Just a few weeks into COVID-related distance learning, Lauren Pelissier’s 11-year-old son, Jack, started really struggling. “Being on a screen with 20 to 30 kids and not being able to connect with another student or the teacher was really hard on him,” says the Georgia mom and event planner. “There was a lot of confusion, tears, and sadness.”
They stuck it out for the rest of the year. But in the spring, when their school district was waffling on a return to in-person learning for fall, Pelissier took action. She wanted to find an option that was “solid and consistent.” But she also knew she wasn’t prepared, or even able, to home-school Jack herself. So she did what any desperate parent does: She went to Google.
Pelissier “typed in ‘private homeschool instruction'” and quickly found her way to a small home school created by two local parents. And with that, she joined a national trend of families struggling with virtual school who are looking to home-school for the first time.
Jamie Heston, a home-school consultant in the Bay Area of California and a former board member of the Homeschool Association of California, has been hosting “Homeschool 101” a few times a year to an audience of 20 to 30 people. Since last April, she’s “been doing them weekly and getting 100 people every time.”
We put together a Homeschool 101 to answer common questions for any family that’s home-school-curious.
What Is Home Schooling?
“Home schooling is a broad umbrella,” says Blair Lee, founder of SEA Homeschoolers, the nation’s largest secular home-school organization. What started as a grassroots movement among Christian and “hippie” families has become a booming industry.
“More families are drawn to home schooling because they feel the public education system is not a good fit for their child,” Heston says.
“At its heart,” Lee says, “home schooling is education with a focus on the individual.”
Why Home Schooling?
“The most profound benefit of home schooling is there is no timeline for learning anymore,” Lee says. That means if, for any reason, the pace of traditional school doesn’t work for your child, you can create a pace tailored to them. This might mean moving faster through material and getting to additional areas of study or having focused time in challenging areas.
Pelissier says Jack is doing really well in an environment that lets him tap into his creativity. “The public school system kind of put him in a box,” she says. “Looking back, he was really stifled; there was no room for his brain to expand beyond what was being provided to him.”
In his new “school,” Pelissier says, there’s room for him to grow in relation to his interests.
Who’s a Good Candidate for Home Schooling?
“Anyone can benefit from this approach,” says Blair. But home schooling could really be a good fit if your child:
- Is gifted or has a learning challenge and would benefit from more individual teaching
- Has sensory issues and finds the school environment overwhelming
- Is an actor or athlete who needs a more flexible schedule
- Is being bullied at school
- Learns better at their own pace
- Has behavioral issues in school. These are often related to movement and behavior. They disappear in a home-school setting.
It can also help if someone in your family has a medical condition that requires limiting germs in the home (pandemic or no pandemic).
Where Do I Start?
Home schooling is regulated by states, so there isn’t any one-stop shopping. Getting set up can be confusing.
Search for your state’s home-schooling organization to find out what it looks like where you live, Lee says.
“Every state is different,” Heston says. “Some you have to file a letter of intent. Some states have charter programs that are still under the public school system.”
They also vary in what they expect your kids to learn. “Some are completely hands-off, and you have a lot of autonomy,” Heston says. Others require you to submit a plan that the superintendent has to review. California, for example, says you need to provide an equivalent education to public school and cover the main topics. But, Heston says, you have complete flexibility in how you do that.
Once you know what your state requires, reach out to home-school groups (most of which are on Facebook) to find out what people are doing in your area. “Find two or three groups with descriptions that seem like they would be a good fit for your child or family, and join them, and ask questions,” Heston says. You’ll likely find like-minded folks who can serve as mentors, sharing resources for curriculum, local programs, and more.
How Do I Know What and How My Kid Should Learn?
You can buy an all-in-one curriculum and just “open the box and do it,” Heston says. But she encourages families to experiment before they spend money on anything. “It takes some time to find out what works for your kid and your home and your schedule — and you can get overwhelmed with all the choices out there.”
“I usually see home school fail when people try to duplicate school at home — when I see people making out long, specific schedules,” says Richmond, VA., home-schooler Alycia Wright. “For most people, that’s not real life, and that’s exactly what you’re trying to get rid of. You don’t need a classroom. A kitchen table will be fine.”
“Just start somewhere covering your major topics and then fine-tune it,” Heston says.
“Embrace the freedom and try it,” says Wright. “If it doesn’t work, you can change it up.”
Don’t Home-Schoolers Get Left Behind?
When parents are worried about keeping their kids “on track,” Heston tells them, “topics like math, reading, and writing are linear, so any program you use is going to keep you ‘on track.'”
For subjects like science and history, which aren’t necessarily covered every day in school, “there are a million and one websites out there that will tell you what the typical topics are and what kinds of experiments you can do.”
History was one of the main reasons Wright, a mom of three and former public school teacher, began home schooling. “In school, they start talking about African Americans in 1619 with slavery,” she says. “So, your whole lens starts with these traumatic events.”
Wright, who is Black, wanted to give her kids a fuller view of history that reflects her culture and community. She’s part of a movement among African Americans who are finding freedom in home schooling where they “can research and find all the stories that we wish we had when we were children, all the stories that are missing from the books.”
Can Home-Schooled Kids Get Into College?
“You can go to college as a home-schooler, no problem,” Heston says. “Most colleges now have special admissions officers just for the home-schooling set, and they covet home-schoolers because they know they are more autonomous.”
“Colleges have become very home school friendly,” says Lee, whose son got scholarship offers from all but one of the colleges he wanted to go to. And Wright says home schooling helped her oldest daughter enter college at 15. “Even though she didn’t get a traditional education, she was able to move at her own pace, which is what enabled her to get to such an advanced place,” she says.
What if I Don’t Want to — or Can’t — Teach My Kids?
You aren’t alone. But there are many small programs such as the one Pelissier found. It’s more like a mini-school, she says. “There’s been real growth in that area,” Lee adds.
Pelissier researched home schools with an outside teaching component. She found a hybrid home school, “which is 2 days a week in person, taught by teachers, and 3 days a week independent work, at home with little to no screens.”
Or you can look into a co-op like the one Wright founded. When she started home schooling, she says, she did a lot of networking to find other home-schooling families of color. As a result of her efforts, she launched the Cultural Roots Homeschool Co-Op. Her goal was to create a broad network of home-schoolers that can help culturally diverse kids learn more about their own backgrounds.
Co-op members can share teaching responsibilities or pool resources to hire a teacher for some or all of the subjects.
Other options include:
- Using outside “vendors” that offer math, science, nature, and other programs, much like an afterschool program. Your child attends those for a portion of the day or the week.
- Looking for public school programs that offer 2 days a week in a more typical school environment, and the other days you home-school
The bottom line, Heston says, is that “there are all kinds of different programs out there.”
Will Home Schooling Isolate My Kids?
Home-schooling folks hear lots of concerns about kids not interacting with others their age.
And while that’s true to some extent, they say home-schoolers still have plenty of opportunities to connect with other kids. It just takes some work.
“Everything that schools have, we have as well, just in smaller groups,” says Heston, who helps organize teen parties, moms’ nights out, Nerf battles, park days, field trips, and team day competitions.
With the home-school population growing during the pandemic, Heston says, “there’s going to be an even larger contingency of people clamoring for connection.”
And one of them will be Jack Pelissier. “This has worked out significantly better than I could have ever imagined,” his mom says. “I was exposed to it as a byproduct of COVID, but he will probably stay there, because the format works better for him as a person.”