2020 has been a challenging year so far. COVID, quarantine, the fight against racism, job losses, a tanking economy, and loss of countless souls. If you are a parent of a school-age child you are also facing the decision on how to continue their education this Fall. Is it safe for kids to return to school, to socialize and learn in a somewhat awkward classroom setting? What if someone gets sick? Will the whole class have to go into quarantine? How to start homeschooling? Is it even legal? Are you working fulltime, or you have a child with special needs who throws social distancing out of the window the moment he enters the school building?
There are endless questions and very little answers because we won’t know until we go back to school. I don’t envy teachers and school staff who have to figure all this out while trying to take care of their own health.
Our decision to start homeschooling
Our family decided to take the year off from traditional schooling. We had considered it before for our son and it looks like there is no better time than now. For us, as parents, it is important to have consistency for our kids and even though we love our school, we fear sending them to class will set them up for failure.
So here we are. Getting ready to homeschool and having to figure out how. Now, I am by no means an expert and can not recommend a curriculum, tell you how to teach, or if your kid will end up going to college. But I can help you get started by telling you what we, meaning a couple of my girlfriends and I, did to ensure our children’s education for the next year. We do reside in Tennessee and laws differ a little from state to state but it will hopefully give you a general idea where to start.
Is it legal to homeschool?
In the USA parents have the fundamental right to direct the education of their children. Each state has its own laws and specifics but may not limit how parents choose to meet these standards. Currently, there are about 2 Million students being homeschooled. An average school day is 4 hours compared to 7-8 hours in a traditional school.
How to start homeschooling?
The first thing you need to do is to decide if you want to enroll in your district’s distance learning program to have your student return to traditional school once the pandemic is over, or if you prefer to embrace the homeschool lifestyle with your own schedule and decisions about their curriculum. If you make the decision to take advantage of the school board’s virtual program: wonderful! All you have to do is sign up with your school district, have a good internet connection and you are all set.
If you are choosing to homeschool other ways, look at your state laws. You can go to the website of the Department of Education and read up on the requirements.
In Tennessee, there are three ways to educate your child.
1: Independent home school
2: Church-related school – also called Umbrella program
3: Virtual schooling through an accredited distance learning school
Option 1 to start homeschooling
If you decide to become an independent home school you have to submit a letter of intent to your local district. As a parent, you take charge of their education and must have proof that you are qualified to do so. Usually, a GED is required to teach.
The letter of intent lists all your children, grade levels, the curriculum you will offer and proposed hours. Daily instructions are usually 4 hours a day for 180 days.
You will submit your children’s attendance and hours directly to the board. Participation in standardized tests is required and if tests are failed children might have to re-enroll into public or private school.
Pros: Registration with the district is free. Records stay with your local school system.
Cons: Often parents are given a hard time when they submit their papers to educate their children at home. There is little to no guidance if you have questions or need information which might be an issue when you start homeschooling.
Church-related school enrollment is very popular. Up to 90% of all home educated students are enrolling in an Umbrella school. There are hundreds of umbrella schools out there, some local, others extending countrywide. You register your student and become part of their private school. The parent is “taken under the umbrella” and basically becomes a teacher for the school. As with independent homeschooling, the parent will have to prove that they are able to teach.
Each church-related school is different. Some offer graduation ceremonies, participation in extracurricular activities or state testing.
You have the freedom to choose your own curriculum and report to the school. Even though the school is church related, you are not required to choose a faith based education for your child.
Pros: You do not have to interact with the school district. You report attendance and grades to your umbrella school and they will deal with the board of education. They offer guidance, parent portals and online groups to connect with, which is especially helpful when you start homeschooling.
Another pro for a lot of parents is that umbrella schools often don’t mandate state testing.
Cons: There is an enrollment fee for the year. Some schools might have stricter rules.
Enrollment into an accredited online learning program is just that. A virtual school with all the bells and whistles a brick and mortar school has to offer. It is great if you need your child to be at home but are seeking guidance from teachers and don’t want to educate the kids yourself. Check out each school carefully as they might vary in quality and not all keep up with the state standards.
Pros: High standard online education through licensed teachers, grades, and testing. Probably the easiest way to transition back to regular school.
Guidance and online portals for parents and students, field trips, graduation ceremonies etc.
Cons: Some private schools can come with a hefty price tag. If your kid is not a visual or reading learner it might not be the right fit.
This is probably the trickiest part. What to teach? And how do you know your kids are learning what their peers are learning? Well, that is all up to you but you will need to have a plan by the time you enroll either in an umbrella or independent school program.
There are faith based and secular curricula, ones that are free and others that can cost you thousands of Dollars. Books and online programs or hybrids. Most towns offer co-ops or tuition groups that meet once or twice a week. There are also more free spirited meetup groups. You just have to find the right fit for your family.
Go to Cathy Duffy’s Homeschool Review site. She has reviewed an endless amount of curricula and picked the best 102. The page also provides information on workbooks, subjects, kits, faith based material and all-in-one programs. I found this website very helpful in getting an idea what we were looking for.
Join local Facebook groups. They will be able to assist you with questions, have used curriculum fairs and organize field trips.
There are great curricula for high-school level available that assist with getting credits and earning a GED but since my children are young I did not look into that yet.
Do you know what type of learner your child is? There are 4 types of learners.
- Visual learners like to observe. They learn by reading, watching, like diagrams and pictures.
- Auditory learners thrive by listening to a lecture rather than reading a lesson. They like to read out loud and speak up in class.
- Reading/writing learners enjoy reading articles and books, follow written instructions, and writing things down.
- Kinesthetic learners are hands-on students. They learn by re-enacting, touching and moving.
Knowing what type of learner you are teaching will help you figure out what material to use to start homeschooling.
You do not need to commit to a whole curriculum set or to just one program. Feel free to mix and match. I had the idea I needed to buy a complete set for my kids with all shenanigans and more. After adding everything to the cart I ended up with over $700 worth of learning material that I hadn’t even seen yet. Talking to other homeschool moms I started looking at subjects and themes I wanted to teach, which would be interesting for my kids but also would keep them learning what they would have to study in a traditional school setting.
After going to the library, looking at material online and a book store, listening to seasoned homeschooling families we ended up with an eclectic mix and match, part online, part workbooks, lots of fun material that I can’t wait to start homeschooling with. I also only bought what we are needing for the next couple of months. Don’t buy for the whole year if you are not sure you are going to love the curriculum. You don’t want to spend $700 on books that your second grader doesn’t like to work with.
And don’t forget, field trips, baking cookies, learning an instrument, collecting leaves in a park all count as study time! Draw pictures, visit museums, volunteer, read to little siblings and enjoy this special time with your family.
Out of my friends one chose the school offered distance learning program, one joined a co-op and four chose an umbrella school. None of us chose to directly report to the school district.
Of the umbrella families, one is using a free program that covers all subjects, the others are mixing and matching to their liking and we are all excited for this journey to begin!
Hopefully this information was helpful to you to navigate through the homeschool sign-up jungle. I think this is going to be a great year!