COLUMBIA — Rehabilitating mice became part of the school curriculum for Krishna Fogle's two children this fall.
A mouse caught recently at the family's home in Ashland created the perfect opportunity for Fogle to teach her children about compassion toward animals. Such practical lessons are common in their house.
Fogle is a home-school teacher to Kyra, 7, and Liam, 10. Like that of many of today's home-schooled children, however, their education is not restricted to studies at the kitchen table.
Fogle uses real-life experiences outside the house to supplement the subjects she teaches at home.
Some days, her daughter might attend a class at the Columbia Art League, take horseback riding lessons at Willow Ponds Farm or care for the family guinea pig. Liam might tinker with a 1968 BMW motorcycle with his dad, arrange his own piano tunes or build Lego replicas of classic cars.
Home schooling has evolved in the past 20 years from simply giving children lessons at home to arranging a complex network of extracurricular activities that supplement the academics.
The Fogles and other home-schooling families in Columbia might take field trips to the state capital, perform in musical theater and take music lessons.
Today, children have the option of enrolling in virtual home-school classes, taking supplementary courses at a local high school and participating in joint projects that bring home-schooled families together.
"To me, (their education) it's all one giant stew," Fogle said. "There's no one place to learn."
Recently, her children spent nearly the entire day outdoors, building a playhouse from a pumpkin box in the backyard. Complete with windows and a door, the ordinary cardboard container became the perfect child-sized escape.
"All the math and the reading and the writing and stuff, that's important, too, but you can learn pretty much at any time," Fogle said.
As a home-schooled child herself who also didn't follow a set curriculum, she is confident her children will receive adequate education.
Her daughter is in the process of learning to read, and the unstructured schedule allows Kyra to read at her own pace with her mother cheering alongside.
"We just do it in really small bites," Fogle said.
Kyra gets to pick a book she's interested in, and they tackle it together.
"She might only have enough patience to read a few sentences, but if she leaves the page feeling proud of herself, that's the place to stop," Fogle said.
Over the past two decades, home schooling has seen significant growth. According to U.S. census data, 850,000 children were classified as home-schooled in 1999. In 2007, that number was about 1.5 million.
In 2010, an estimated 2 million students were being home-schooled in the United States, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.
Parents nationwide choose to teach their children at home for a number of reasons — academic, athletic and medical — but the most popular reason is to support a religious upbringing.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, parents of the largest group of home-schooled students — 36 percent — cited religion as the driving factor.
Each state has regulations that govern and monitor home-schooled children. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, a teaching degree is not required to teach at home in Missouri.
Parents in Missouri are allowed to choose their children's textbooks, but they must document "grade-letter equivalents" for progress and maintain an account of the daily schooling components.
Children are required to receive 1,000 hours of education during the school year, including at least 600 in the traditional core curriculum courses, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. They have the freedom, however, to spend 200 of the 600 core-curriculum hours outside the home.
Isabelle Carson, 11, is one of three children taught at home by their mother, Jennifer. Isabelle's flexible schedule allows her to take part in a number of extracurricular activities.
One is the Far Above Rubies class, held at Calvary Baptist Church during the traditional school day on Tuesday afternoons. In the class, she and other home-schooled girls sing, have Bible lessons and engage in character-building exercises.
Another is 4-H, which all the Carson children have joined. The organization was originally created to teach children applicable life skills, according to the 4-H website, a concept similar to many home-school teaching environments.
Jennifer Carson's decision to home-school her children was initiated by a dislike for a particular public school teacher. Carson continued to teach after recognizing that her religious beliefs conflicted with the public school curriculum.
She then began to value the preparation home schooling gave her children, she said.
"It's just what felt right for our family," she said. "If they're struggling in one area but excelling in another, I can tailor their program."
A typical home-school day for the Carson family might include tending three sheep, a flock of chickens and a steer during the morning, completing school work for a couple of hours, eating lunch and finishing lessons at 3 or 4 p.m.
Carson uses the Sonlight Christian Homeschool Curriculum, which incorporates religious principles into academic subjects.
With Sonlight, her daughter Emily, 15, can correlate Biblical literature and history lessons to the same time period, Carson said. Her children also learn from research projects and lab experiments.
Carson said her children can use the flexibility of home schooling to their advantage by creating opportunities for outside learning.
"We usually try to pack about a week's worth of schoolwork into four days so we have an extra day," Carson said.
This past month, the family toured the Capitol in Jefferson City and explored Runge Nature Center, a Missouri-focused nature facility in Jefferson City.
"The program we went to was on snakes, so the kids got to touch snakes and learn about them," Carson said. "They really enjoyed it."
Like others her age, Emily also participates in teen-oriented activities. In October, she attended a costume party with other home-schooled teens at Alive In Christ Lutheran Church.
The party was open only to members of the teen group of Mid-Missouri Co-Op of Home Educators, a network of more than 125 families.
The group hosts various functions throughout the year. This year's events have included a swim kick-off party, a putt-putt golf outing and a trip to Bradford Research Farm to see a corn maze.
"Last weekend we had a bonfire and stuff that they could go to. We did hot dog roasts, and we hunted fake paper-bag possums," Carson said with a laugh. "There are opportunities for almost anything your kids could want to do."
Another home-school teacher and parent, Cindy Smock, is in charge of organizing the events for the teen group.
Smock has taught all five of her children at home. Her youngest, Priscilla, a high-school senior, is a member of the home-schooled teen group.
"We have activities to give them the opportunity for social involvement with other teens," Smock said. "We want to make sure it is a safe, uplifting event where they can meet other teens, have a great time and be encouraged."
Parents are a common fixture at these teen programs, with 10-15 typically chaperoning 60-70 teens, Smock said.
"Our kids aren't the types that are trying to get away from their parents," she said.
Another co-op activity is a class Smock teaches where home-schooled children put together a yearbook. They can take the class for enjoyment or school credit.
At 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 11, when their peers in high school were anxiously waiting for the end of the school day, the home-schooled children in Smock's class were just arriving to work on their yearbook.
Any differences between the students and those found at a public school were not apparent. The teens had computers in their packs, braces on their teeth and cellphones in their hands.
In many ways, Smock ran her class similarly to a traditional teacher, with the exception of non-stop student participation. Throughout the class, Smock laughed with the students and gently reminded them to put names on their papers, something she said home-schooled children tend to forget.
Priscilla's class partner for the day was Luke Steuber, who said he would not trade his home-school experience for a traditional one.
"I like the challenge," he said. "We just learn so much more a year."
Priscilla, who also participates actively in the Performing Arts in Children's Education (PACE) theater group, agreed.
"I guess I can't compare it because I've been home-schooled my whole life," she said. "I like how my mom will let me choose my own courses."
She graduates at the end of this school year and plans to spend a few months doing missionary work, perhaps in Haiti. Beyond that, she's not certain.
Many home-school parents believe the teaching offers a world of opportunities, and they are willing to let a child's plan evolve.
"Pretty much anything that they want to do, and we have the means to do, has merit," Fogle said.
Nick Michael contributed to this story.