Taking the Leap

The first thing to consider when you decide to homeschool–after you have learned what the laws are that you must follow–is to try to get your ducks in a row.

Homeschooling in Pennsylvania (If you live elsewhere, skip ahead to about halfway down the page.)

In Pennsylvania, this means you need to sign an affidavit that basically states that you will uphold the homeschool law, will conduct (supervise) your child’s education in the required subjects, and that you are not a criminal.  After the affidavit is signed in the notary’s presence, you will create the objectives for the school term.  These two things must be done before you begin homeschooling every single year. Your first year, you just turn in this paperwork before you begin schooling; for every subsequent year after that, you must turn in this paperwork by August 1st. If your child is not 8 years old yet, and has not been in school before (and you don’t live in Philadelphia, which has a lower compulsory age rule), then you don’t have to do this … yet.  When the PA homeschool law was revised in 2014, the wording about this 8 year old cut off date was changed.  Now, you must submit the paperwork for a child on or just before the child turns 8, regardless of where that birthday falls in the school year.  Most families don’t stress over this, so it’s really not a problem.  If you have questions, please field them to your evaluator.  She can definitely help you navigate this aspect of the law.

Objectives don’t have to be long, drawn-out, or overly wordy.  They can be quite vague.  In fact, vague is probably good since there is nothing in the homeschool law that says you have to meet these objectives.  Basically, the powers-that-be want to know you have a plan in place and that you are not simply going to be letting the child run ragged around the neighborhood.  Homeschooling is a real job and this is the first place where it feels like it. By the way, if your child has been in school before and has an IEP (trust me, you will know if your child has one of these because it will have involved LOTS of meetings before ever being put in place), you must have your objectives approved each year by someone.  Many parents choose to use an evaluator who is qualified to do this, but therapists and doctors can also sign off on the appropriateness of the objectives, especially in light of the more serious medical issues.  Don’t sweat the objectives, though.  They really aren’t hard to write.  Here are some ideas that would be appropriate for an average elementary school student:

  • The child shall read books appropriate for his age and ability on a wide variety of interesting topics, then write about what he has learned.
  • The child shall use the scientific method to study the world around him in an effort to understand how things work and why.
  • The child shall learn about the history of our state and the people who have settled here over the years.  Towards this end, the child shall visit several historical sites in an effort to enrich and enliven his learning.
  • For arithmetic, the child shall fully master the math facts, the order of operations, and how to work with whole numbers before beginning to investigate partial numbers (fractions, decimals, and percents) and how they are all related.

Those four objectives cover all four core subject areas.  Most parents prefer to write something a little longer than that, but this really does satisfy the law.  If your family is a religious one, you may certainly include the study of faith to the core areas.  The other school subjects, such as art, music, health, safety, etc., can be covered in a similar fashion, except that these subject areas do not have to be studied every single year–just once in Elementary (Grades K-6)and once in Secondary (Grades 7-12).  Fire safety, however, must be studied/covered in some form each and every year.  Take a look at the PDE handout or Pauline’s ideas for more ideas about these things. Ask your evaluator, as well.  I know she’ll be happy to help.  ( I refer to evaluators as “she” because most of them are women.  There are a few men out there too, though.  It’s just so much more convenient to use one pronoun and stick with it.)

OK, that’s what has to be done BEFORE you begin homeschooling each and every year in Pennsylvania.  Actually, there’s one more step:  Make a copy of EVERYTHING, then mail one set to the administration building of your local school district to the attention of the Superintendent or his designee (school superintendents are still a male-dominated field, so I’ve using the masculine pronoun), using certified return receipt request mail.  (That’s the one with the little green card that comes back to you.)  Everything that you mail/submit to the school district really should be done via certified mail.  Don’t rock the boat, though.  Some districts have some great policies in place for their homeschoolers; others, not so much. There’s a lesson there for you: If you want to improve relations between the people working for the school district and the homeschoolers living there, someone has to make a point to bring the two together so that everyone understands the law and doesn’t go beyond it.

