The children's eyes widened as the makeshift comet, a heap of dry ice, corn syrup and dirt, began to grow a tail.
One mother, her face lit with excitement, held the homemade celestial body while another mother circled it with a blow dryer, trying to imitate solar wind.
"There's our comet," announced a father, who was bouncing a toddler on his knee in the background.
"Wow! Cool!" exclaimed a young boy standing close to the action.
The home-school astronomy cooperative, held for about 20 students each week in Sale Creek, was a typical scene for families in the Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia home-school community.
As home education has boomed in the Chattanooga area and across the country, parents' methods for home schooling have evolved and mainstreamed. Rather than teaching in a vacuum, such parents are employing tutors, online courses, cooperative classes and home-school academies to complete their children's education.
Many of these home-school supplements will be marketed today and Saturday at the Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association Curriculum Fair, held at Camp Jordan in East Ridge.
"I used to think home-schoolers wore bonnets and dresses to the ground," said Marjorie Simmons, a Dayton, Tenn., mom who now home schools her two children, sending her children to tutors and co-ops as part of the educational process. "Home schooling has come a long way," she said.
In the past 10 years, the number of home-schooled children in the United States has increased by more than 77 percent to 1.5 million, or 3 percent of American school-age children, according to a U.S. Department of Education report.
The Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association estimates there are 1,600 home-school families in the region. Charlene Peavy, who works with the Georgia Home Education Association, said there are more than 60,000 children being home-schooled in Georgia.
The education given home-schooled students seems to match up very well when compared to public school students. According to the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association, a national advocacy group for home-schoolers, the 8,075 home-school graduates who took the ACT college entrance exam in 2002 and 2003 scored an average of 22.5, while the national average was 20.8 for those years.
It's not just the education that prompts parents to home school. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 36 percent of home-school parents are motivated to pull their children out of public and private schools because of religious reasons. Many local families fall into that category.
"We can teach academics from a Christian world view," said Soddy-Daisy resident Karen Malo, who home schools her five children. "Also, I can protect them from the negative secular influences."
"I like home schooling," said Alyssa Milo, 8, who ate homemade ice cream before stargazing with other students in her astronomy class. "I get to spend more time with my family, and it's a lot funner (than going to school).
"And I don't have to get up that early," she said.
Still, as options for home-schoolers abound, local parents say one of the best things about modern-day home schooling is having the freedom to tailor their curriculum to their child's needs.
Mrs. Simmons said her son, Josh, 8, was able to pursue an acting talent, participating in local performances with grueling rehearsal schedules that wouldn't have been accommodated by public or private schools.
Last year, her children were enrolled Rhea County Academy, a private Christian school, Mrs. Simmons said, and the money they had used for tuition now is spent on private lessons in basketball, piano and violin.
"Home schooling gives me the freedom to explore their talents and gifts," she said.
Jennifer Butler, a former schoolteacher who home schools her three boys in Chattanooga, said it has allowed her to use classical teaching methods with her children. Last year, she began Classical Conversations, which now enrolls 55 families and offers a full day of classes once a week for home-schoolers. Students are pushed to master such classical concepts as grammar, logic and rhetoric.
Home schooling by the numbers:
* 1.5 million -- Number of home-schoolers in the United States
* 60,000 -- Estimated number of home-schoolers in Georgia
* 1,600 -- Estimated number of home-schoolers in the Chattanooga area
Source: U.S. Department of Education, home-school associations
Parents who want to home school must submit a declaration of intent to home school to their local superintendent. Each home-school day must consist of 4 1/2 hours of study, and parents much write an annual progress report for each child and retain it for three years. Home-school teachers must have at least a high school diploma or a GED. Home-schooled students are required to take a standardized test every three years after the third grade. Test scores do not have to be submitted to public school authorities.
Source: Home School Legal Defense Association
Parents have three options to home school their children. They can notify the local school superintendent and home school independently, they can home school through a church school or they can operate their home as a satellite campus of a church school. Under the first option, the teaching parents must have a high-school diploma or a GED to instruct grades K-8 and a bachelor's degree to teach grades 9-12 or request an annual exemption for the Commission of Education. Also under the first option, children must take standardized tests in grades 5, 7 and 9. If the child falls 6 to 9 months behind their appropriate grade level in reading, language arts, math or science, the parent must consult with a licensed teacher to develop remedial course work.
Source: Home School Legal Defense Association
"We memorize basic facts when they are young until they own it," Mrs. Butler said. "By the time they get to high school age, they can intelligently defend what they believe and know. ... We don't teach kids for tests. We teach kids how to learn."
Overall, parents feel more comfortable with home schooling their children because there are more opportunities to socialize with other children and compete in a classroom environment, said Eddy Hilger, who home schools in Lookout Mountain, Ga., and runs Hilger Higher Learning, which offers classes for more than 200 families in the region.
Students can attend classes, play on home-school sports teams, work on the yearbook staff, participate in an honor society and even go to prom, said Mindy Giles, a home-school parent in Ringgold, Ga., who runs the Catoosa Homeschool Co-op.
"Anything that a child can do in a public school they can do in the home-school community," Mrs. Giles said. "There are so many things to do that, if a parent did everything, they wouldn't be home schooling at all."
Editor's note: Joan Garrett, who reported this story, was home-schooled.