Tracy Ruitenberg of West Milford never thought she'd be homeschooling her children. But she is, and she wouldn't have it any other way.

It started more than five years ago when her oldest child was in first grade. The family went on vacation halfway through the school year and Ruitenberg got the work from her son's teacher to bring with them.

"It didn't take us six hours to do the work," she said of the daily assignments.

And that got her thinking of the freedom they could have as a family if they homeschooled. She had a friend who was home schooling and talked to her about it. Although she had never really thought about it before, she figured she would give it a try. More than five years later, she hasn't looked back.

And then there's Christy Lane's son who went through private and public schools. Years later when her daughter, Emma, was a toddler, she started thinking about homeschooling her. Lane saw a confidence in her daughter she feared would be destroyed if she sat in a classroom with 20 others.

"She is creative, happy, gregarious," said Lane. "My thought was she would have to conform."

Spending time together

Ruitenberg has three children entering seventh, fifth and third grades this school year. Quite a handful to teach three different levels, one would think. But Ruitenberg doesn't think so. Her son works very independently; her middle daughter somewhat independently, leaving her plenty of time to work with her youngest daughter in third grade.

They work on the same topic in a subject, just at different levels. Their assignments are just different.

This, she says, is great preparation for college.

"When you get to college, you've got to teach yourself," she said.

They read aloud together, including their Bible, which is an important part of their lessons.

Why homeschool? For Ruitenberg, freedom is a big benefit of homeschooling. It allows them to learn what they want; to focus on the subjects and material they love.

"It is important to teach kids how to learn and the joy of learning," Ruitenberg said.

She also enjoys spending time with them.

"I love being with my kids," said Ruitenberg. "This is time I get to spend with them."

Playing to their strengths

When the time came for Emma, now 10, to go to kindergarten, Lane, also of West Milford, questioned herself.

"But it's been the best thing in the world," she said. "Emma is good with kids of all ages. She reads to younger kids, joins in with older kids. She is very outgoing. I didn't want her to have to conform."

Lane said her daughter likes things because she likes them, not because there's a trend. Homeschooling, she added, makes it easier to nurture individuality.

For example, her daughter took a history class about ancient Egypt. "She knows more about ancient Egypt than most adults," said Lane. "It is taught in an age-approproate way."

Ruitenberg's son has a passion for soccer. Every free moment he has is spent playing.

Her middle daughter loves reading and soccer. She was always very verbal, said her mom, and she plays to her daughter's strengths.

"We always read aloud together. And instead of listening to music in the car, we listen to audio books," she said.

For her youngest, it's gymnastics. Ruitenberg tailors their day to include their activities.

For example, her son plays for the Red Bulls Academy, a developmental soccer academy for exceptional players. He plays in a premier league for soccer. After a six-week tryout process, he was one of just 20 kids to make the academy's U13 team from several hundred participants.

"He works his butt off," she said. "When he has a free moment, he plays soccer."

She also teaches her daughters to sew, something she herself loves and is passing along to her daughters.

Despite what you might have heard...

A big misconception to people is that homeschooled kids are isolated and unsocial. Quite the opposite, according to Ruitenberg.

That is, in part, because there are so many activities and groups associated with homeschooling.

Her kids go to a co-op at Green Pond Bible Chapel every Tuesday. Fifty families participate. There, parents who homeschool teach whatever subject their background is. For Ruitenberg, that's science. She has a background in biology and chemistry, having worked for a pharmaceutical company before she had her kids.

So every Tuesday, she teaches high school chemistry to the homeschooled kids at the coop. It's mostly a lab class. Students learn at home; then she gives a short lesson and a lab.

The co-op pulls a large diverse group, with families coming from as far away as New York City to participate.

Ruitenberg's kids also go to the Faith Center for the Arts in Lafayette, N.J. on Wednesdays. There, they learn music, art and dance. Her son plays violin, piano and guitar. Her daughters also play violin; one plays piano and they both dance.

"I could be out of the house every singe day doing homeschool stuff with them," said Ruitenberg.

They also participate in organized sports and their church's Pioneer Girls and Stockade, similar to Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Emma will be taking math and Latin this year online, while doing history and literature at home. Lane follows a curriculum but isn't "a slave to it."

Her daughter is in Girl Scouts, ballet, plays piano and the two of them have taken cooking and sewing classes together. What about high school?

Ruitenberg said she will have to create a transcript because New Jersey won't issue a diploma without one in order for kids to go onto college. That's something she learned at a convention - how to create a transcript. Many homeschooled kids take classes at community colleges so that's great preparation for college, she said.

Ruitenberg isn't sure yet what they will be doing for high school, whether it be at home or in conventional school. For Lane, it will be a decision she and her husband make. "Mom and dad know best," she said. "Emma will be better served in a nurturing home environment."

She likens it to cookies.

"It's like homemade cookies. You know exactly what's in there."

It's not scary - really

There are so many online sources for homeschooling parents, Ruitenberg and Lane said there is absolutely nothing to fear. Ruitenberg doesn't have an all-in-one curriculum; she gets pieces from difference places. There are even conventions for homeschooling parents where people can compare curriculums and get advice from experienced homeschooling parents. Lane said she worked more outside of the home when her son was in school but she thinks homeschooling could have benefitted him tremendously.

"I just didn't know about it at the that time," she said.

Lane does admit homeschooling is not for everybody.

But for those who want to give it a try, there is plenty of local support.

"It's still a small world," said Ruitenberg.

But it is growing.