Washington (CNSNews.com) - It's that time of year when spelling and geography whiz kids head to the nation's capital. And once again this year, home schoolers were among the best in both competitions.

Even though students from public schools dominate the contests, home-schooled students are making their presence -- and their smarts -- known to people around country.

Last week, home-schooled eighth grader James Williams of Vancouver, Wash., took home first place in the National Geography Bee. Then on Thursday, another home-schooled eighth grader, Evelyn Blacklock of Tuxedo Park, N.Y., was the runner-up in the National Spelling Bee.

Winning isn't everything, said Abigail R. Eustace, a home-schooled seventh grader from Beavercreek, Ohio, who was knocked out of Thursday's finals. Eustace pointed to the number of home-schooled participants to prove her point.

In the United States, less than 3 percent of all students are home schooled, yet they made up 12 percent of the 251 spelling bee finalists and 5 percent of the 55 geography bee finalists.

"If home schoolers try something, they're going to do better than average," said Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, which serves as a clearinghouse for information on home-based education.

Ray said the annual spelling and geography bees always include a disproportionate percentage of home-schooled students, which he attributes to differences in the teaching methods parents and public school teachers use.

For instance, he said, only about one third of the day in public schools accounts for "academically engaged time." At home, a parent or two can focus exclusively on a child, meaning he or she gets more attention and doesn't waste time standing in lunch lines or taking bathroom breaks.

While Ray acknowledged that it's hard to judge the impact students like Williams and Blacklock are having on the home-school movement, he said their strong showings in national competitions certainly help the movement's image.

Home schooling has long been subject to skepticism and still faces threats today from lawmakers. It has also been the butt of jokes and even forms the basis of a new comedy series on The WB cable network, called "The O'Keefes."

Home-school teachers, who range from single stay-at-home moms to working mothers and fathers, are taking things in stride, Ray said.

When The WB announced its plans to air "The O'Keefes," the Home School Legal Defense Association promptly fired off a letter to the network's executives complaining about the portrayal of the home-schooled students in the show.

Although its second episode only aired Thursday night, home schoolers have made it clear that they're not pleased. The network, however, has stood behind the show, emphasizing that it is based on fictional characters.

But even though dustups like the one involving The WB occur now and then, Ray said things are improving for the home-school movement.

"When people bump into [home schoolers], they realize they're not strange, they're not nerds and they're not socially isolated," he said. "As people start experiencing that, the image and the interpretation of home schooling starts to change a lot."

The image is also changing because of the success home-schooled students are enjoying in competitions such as the spelling and geography bees, Ray said.

Since 1997, three of the seven spelling bee champions have been home schooled. And even though Blacklock came up short in Thursday's finals, Williams picked up a victory in the geography bee.

But getting taught at home isn't necessarily the key to success, some home schoolers said.

"Home-schooled students seem to me like they'll work harder at things," said Hannah Elizabeth Due, an eighth grader from Grand Forks, N.D. "But I know a lot of these kids who do very well aren't home schooled. I guess it just depends on how hard you want to do it."

For her mother, Joan Due, it was the second trip to National Spelling Bee finals. In 2000, Hannah's sister Karen tied for 13th place in the finals.

Getting to the national finals isn't easy. This year's winner, Sai R. Gunturi of Dallas, was making his fourth appearance. Typically students compete in school, regional and state bees before they can advance. For home schoolers, it's much the same process.

It's also a lot of work, Eustace said. She spent three to five hours a day studying. And she said the word she missed -- sarrusophone -- was one that she knew, which makes it even tougher.

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

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