By Cafi Cohen
A homeschooling mother writes: “I have a 14-year-old that attended public school for grades K-2, then homeschooled for five years. He wanted to attend public school for eighth grade, so we let him. He agreed that he did not learn much, but enjoyed the social activities. Our problem? My husband and I think that we should homeschool him for the academics that he missed last year. Our son completely disagrees and wants to attend high school. He is bright and plans to attend college. So, do we force him to homeschool or do we let him go to public school? He is a good kid, but we saw a huge negative change in attitude and actions when he was enrolled in school.”
Answers to this type of query fall into three categories:
- Honor his wishes – send him to school
- Compromise – part-time school or private school
- Parents know best – homeschool him. How you decide matters more than what you decide. How involves communication and research. First, you, your husband, and your son should discuss your son’s current priorities, your family’s priorities, and your son’s long-term goals. Hold several brainstorming sessions and listen to one another.Once you have outlined goals and priorities, think of this as a research and critical thinking project. Research means gathering facts. Critical thinking means evaluating those facts to arrive at the best decision. This is a fabulous opportunity to teach your son how to evaluate educational options, a skill that will serve him well for the rest of his life.
Back to School
Explore first the back-to-school option. Some homeschooling parents reason that a teenager, especially one who has recently experienced both school and homeschooling, should have a say in how he pursues his education. They say, “Let him go to school. Any school experience is much richer when you choose it, when you are not compelled to be there.” Many people do better in college (which they choose) than in high school (generally, a compulsory venue). Similarly, your son may do better at school than you anticipate – simply because he had a choice.
Begin researching school with one or more family brainstorming sessions. Discuss school attendance with your son, beginning with the following questions: What are your goals for your time in school? What activities will you pursue in school? What are the pros and cons of attending school?
Incorporated into your back-to-school discussions should be some ground rules. Consider a quote from a February 1996 Reader’s Digest article: “[In 1995] half of high-school seniors have used illegal drugs at least once.” School is not an excuse for rude behavior, late nights, and illegal activities. In addition, you and your son need to articulate how school affects family relationships, what your expectations are, and so on.
Next, even though your son has recently attended school, he should visit and observe at least one to two days of classes to inform your discussions. High school differs from middle school, and every school has a distinct culture and flavor. When observing classes, ask your son to compare on-task time (reading, listening to a lecture, working in groups) versus administrative time (waiting for others to finish, roll call, announcements, passing out supplies, discipline). Side note here – even at Very Good Schools, total daily on-task time usually does not exceed 60 minutes. Also, ask your son to closely observe student relationships as well as student-teacher relationships. How do they treat each other?
Before he leaves the school, your son should gather more information. Interview the principal and one or two teachers, asking them philosophical and practical questions. Examples are, “What is this school’s mission?” and “How many graduates were admitted to college engineering programs in the last three years?” You, as parents, will have concerns about the school and probably want to gather some information as well. What safety precautions does the administration take?
Finally, you and your son have enough information to evaluate school attendance. Pros and cons lists (advantages and disadvantages) are an excellent approach. You and your son should make separate lists and retain them for comparison with the lists you will make for the next two options – compromise and homeschooling.
The second option many homeschooling families explore in the I-want- to-go-to-school situation are alternatives like private school and part-time school. You investigate private schools in your area the same way you checked out the public school – with visits, fact-gathering, and discussion of the pros and cons.
Part-time school attendance – at a public or a private school – is also worth considering. Depending on your state laws and local district regulations and practices, your son may be able to attend school for, say, sports and foreign language and music. You would continue to address other subjects in a home-based program. Some families find this an ideal solution for older kids who are sure they are missing something.
Other families who have tried it complain that being tied to a school schedule greatly interferes with some of the benefits of home education. These include traveling almost any time of year and the ability to volunteer at any hour of the day. When our homeschooled daughter took a choir class at a local high school one semester, their near-constant schedule changes made it difficult to plan outside activities.
One benefit of part-time school is access to courses where the family lacks expertise, like laboratory science or foreign language. Some teens attend school part-time for group activities like music and sports. While many home educators find better alternatives in the community, in some smaller towns and rural areas, school is the only game in town.
With this option, you, the parents, and your son should each make that pros and cons list again – this time with the title “Part Time School Attendance.”
Choosing Home Education
Making homeschooling a first choice for some teenagers can be a tough sell. First you deal with “the grass is greener” assumption of many teens, indeed many adults. Almost all of my children’s teenage friends who attended school thought homeschooling sounded wonderful – often to the point where they would ask me to call their parents and explain how to do it. Some parents argue that we must learn to separate dissatisfaction with home education from dissatisfaction with the world in general.
How do teens who are strongly drawn to the high school social scene end up choosing home education? Our daughter was in that situation. Every year we gave her a choice about attending school. Every year – after thinking about it – she chose homeschooling. Her two principal motivators? First, as a homeschooler, she had time for five to ten community activities, including two volunteer positions and one paying job. With school, she would have to choose one or two of those activities and give up everything else. Second, as a homeschooler, our daughter expected to finish high school early. She turned out to be right on that point. At age 16, she graduated from Desert-Mountain Homeschool and left home to spend nine months in Australia.
One mother posted on the web that twice in the past two years her 15-year-old son asked to return to public school, a move she strongly opposed. She said that both times she was noncommittal, but did tell him he would have to do the footwork – make the phone calls, gather the information, schedule the testing, and so on. Her son dropped the matter both times.
So, how to evaluate homeschooling? Again, gather facts and create another list. Even though you have been homeschooling for years, you and your son should read some new materials about how families homeschool teenagers – see the Resources sidebar for book and on-line suggestions. My guess is that you have barely scratched the surface in terms of approaches and opportunities.
Following the research, make the “Home Education” pros and cons list. You, the parent, say you want to encourage homeschooling. I hope you include the following on the “pro” list (that’s right, I’m not unbiased, either!): Control over academics; Flexibility in approach, in scheduling; Individualized academics; Promoting autonomy and creativity; Head start on college; Positive, real world socialization; Positive family relationships.
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You and your son should have three pros and cons lists at this point – “Public School,” “Part-Time School,” and “Home Education.” You may have a fourth list for “Private School.” Use these lists to discuss how each option addresses both your family’s goals and priorities and your son’s goals and priorities. No solution will be perfect. However, man- agement guru Peter Drucker assures us, “Once the facts are clear, the decisions jump out at you.”
© Cafi Cohen