If they’ve been asked once, they’ve been asked a thousand times. It’s the No. 1, can’t-skip, million-dollar question put to parents who home school: What about socialization?

“In the beginning, it was the big question,” says neighborhood resident Beverly Davidson, a mother of three boys who home schooled for four years.

These questions ignore the many other opportunities – including home-school support groups, church and athletic leagues – children have to be involved, parents say.

“Through home schooling groups, smaller groups of kids would visit people in nursing homes,” Davidson recalls. “The elderly people enjoyed it, and it’s good for my kids to have that experience.”

Mary Lou Dilahunty, a home-schooling mother to five girls and one boy also has found the socialization issue to be all bark and no bite. Sports, church and a close-knit neighborhood all have provided ample socialization opportunties.

“We have plenty of socialization with other home school families,” she says. Plus: “Breaking up the siblings is not an option for us. They socialize each other.”

Socialization may be the most oft-asked question, but it’s only one of many directed at those who take their children’s education off the beaten path. Are parents qualified to their children? Are these children receiving an adequate education? What about college?

And, ultimately: Why are you doing this?

Some common reasons include the desire to emphasize spiritual values and beliefs; a goal to draw a family closer; or the belief that home schooling can provide greater flexibility and individual attention, resulting in a stronger education.

In general, the “whys” found by researchers indicate that most families home school for moral and academic reasons, believing the home environment will provide the best experience for their children in both spheres. And their numbers seem to be increasing. The U.S. Department of Education will complete a study this month on the number of home schoolers nationwide; a representative says “as a growing phenomenon, we thought it is something we should track.”

“There is more acceptance now,” says Dilahunty. “Greater numbers are doing this.

“We’re not the rare birds now.”

Making it legal

The Dallas Independent School District does not track the number of home schoolers. Like all Texas school districts, DISD is guided by a 1995 advisory issued by the state commissioner of education. The advisory leaned heavily on the findings of Leeper vs. Arlington ISD, a class-action case in which home schools were declared private schools thus making students in the home free from compulsory attendance requirements.

The advisory reads in part: “a written statement of assurance provided by the parents to the school district meets the requirements of Leeper vs. Arlington ISD and verifies compliance with compulsory attendance laws.

“The letter should assure that a curriculum consisting of books, workbooks or other written materials designed to meet the basic educational goal of reading, spelling, grammar, math and a course in good citizenship is being pursued in a bona fide manner.”

Also: “If the district has reasonable cause or some evidence to believe that the assurance given is not true, action on the part of the district in regard to further investigation may occur.”

Judy Eppright, an executive analyst with pupil accounting at DISD, says “we have no idea” how many parents home school in DISD. DISD has an information packet about home school sent to those who inquire. Several hundred of the packets are distributed each year. The packets cover state law, district policies, support resources and suggestions for curriculum sources.

“We don’t organize or keep the reply cards,” Eppright says. Parents who wish to home school do not need to go through the district, but are asked instead to contact the school their children would attend to withdraw, listing “home schooling” as the reason.

Moving at your pace

Davidson looked into home schooling at the urging of her husband, Paul. She liked what she saw.

“I observed older kids who had been home schooled,” she says. “They were so self-assured. They would play with the older kids and the younger kids. “They could talk to adults. They were well-behaved and confident for their age.”

Davidson had reservations about public schools. And home schooling would allow for lessons from a Christian perspective.

“I wasn’t sure about the public schools in this area,” she says. “Lipscomb was a low-performing school at the time.

“As Christians, we didn’t feel you could leave the 10 commandments out. There are absolute truths you can’t leave out of education.”

She started when her oldest son was 5.

“We didn’t do a whole lot at that age. Phonics and math and fun stuff,” she says. “As he moved up, we had lesson plans and added science and history.”

Davidson, concerned at first that she didn’t have “the right temperament” to teach, grew to love home schooling and to value its flexibility.

“You can tailor lessons to your needs,” she says. “In school, you might fall through the cracks if you aren’t moving as fast as your peers.”

Davidson placed the boys in a small Christian school in Mesquite last year. Working in partnership with her husband’s fledgling home-based business, she could no longer devote the time necessary to home school.

“If you’re working 45 hours a week, you can’t home school too,” she says.

“If was kind of  a hard decision. I wondered ÔHow are they going to do in a school?’ I felt kind of guilty, I felt . . . it was a difficult choice.”

The first month was an “adjustment period.” But ultimately both boys performed well academically and made friends. Davidson says she may home school again someday. In the meantime, she is looking for after-school activities and educational camps that will allow the boys to still have the range of learning opportunities they had at home.

“I do believe home schooling works. It’s just too hard juggling your own business and home schooling.”

Adapting to new circumstances

Jerry Potts knows she is not what most people think of when they think about home schoolers. More than most, she breaks the stereotypes.

For one, she is older than most home schooling moms, with four grown children and one 8-year-old girl. She began to home school Autumn after the death of her husband, Earl.

“Autumn and I just had to pull together. We hardly saw each other,” between her school-days and Potts’ efforts to sell Earl’s shop and deal with other practical matters of keeping the household together.

Potts’ uses a correspondence course through the ABEKA School Curriculum based in Pensacola, Fla. The school provides the materials, and produces report cards based on the results.

A longtime volunteer in public schools, Potts never imagined she would some day home school a child. Doing so, she says, has given her opportunities to cover a variety of subjects and to provide real-life examples to textbook material.

“We read about a place, then we go see it. We have freedom to explore different things.

“That’s exciting to me.”

Potts says church, a home school support group and a close-knit neighborhood full of kids provides Autumn plenty of opportunity to be with those her own age.

Potts chose to home school under difficult circumstances. Today, she is pleased with how it works for her and Autumn.

“I feel good about myself and what she’s accomplished,” she says. “I feel like we’ve kept it together.

“We get the material to the school and we feel great.”

Fulfilling a vision

Dilahunty says her husband, Don, had a “vision for this family” of five girls and one boy that was based on home schooling.

“I was willing to try it. As the years go by, I fell that we have definitely captured that vision he had.

“Now I am just sold that this is best for our family.”

Dilahunty began home schooling when her youngest was 7.

“At first you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing,” she says. “Little by little you focus on finding your teaching style and their learning styles. You become comfortable.”

The family uses workbooks, computer programs and video-based programs.

Dilahunty says home schooling has helped the children grow closer, allowed them greater freedom to explore specialties such as music and made it easier to guide them with Christian values.

“We have a Christian point of view that all life is sacred,” she says. “We can teach this perspective to our children more readily than in public school.”

The family has also nurtured its particular gifts by putting a great investment of time and money into musical education. The home has a lever harp and a pedal harp for the oldest daughter. Another plays the flute. Each year at Christmas, neighbors come over for a concert by the children.

As awareness of home schooling grows, it’s somewhat easier to make that choice, Dilahunty says. Still, getting past initial reactions may require a thick skin.

“Even from our families there was a lot of . . . I don’t know. Concern that we were starting something different from what they were familiar with.

“Through the years, they have seen that the children are quite normal,” she says. “Through the years they have seen it turn out well.”

With home schooling, she says, lessons are learned by the whole family.

“This is a family-based project,” she says.

“We are all working together. Mom and dad also are growing and changing in the process.”

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