old son. "Essentially, I want Henry to see education as a part of life and not something done only during certain periods of time, because he has to, and just for external rewards."

Mary Evans sends her kids to a Milwaukee Public School, but she is part of a growing movement called "afterschoolers." These parents are usually knowledgeable about homeschooling -- they either considered it or were involved in it for some time -- and teach their children that learning is not finite. Other parents naturally do this, unaware that they are a part of a group or movement.

"My kids attend conventional public school during the day, but from the time they get home, we employ homeschooling and unschooling practices," says Evans. "Learning for us is fun and ongoing. You don’t have to ‘turn your brain off’ to relax and enjoy life."

Unschooling refers to educational practices that allow children to learn through their natural life experiences, including child-directed play, game play, household responsibilities and social interaction, rather than through the confines of a conventional school. Unschoolers do not use any form of curricula.

Lima Gima is the mother of 5-year-old twins, and, for now, she is unschooling her children.

"For us, this means seeing what our kids are passionate about and giving them as many books, educational toys, videos and field trips related to those topics as we can find. By doing this we cover all academic subjects," says Gima. "For example, my son loves trains more than anything. We can use trains to teach math, physics, history, economics, geography and of course reading. Because he loves 'Thomas the Tank Engine' videos and movies, we research how they are made."

Most homeschooling parents say that reading books helped them make their decision to home-school, including "Better Late Than Early" by Raymond S. Moore and "Unconditional Parenting" by Alfie Kohn.

The Flood children say they do not feel like they missed out on anything -- including prom -- because they were homeschooled. Sam said the only time he questioned his decision to be home-schooled was when he could not play eighth-grade football because he was not a student at the school. He decided, however, that homeschooling was more important to him than being on the football team.

"We all make choices," says Margie.

Homeschooling is not for every family. Some parents do not want the responsibility of providing their child’s education or they need to pursue full-time careers and / or other interests. Some parents simply need time and space away from their children.

"Our choosing to home-school could be seen as a critique on those who are not choosing homeschooling, but it’s not," says Margie. "Homeschooling is just a different choice. It’s a life decision for the whole family. It’s a commitment to a way of life that’s off the beaten path, but can be richly rewarding."

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.