Once the school district has their paperwork–actually, once the paperwork has been postmarked–you are legally allowed to being homeschooling.  This means that you are legally allowed to begin counting hours OR days.  You don’t have to count both! You now need to keep a Contemporaneous Log of Materials (basically a book list or a list of whatever you are using to educate your child), an attendance log of some sort (to count those days or hours), and samples of what your child is doing.

The other thing you have to keep on your radar is that in grades 3, 5, and 8, each student needs to take a standardized test.  You should not go to the school to have this done–even if someone in the office happens to call you to ask you to join them for the PSSA.  There is a list of approved tests, but most families opt for the CAT since it’s cheap and quick.  The parents of the student are NOT allowed to administer the test, but anyone else who can work a timer correctly–including siblings, neighbors, grandparents, etc–is legally allowed.  Also, in recent years, some of these testing companies have created an online version of the test which allows the computer itself to be the proctor/administrator of the test.  The nice thing about the online version of the test is that you get your results back almost instantly; whereas, when you do a paper-based test, you have to wait a few weeks for the results. The reason you need to keep this on your radar is that you are supposed to bring these results to your evaluator, since they are legally part of the portfolio.  She would be the only one who sees them and there is no minimum score you must meet in order to continue homeschooling, so there really is no reason to worry about this requirement.

When I evaluate students, I tell the parents to avoid testing in a group setting only because it is impossible in that group setting to get any value out of the test.  After all, homeschoolers tend to be single income families and money doesn’t grow on trees, so it stands to reason that you would want at least SOME value out of the dollars you have to spend on this thing.  One way to do this is to look over the test before you send it back to the publisher.  Note the questions your son or daughter answered incorrectly.  Did they do so because it was something you had not covered before?  Was the error the result of sloppy work?  Does your child know all the possible meanings for the words in question?  Sometimes errors are due to things like the child not knowing about subtle variations in vocabulary.  Sometimes errors stem from simple mistakes, like missing a bubble or forgetting what the directions require.  Sometimes kids are just having an off day.  Taking note of where the errors occurred can help you plan next term’s work–and that’s valuable!

It is important at this point to think about your end-of-term paperwork–the Evaluation.  You see, not all evaluators are the same.  Some feel that their role as very different from what you may envision.  The best way to think of this relationship is to equate it with the same criteria of a doctor, lawyer, or even a hair dresser!  You wouldn’t go to someone who didn’t listen to you or take your input into consideration, right?  Well, your evaluator’s role is similar.  While she is really the only person you are going to impress, if you feel like you NEED to impress her, well, that might mean she’s not the right evaluator for you!  See, most evaluators love helping other moms.  Some, however, really do feel like their role is to look out for the state’s interests.  That’s between them their clients.  I’m not that kind of evaluator.  In fact, this paragraph isn’t about how I evaluate at all.  It’s about how you should look for an evaluator who will support your efforts as you educate your child or children.  The only reason to look ahead at the beginning of the school term to your evaluation is because of the wide variety of evaluators out there.  Because the words relating to what this evaluation entails and what must be provided by way of samples and a portfolio can be interpreted in numerous ways, you need to interview and choose an evaluator before evaluation “season” in the spring.  This way, you, the student, and the evaluator are all on the same page as far as the educational goals.  The only other part of the law that you need to remember with regard to the evaluation is that this must be completed and submitted to the school district by June 30th.  This date is another reason why it’s a good idea to contact an evaluator early in the school term. Not every evaluator accepts new families each year and there is only so much time for all of the evaluations to be scheduled and completed!

(To all of you from out of state:  Most of the above information is aimed directly at Pennsylvania homeschoolers.  Sorry about that, but our state has some weird laws regarding homeschooling.  The next part of this article can be utilized by any homeschooler anywhere.)

