UPPER WEST SIDE — For most students in New York City, the end of August means stocking up on school supplies, picking up uniforms or school clothes, and wondering who their new teachers and classmates will be.
But for a growing number of local students, their classroom is their living room and their teacher is their mom or dad, as the number of parents choosing to home school — or even "unschool" their children — climbed to nearly 3,000 students, according to New York City Department of Education.
Rina Crane, 38, who lives in Kingsbridge Heights with her husband Mark, a 49-year-old MTA train operator, decided to home school her daughter in 2010 after feeling dissatisfied with the public school in their neighborhood.
"She's very bright and the teachers couldn't give her extra work and had to just focus on the kids that were behind, " Crane said of her 7-year-old daughter, who spent several weeks at P.S. 86 before her mom pulled her out. Crane had attended the same grade school as a child in the 1970s.
According to the New York City Department of Education's special home school division, which monitors the children enrolled in home school education, the number of parents who choose to educate their children at home rose from 2,350 in the 2008-2009 school year to 2,766 in 2011- 2012.
The citywide growth came amid an uptick in homeschooling rates nationwide, growing at a pace between 7 to 15 percent each year, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. The research group estimates that more than 2 million children in the U.S. are home schooled.
Home school experts say that most NYC parents who choose home schooling make their decision based on financial reasons and dissatisfaction with the public school system, rather than a religious motivation, which is more common statewide as well as nationwide.
"Twenty-five percent is secular nationwide, 65 percent is evangelical, and the rest is Catholic or other religions, Muslim, Jewish," said Jeremiah Lorrig, a spokesman from the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association. "You have a different setting in an urban environment and a lot of people picking cultural concern over social impact.
"Regardless of whether you're doing a traditional home school or unschooling, you still have to follow home school statues and laws," he added.
Crane said she was initially overwhelmed by the thought of home schooling her daughter, and applied for a full-ride scholarship at Fieldston Lower, a private school in Riverdale with an annual tuition bill of $37,825. But she quickly grew accustomed to the idea after she was told she didn't make the cut for Fieldston.
"At that point, I was comfortable with my decision to home school," she said.
Determined to socialize her daughter in a setting with children of parents who were more "like-minded," Crane now takes the bus to Inwood for extracurricular actives in enrolling her kids in dance and swimming classes.
Crane has even decided to register her 5-year-old son for home school education when he reaches school age next year, she said.
"We see each day as a day for learning," Crane said. "It's not that we're trying to shelter our children, but our children are bright and we want our children to explore naturally."
Home schooling parents say they work hard to provide their children with a socially satisfying experience, hosting a "Not-back to School" picnic in Central Park in September to prevent their kids from feeling left out of the back-to-school rush.
"Yes, we might be celebrating that we're not in school that day like the rest of the kids in the city, but mostly, we're celebrating seeing our friends after summertime's inevitable trips and adventures to other places," organizers from the the New York City Home Educator Alliance, a home schooling group with more than 300 members, wrote in its invitation.
Amy Milstein, 45, a Upper West Side mother who home schools her two children, said she decided to forego the city school system after debating sending her eldest to a Montessori school with a $20,000 per year price tag.
"It was ungodly expensive," said Milstein, "Big deal. We can play at home. I don't need to pay someone for my kid to play with blocks."
Milstein — who grew up in a traditional school setting in Columbus, Ind., and attended a four-year college — and her husband Joshua, 48, who did not complete high school and runs a hardware store in the West Village, were inspired by the works of John Gotto, a long-time educator who wrote "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling."
The Milstein family converted their apartment into a virtual classroom to teach their 8-year-old son, Ben, and 12-year-old daughter, Maya. Every corner is stacked high with books and each wall is decorated with paintings, art, educational materials and old Crayola doodles. Each of their children's bedrooms is stocked with books — from the "Animorphs" series, a science fiction series for young adults, to the "Gone" series for their pre-teen daughter.
Under New York state law, every parent who wants to forfeit a private or public education has to submit a curriculum for their proposed home school year as well as attendance records. The state requires a minimum of 900 hours of instruction to compete each grade level.
Some parents submit curricula that they create for themselves, or purchase from home-school organizations, while others prefer to follow a philosophy of "unschooling" — or letting their children's natural curiosity determine what path they'll follow.
Millstein, who subscribes to the "unschooling" educational model, said she worked out an agreement with the Department of Education in which she submits a record of her children's daily activities, such as building Legos and taking art classes in a group setting, and submits her entry logs to the education authorities.
Among the educational experiences her kids have done in the past year include group art classes at a studio with other kids, and an after-school Spanish program, she said.
"Anything organized, she chooses," Milstein said, adding that it was her 12-year-old daughter's decision to take the after-school Spanish class. "The thing about unschooling is there is no 'have to do' it."
Milstein believes in allowing her children to learn through natural exploration rather than through a set curriculum, and said that she and her husband decided that they wanted to home school their children before she delivered them.
"We are immensely satisfied with our decision to allow our kids to be self-directed in their learning — to be unschoolers," she said.
"They learn how to find the things they need to know, and are generally more independent and adventurous than their schooled peers."