BOUNTIFUL — Brett Millet wakes up, hoists his 12-year-old body out of bed and gets ready for school. But he doesn't have to go far. In fact, school is right outside his bedroom door and down the hall at his family's kitchen table.
Brett's teacher and mom, Kelly Millet, is also up and ready to teach her son his daily lessons, along with those of Brett's four younger siblings. Meanwhile, 2-year-old Claire-Elyse runs underfoot vying for attention.
The Millet children are among an approximate 28,000 Utah youngsters who are home-schooled, said Utah Home Education Association chairman Brian Smith. That is, their parents have opted not to send the children to public schools and have taken on the rather daunting task themselves.
And it definitely is a daunting task, said Holly Godard of the Salt Lake Home Educators Association. Godard is currently in the midst of preparing a resource packet for parents interested in home-schooling, complete with lists of support groups, Internet sites, related books and answers to frequently asked questions.
Current trends show a steady increase in the numbers of Utah home-schoolers, Smith said — about 30 percent just in the past three years.
"I think it's becoming more accepted. It's not considered a fringe, reactionary radical movement like it used to be," Smith said. "I think that people are also seeing the success of other people."
Home-school experts agree that in order to be successful, parents must conduct plenty of research, seek support and set reasonable goals before beginning to home-school.
Everyone home-schools for different reasons. For Kevin Millet, it was a lack of trust in public education. Upon his high school graduation from the Weber School District, Milllet said he felt nearly illiterate. Although he graduated with honors, Millet said he could not have participated in an intelligent discussion about a children's "Winnie the Pooh" book. It wasn't until he was out of school and able to direct his own education that he felt he truly began to learn.
The Millets also felt that public schools focus too much on getting a job after graduation. Education should be more about instilling a love for learning, they feel.
Godard's tale of home-schooling began when her 16-year-old daughter, Andrea, was in kindergarten. After only a week in public school, Godard realized how unhappy and uninspired Andrea was sitting in a classroom all day. The turning point, Godard said, was when Andrea's teacher listed the names of "good" and "bad" children on the blackboard. Andrea came home and said that although she had been a good listener, she did not get her name on the board.
"I thought, 'She's going to be overlooked for the next 13 years,' " Godard said.
Dennis Johnson of the Jordan School District keeps records on the district's 790 home-school students. Johnson recently researched why parents chose to home-school their children. Among the reasons were issues of conscience, beliefs and religious convictions; need for one-on-one instruction; physical or emotional health; behavioral problems, academic failure or non-attendance; and overcrowded classrooms and feeling the school wasn't meeting students' needs.
Regardless of why a family home-schools, Godard said it is important parents set reasonable goals. Take each year one at a time, she said, instead of looking forward to the next 12 years all at once.
"Every year, I've done it one year at a time, and no two years have been the same," Godard said.
Utah law requires parents to contact their local school district and inform officials of their choice to home-school. Although each district has its own policies, most districts along the Wasatch Front simply ask parents to complete an application, which must be renewed annually, releasing the children from public education.
Some districts, such as Salt Lake City, also ask parents to submit a prepared course of study for the upcoming year. These lessons must be in line with the state's core curriculum, said Pat Roberts, director of student and family services.
Davis School District officials say they leave lesson plans up to the parents, although parents have the option of pulling the state's curriculum off the Internet or picking it up from the State Office of Education.
As long as parents are familiar with the state's compulsory education law, Smith said home-schooling in Utah is "fairly easy." Other than teaching the same core subjects as public schools, parents are legally required to teach the same number of hours — 4 1/2 hours per day for first grade and 5 1/2 for second through 12th grades — and the same number of days, 180 per year.
Roberts said the districts try to make home-schooling as painless as possible. "We're not trying to make it an obstacle course for them. In fact, we're trying to help them and facilitate the process."
Alpine School District's Susan Heringer agreed. "It's a parent's right to teach, and we support them in whatever they decide to do."
Before Godard decided to pull her daughter out of public school, she spent almost a year researching home-schooling. She read books, searched the Internet and attended conferences and support group meetings.
The Salt Lake Valley has numerous support groups geared to all sorts of home-schooling lifestyles, and Godard recommends that parents visit as many as possible to see which format fits them best. Some groups focus on religion, some on particular methods and others operate on a nonpartisan agenda.
Mona Lisa Esqueda of the Salt Lake Home Educators Association said potential home-schoolers should not overlook the importance of joining a support group.
"Being a home-schooler already, you're kind of out on the fringe," Esqueda said, and the additional support is just what some parents need when they feel anxious about their decision to home-school.
Many state and national support groups hold annual conventions. These conventions feature speakers, workshops and curriculum fairs, where parents are able to obtain lesson plans, textbooks and other resource materials.
Godard urges home-school parents to attend conventions in their area, especially during their first couple of years. "It sort of recharges your battery."
The Salt Lake Home Educators Association's annual convention is Sept. 9 at Salt Lake Community College. Interested parents can visit the group's Web site at www.xmission.com/~nprw/SLHE.html or call Godard at 501-0344.
Group activities are also good places to find support, said Esqueda, who organizes monthly meetings of a "culture club" that focuses on social studies. Each month, children choose a country they would like to learn more about and prepare a presentation for the group. The children's mothers bring corresponding food dishes, resulting in a giant, 26-family pot-luck dinner. Most organizations have similar study groups, Esqueda said.
Different styles and methods
"There are as many ways to home-school as there are people doing it," Godard said. Both Godard and Esqueda began with a structured home-school model, strictly following the state's curriculum. However, as they got into their children's education, the mothers realized they had to be willing to bend.
Esqueda gears her children's lessons toward their interests and skill levels. If, for instance, one of her children is not ready to learn a specific math concept, she will shelve the lesson until a better time.
"Sometimes you can't teach a child something until they're ready to learn it," Esqueda said. "And that is not an option they have in public school."
Each year, the Millets tackle one subject and study it in depth. A couple of years ago, it was colonial America, culminating with a two-week trip along the East Coast. Last year, it was Shakespeare, which the kids enjoyed so much the parents have chosen to extend it for another year. Brett joined a Shakespeare study group and performed in a production of "The Tempest," and the entire family will travel to Cedar City for the Shakespearean Festival.
The bottom line
When it all comes down to it, Godard said there is only one way to be a successful home-schooler: "You have to like being with your kids."
Home-school parents give up many things, Esqueda said, like all-day shopping trips, days at the spa, and, most importantly, that second paycheck. "You're the ultimate working mother, but you don't get a paycheck."
Kevin Millet encourages parents to think long and hard before choosing to home-school. Neither he nor his wife realized what they were committing themselves to, but they haven't regretted their decision for a day.
"It's a lifestyle in capital letters," he said. "We just try to make life a perpetual educational experience."