Homeschooling Anywhere

OK, now that the Pennsylvania legalities are dealt with, we can get down to more information about getting down to beginning actually homeschooling!  Contrary to popular belief–or all the neat posts of homeschool rooms you see on Pinterest–you don’t actually need a dedicated room in which to “do school.”  I’ve always preferred the whole house method where you snuggle up on the couch or in bed to read aloud and do seatwork type things at the dining room (or kitchen) table.  While it certainly is wonderful to be able to leave a project “out” on a tabletop for a few days (or longer) while you are working on it, it isn’t necessary.  Definitely look over those neat ideas on Pinterest or in Google Images though, because you just may find something neat that could help you organize all the stuff that will begin multiplying once you start on this journey.

Let’s get this out of the way right now:  You will buy stuff.  You will make mistakes as you buy some of it.  You will not always be happy with some of the purchases you make, even the ones that you thought would be wonderful.  It’s part of the learning curve.  Chalk these mistakes up to “teacher training,” then pass them on to someone who will find them useful.  Actually, eBay is great for getting rid of your white elephants–and for finding treasures of your own!

Before we get into talking about the STUFF I know you want to learn about–curriculum and actually “doing” school–take a bit of time to just learn how to learn again.  In fact, I usually tell new homeschoolers, especially the ones who are coming home from “real” school, to “de-school” for a while so they can find what they like and what makes them get excited about learning again.  After all, homeschooling is far more of a lifestyle thing than a school thing.  You have to get used to having your family around you all day, every day.  Most kids who come home to school usually do so because someone isn’t happy about something.  Maybe things aren’t working out at the school they are in and maybe they are struggling to learn.  Maybe there’s a safety issue.  Maybe there are health concerns. Whatever the issue, it is a rare family who decides to homeschool “just because” or on some whim!  Those problems that bring the kids home aren’t going to go away just because they are at home.  No, instead, now you, the parent, usually the mom, has to figure out how to get that kid excited about learning again, and motivated to produce something with that learning!  This isn’t easy.  This is where that Philosophy of Education that I talk about comes into play!  Homeschooling is hard work.

Once you decide to take the leap and gets your ducks into some sort of row, you can start homeschooling.  To get going, at first anyway, all you really need is a bunch of paper, a variety of writing instruments, and maybe some art supplies.  A library card used to be a must, but with the Internet these days, you can get moving without one.  I mentioned you’d be buying things, but you don’t need to just yet!  We’ll talk about curricular materials elsewhere.  Right now, just let your kids explore things that interest them.  You can do this too.  There’s nothing better than having focused learning time during the day for everyone at home.  Try it for a day or two, or a week or two, or even for a month or two.  Then come back and we’ll talk some more about what homeschooling can look like.

Oh, one more vital thing before we leave this page:

If you are pulling your kids out of school in the middle of a term, you really have to think this through carefully.  If the issue is their safety, however, you can’t stand on the sidelines and hope the problem goes away.  You must advocate for your child!  If you are going to pull your child out of school–whether a brick and mortar school or a cyber school (which is really public schooling at home), you must write a letter to the school (CC the superintendent of the school district) before you do so.  You can include the homeschool paperwork (if you live in Pennsylvania, I mean) right in the same packet, but you must also write a letter about your decision to pull your child from school.  The exact wording and the legalities vary state to state, but some sort of letter is going to be a “thing” everywhere.  (Even in states where no notice is required before homeschooling, you’d still need some sort of paper trail if things happen mid-term.)  Frankly, whenever this is an issue, I strongly advise the family to join HSLDA before doing anything–JUST IN CASE!  In this litigious society we live in, it’s just good sense to cover yourself in case there’s trouble.  You don’t have to stick with HSLDA forever if you don’t want to, but please, for peace of mind, cover yourself with some sort of protection.  Here’s some information from their website on this important issue: https://hslda.org/content/landingpages/withdrawing-from-public-school.asp