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updated 7/13/2010 3:24:05 PM ET 2010-07-13T19:24:05

Janice Hedin's son was into model rockets, so she used that as a starting point for his home-school curriculum. Her daughter loved horses, and that became a focal point for her education.

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"She owned it," said Hedin, of Maple Valley, Wash. "It was hers. I didn't have to force anything because she loved every minute of it."

Some home-school parents create their own curriculum for their kids. "There should never be a set curriculum," said Hedin. "Every child is so unique. Our goal as parents is to custom design the education that fits our children."

For those who find that daunting, there are many prepared curricula available for home schooling, as well as guides to what a child should know at each grade and age. Material is available online and in libraries, at bookstores and through home-school support groups.

The World Book, for example, provides a free online guide detailing typical courses of study for students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.

The National Center of Education Statistics reported last April that about 1.5 million American children were home-schooled in 2007, representing 2.9 percent of the school-age population. The number of home-school children increased by 74 percent since 1999. The upward trend is believed to be continuing.

As a first step, parents new to home schooling should check out their state's laws. Helen Hegener, director of the American Homeschool Association, noted that there is a wide variety in state requirements.

In Washington state, for example, parents must meet specific qualifications to home-school. Instruction must be given in math, science, history, reading, writing, spelling and other subjects — but parents have flexibility in determining how the subjects will be taught.

In Alaska, by comparison, there "are no requirements to notify, seek approval, test, file forms, or have any teacher qualifications. The burden is on the state to prove that parents are not teaching their children," according to the Home School Legal Defense Association.

That organization has information on its Web site about the laws in each of the 50 states. Local home-school support groups also are good resources on state statutes and regulations.

Parents also must decide how they want to teach their children. There are different styles of home schooling, from a traditional, structured, school-type setting to "unschooling," where the child sets the parameters for learning. "Unschooling is totally throwing out the curriculum," said Hegener, who said she never had a textbook in the house when she home-schooled her children in Alaska. "Life itself is a learning resource."

One popular form of home schooling is unit studies. "Basically, take something like trains, say, and it's amazing what you can learn," Hegener said.

Among the questions parents should ask in deciding how to home-school:

—Do I want to create my own curriculum or use a prepared one? Do I even need a curriculum?

—Do I want to use a textbook?

—How will I keep track of my child's progress?

The key is knowing your child, Hedin said.

She urges parents to discover their children's interests, what excites them and what they want to learn.

"Then, together you begin to seek out resources and curriculum. You do it as a team," she said.

Home-school associations provide a forum for families to share ideas, resources — even instruction. It's a way to find out what has worked for others and what hasn't, and what is available in the community to supplement home learning. Many associations hold conferences that include workshops and exhibits on curriculum. Some offer standardized testing, with certified proctors, for families that want it.

Hedin said she's not mathematically inclined, so when her son wanted to learn algebra she went to a local home-school support group to find other students who were interested, and placed an ad for an instructor.

She also formed a small cooperative with other families to take field trips, do crafts and plan other projects built around various themes. "We were really active with other home schoolers," she said.

"We support one another," said Shelly Nelson of the Crossroads Areas Home School Association of Bloomington, Ill.

When people inquire about curriculum, Nelson said, she asks about their teaching style and their child's learning style.

"There are different ways to educate your children," she said. "When you get to the junior high and high school level, I believe there is a great need for some books."

That doesn't necessarily mean going to one curriculum company for all subjects, she said. "You choose the best curricula for each subject level."

But buying curricula and textbooks can be costly, especially if it means purchasing several until you find one you like.

To help parents, the association's National Home-School Honor Society chapter created a curriculum closet filled with material collected from publishers and home-school families. Some of the 400 or so volumes are religion-based; others are secular.

One company offering home-school curricula is Time4Learning. Operations manager Jennifer Eaton said the computer-based material is "like your textbook laid out on your desk." Often used along with other materials, the programs also grade children's work and track their progress.

"Parents will need to be involved not to teach the things, but they should be there to support the child," Eaton said.

Some parents like a prepared curriculum because it gives them "confidence in knowing they are really providing their children with a comprehensive academic foundation," said Michelle Simpson-Siegel, director of the high school program at Oak Meadow Curriculum and School in Brattleboro, Vt.

"The parent is the primary teacher," she said.

Oak Meadow offers a distance-learning program where students are enrolled at the school and are assigned teachers. She said the arrangement provides the student with freedom and flexibility, as well as an academic record for college admissions officers.

While some home-school parents grade their children, Hedin said, she didn't. "What was key to me was progress — progress on their timetable."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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