Given the uncertainty with school this fall, many people are considering homeschooling for the first time, but are uncertain about what it is, how it works, and the possibilities it holds. Here is what you need to know.
What is homeschooling?
Homeschooling is a legal designation in New Jersey which means that the family is responsible for educating their children as opposed to being enrolled in a school. Remote learning while still enrolled in a school is not homeschooling in the legal sense.
How do you start homeschooling?
New Jersey’s homeschooling law is surprisingly simple to follow. To begin homeschooling it is enough to just inform your school that you will be homeschooling. They will essentially treat it like you are transferring to another school, except that the school you are transferring to is your family’s “homeschool.” There is no need for further interaction with the state educational authorities, no standardized tests to take, no reporting to the district at the end of the year.
How do you homeschool?
At face value, the term “homeschool” implies that you do school at home, with a parent providing direct instruction as a teacher would in school, working from a standardized curriculum. Some homeschooling families take this approach, but homeschooling law allows for much more freedom and flexibility in the approach and content of homeschooling than the name implies. It is perhaps better to think of homeschooling as “family-directed learning” as opposed to “school-at-home.” In homeschooling, parents don’t need to directly teach their children and the learning kids do can be based more on their interests and personality than is possible in a standardized curriculum.
In one approach to homeschooling, parents become more like educational consultants for their kids, helping them find resources and setting up opportunities for them. For example, take the hypothetical of a really active 7-year-old boy who loves bugs. Science class in school or remote school would probably not involve many bugs and would involve a lot of sitting and listening or looking at a screen. In homeschooling, parents can support their child’s interest in nature and bugs by going on hikes together to look under logs and identifying what they find, going to zoos or other organizations that have experts on bugs, checking out bug books from the library, helping them find interesting bug videos on YouTube, etc. There are many ways that parents can support their children’s learning in homeschooling that does not involve direct instruction.
One advantage of homeschooling during the middle school and high school years is everything your child does can be counted towards a transcript that can be used for college admissions, if that is your child’s goal. The path to college from homeschooling is well-established and homeschoolers attend all of the same colleges as their conventionally schooled peers. When it comes time to apply to college, homeschoolers can create a narrative transcript that describes their learning and how it meets colleges’ admissions requirements. Princeton Learning Cooperative has published a guide for how homeschooled children can move on to college (https://princetonlearningcooperative.org/college-without-high-school) that includes a sample homeschool transcript.
Most homeschooling families combine any number of these activities into a rich and meaningful education for their kids and as a way for their children to meet and socialize with other kids their age:
- Community-based opportunities: Library programs, arts council classes, community-based sports teams, community theater and music groups. (Participation in school sports teams or extracurricular activities is allowed at the discretion of the school district.)
- Online resources: There are a huge number of free, high-quality academic resources online, in addition to many paid resources available on any topic imaginable.
- Paid private tutors: Lessons in music, art, foreign language, and typical high school academic subjects.
- Work, volunteer, or intern: This could just be to make some money or it could be in a specific field, like graphic design, that aligns with your child’s interests.
- Programs that support high school students to take community college classes.
- Part-time vocational high school: Many of the local vocational high schools have half-day programs that allow homeschoolers to enroll exclusively in the vocational part of their program (auto, culinary, cosmetology, etc.) They can continue with their other studies in whatever way they want as homeschoolers.
- Volunteer and parent-run co-ops: Many homeschooling families band together once or twice a week to offer social opportunities for their kids and to do fun and enriching activities together.
- Travel: Many homeschooling families make travel a part of their life. Kids can learn about geography, culture, and history this way.
- Self-study: Write their own stories, work on art, read books that interest them, watch documentaries, do pottery, make a website from scratch, take things apart to see how they work. With the internet and a library card, almost everything is at their fingertips…and it all counts.
What if my child wants to return to school at some point?
This is different depending on the grade level of the child. If your child is in elementary or middle school and wants to return to a public school, the school is required by law to take them and will place them in the appropriate grade level given their age. At the high school level, it is a bit more nuanced. Public schools are not required to give children credits for the learning they did while homeschooling. So, if a young person homeschools for ninth grade and wants to return to high school for tenth grade, the school district may require them to take ninth-grade classes to earn those credits towards graduation. Each school district has different policies regarding this, so best to start that conversation before deciding to homeschool at the high school level.
What help is there if I want to try homeschooling this year?
One of the biggest concerns of newly homeschooling parents is the fear that they are going to mess it up and somehow harm their children’s future. They look at conventional schools with their extensive curriculum plans, textbooks, assessments, certified teachers, “grade-appropriate” materials, credits and transcripts, and feel intimidated and worry that they have to re-create that structure at home. What many families realize after homeschooling for a while is that much of the artifice and requirements of conventional schools are fairly arbitrary and that the excitement and interest they see in their children is a more reliable measure of growth and learning than grades and standardized tests. Many families that have children with learning differences find the flexibility homeschooling offers allows them to customize their child’s education more than standard Individualized Educational Plans (IEP’s) in conventional schools. There are also a number of specialized support organizations for children with dyslexia, autism, or other conditions that families can consult. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of books, websites, and choices available in the homeschooling community nationally, but as families experiment with homeschooling and what approach works for their children, most find a routine and like-minded people for support.
Locally, The New Jersey Homeschool Association has a lot of basic information available. There are many homeschooling Facebook pages, particularly Princeton Area Homeschoolers and NJ Homeschool Support.
If you’re looking for more direct support, Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) is a hybrid program of homeschooling and school. Teens have the freedom and flexibility of homeschooling and then attend PLC to take classes, work with tutors, hang out with peers, and go on trips. Each teen has a staff mentor who works closely with the family to answer any questions about homeschooling and helps to navigate all of the opportunities in the community. PLC is holding a free screening of the movie Class Dismissed on Wednesday, August 19th at 7pm. The film highlights one family’s transition to homeschooling. Q&A will follow. Register at Eventbrite.
Want to learn more about homeschooling? Joel Hammon will be expanding on this article in an upcoming talk! Join him and Princeton Perspectives Editor, Lisa Jacknow for a community discussion and Q&A on Thursday, August 27th at 7pm. Click here to RSVP for the Zoom link!
Joel Hammon is a co-founder of Princeton Learning Cooperative and a former social studies teacher in public and private schools. He is the author of The Teacher Liberation Handbook and president of Liberated Learners, an organization supporting the creation of Self-Directed Education centers across the world. He lives in Langhorne, PA with his wife, two kids and dog, Jade.