For most, "back to school" season conjures up vivid memories: a fresh notebook, the carefully chosen first-day outfit, sizing up the teacher, seeing friends, and figuring out where you stand in the new classroom pecking order.
But what about the increasing number of children being educated at home? The U.S. Department of Education estimates there were 1.1 million home-schooled kids in 2003, and the numbers have been steadily growing.
Are these kids being deprived of a uniquely American rite of passage? Not necessarily, say many involved in the movement.
Happy to Be Learning at Home
Like the other home-schooled kids interviewed for this story, 14-year-old Ava Lowrey has no desire to go back to public school.
"I don't miss it," she said. "I enjoy working at my own pace. In public school, you're not able to do that."
Ava's mother, Tamara Knowles, of Alexander City, Ala., began home-schooling both of her children when they were in seventh grade, primarily because she wanted them to get a higher-quality education than she felt they could get at the local public school.
Knowles, 36, was herself home-schooled at a time when it was virtually unheard of. Her father was an Assembly of God minister and the family moved frequently.
When she was ready to enter 10th grade, Knowles decided to go back to public school. By the time she was entering her senior year, though, she was ready to return home. "I felt like I was spinning my wheels and wasting my time," she said.
But Knowles said her kids are free to go back to school anytime. "The option is open to my kids. I don't think public school is evil," she said.
Do Public Schools Teach Democracy?
The common perception of home-schooling families is that they are conservative Christians trying to escape secularism in public schools, but Knowles said the opposite was true for her family.
"In the South, the political atmosphere is very conservative," Knowles said. "There were times when public school teachers would make a lot of political comments that made me uncomfortable."
Dr. Michael Apple, a professor of educational policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied home schooling extensively, says that secular home-schoolers like Knowles and her kids are a growing population, but still a tiny group.
But whether home-schoolers are evangelical Christian conservatives or secular and liberal, Apple believes home-schoolers are cutting themselves off from people with different beliefs and backgrounds.
Home-schooled kids, he says, are missing out on the more subtle lessons that public schools teach students about being American citizens and interacting in a diverse society.
"Public schools are important to democracy," Apple said. "They teach people how to work with others across political, religious, class and racial lines. It would be a disaster to give up on that."
Or Does Home Schooling Teach Acceptance?
Laura Derricks, president of the National Home Education Network -- and other home-schoolers -- insist they are enriching their children's social lives, not cutting them off from the outside world.
The home-schooled kids interviewed for this story said they have many friends and plenty of activities to keep them busy. And far from feeling left out or cut off, they say they have a richer social life than most of their peers.
With home schooling becoming more popular, families are building networks to socialize and share information. Around Austin, Texas, where Derricks and her family live, there are hundreds of home-schooling families. Her kids, 14-year-old Jackson and 11-year-old Sarah, are involved in a number of organized group activities such as gymnastics, drama and city parks programs.
Derricks said the "comparing, grading and sorting" that is the hallmark of public schools can be damaging to kids. "Kids pick up on it," she said. "They know who is the best in the class and who has the money. They take that to heart and learn that really well."
Because there is less social pressure on home-schooled kids, they are more accepting of their peers, Derricks said.
"With home schooling, there's not the same pecking order," she said. "Participation is based on interests. It's multi-age, and association is voluntary. There's a wider range of what's accepted."
Avoiding the 'Lord of the Flies'
In one way or another, home-schooling parents believe they can provide a better, healthier environment for learning than public or parochial schools can.
Julieanne Hensley, of Cincinnati, says she decided to home-school her children precisely because of the kind of socialization they would get in school.
Hensley went to Catholic school and said her studious, bookworm personality made her "bully bait."
"It's like 'Lord of the Flies,'" Hensley said of the social life at traditional schools. "The idea that kids have to deal with bullies is absurd. Adults don't have to in their lives."
Tamara Knowles agreed, saying that, in many cases, public schooling can tear down a child's self-esteem. "It happened to me," she said. "Other kids will taunt you, tease you. That socialization is not good -- it's group think. If you're different, and I hope my kids are, you're going to get a lot of that."
Barbara Theesfeld, of Williams Bay, Wis., never intended to be a home-schooling mom. "I used to think home schooling was for the birds," said Theesfeld.
But she took her two kids out of public school when her son, Jimmy, now 17, was in fourth grade, because he was being picked on constantly, she said.
"I felt like he was falling apart," Theesfeld said. "A school district's hands are tied in many ways when a child is being bullied."
Even though he is critical of home schooling, Apple, the education policy professor, says the movement is clearly a "wake-up call" for public schools.
"Public schools have to be closer to the community and more responsive to parents and kids," he said.
Proms, Dances and More
But like many home-schooling families, the Theesfeld family has had to endure other people's curiosity -- often bordering on disdain -- about their choice. Many people wonder how hom-eschooling families can deprive their kids of all the important touchstones that school seems to provide.
"The first thing my relatives said when they found out was, 'Well, they'll never go to a prom or a football game,'" Theesfeld said. "Someone was concerned he [Jimmy] wouldn't have a locker. I mean, I don't miss my locker from high school."
It's an issue that comes up frequently with home-schooling families: How will your kids ever learn socialization skills if they don't go to regular school?
It's a question many of these families find a little silly. As Theesfeld said, "We're not isolated, with barbed wire around our house."
And groups of home-schooling families are making sure that their kids aren't missing out on important adolescent rituals.
Every year in Austin on the first day of regular school, home-schooling families throw a giant "Not Back to School" party at a city swimming pool. And in the fall, they organize dances attended by hundreds of kids of all ages -- wearing everything from formal "prom" wear to Halloween costumes.
Finding a Middle Ground
Hana Bieliaukas, who is now 19 and attending the University of Ohio, attended Catholic school in elementary school. She compared the social environment there to the movie "Mean Girls," saying it was all about "popularity" and filled with "backstabbing."
"I tried to be really cool and cliquey, but it didn't work," Bieliaukas said. "I got into a lot of fights."
And academically, Bieliaukas said she wanted more creativity and less structure. So in sixth grade, she tried home schooling with her mother. It was an experiment that failed.
"I didn't want to do work when my mom told me to," Bieliaukas said. "And I'm very social. I wasn't with other kids."
In eighth grade, Bieliaukas began attending Leaves of Learning, a school for home-schoolers attended by about 100 students. She attended small, multi-age classes three or four days a week and was still able to direct her own learning.
While Bieliaukas says she sometimes thinks about what it would be like to attend a big high school "like in the movies, with more people and lots of drama," she feels better prepared for college both academically and socially than other students she's met.
But she still gets a lot of questions about her home-schooling experience.
"When you say you're home-schooled, people say, 'What's wrong with you?'" she said. "People say, 'Don't you feel like you missed out?' I say, 'No, I got the best of both worlds.'"