An experienced homeschooling parent and a newbie answer thoughtful questions about homeschooling.
The coronavirus quarantine and concurrent crisis-schooling experience has brought families some unexpected silver linings, such as those described by a thirteen-year-old who says she’s learning more now than she ever did while attending a conventional public school. As many schools flounder to make distance learning work, as well as try to figure out how to work through the CDC’s disheartening guidelines for returning to school, parents are increasingly considering their educational options. Recent polls reveal that 40% of families in America are considering homeschool for the 2020-21 school year.
One Arlington Parent Coalition mom penned a number of thoughtful questions about transitioning from government school to homeschool. Mary Hazzard, an experienced homeschool mom of five children, and Maria Keffler, who just completed her first year of homeschool with a sixth and a ninth grader, responded.
KA: We did “homeschooling” during the spring of 2020 when the schools closed. It was hard and it made me think I don’t have what it takes to teach. Why would homeschooling for a whole year work any better? MK: I wouldn’t call what happened at the end of the 2019-20 year homeschooling for most people. It was crisis-schooling. You weren’t in charge of the curriculum, you didn’t have a plan, and it wasn’t your choice. Lack of autonomy, lack of preparation, and lack of options don’t lend themselves to a successful experience. Going into homeschool with intention and preparation makes all the difference. MH: I agree with Maria. I will add that for many homeschooling families, Covid19 has eliminated many activities and lessons their children were engaged in outside of the home. KA: Don’t you feel isolated? MH: I never felt isolated because I was always around my children and, over the course of any week, other homeschooling families. Like many parents, I developed many wonderful relationships among people I encountered through the activities in which my children engaged. I will say, however, that at the end of some school days, I was ready to head out the door to run on my own as soon as my husband returned from work! MK: I don’t feel isolated at all, but I do have a very high tolerance for alone time. I’ve been amazed, stepping into the homeschool community in northern Virginia for the first time, at the number of communities, resources, and support for homeschool families. We get invitations to far more academic and social events than we could possibly attend. KA: Have you seen your child struggle socially since they are isolated from their peer group? How do they make friends if they are never around other kids? MK: We pulled our older daughter (14) out of public school at the beginning of high school because of the socialization that was happening at school. Our litmus test for whether our kids stayed in public school was always, “Is my child being a positive influence on others, or is s/he being influenced negatively by others?” We saw a sudden 180-degree turn for the worse in her behavior and choices during middle school, and realized we had to get her out. Isolating her from certain elements of her peer group was part of the choice we made. Our younger daughter (12) has always been more of a social butterfly, but she experienced significant bullying in one elementary school. She had a better experience after we moved her to a different elementary school for fifth grade, but she still asked if she could homeschool through grades 6-8. (She has since decided she never wants to go back to public school at all.) We are part of a homeschool co-op that meets once a week, and both girls have made friends in their classes there. Prior to the lockdown they had ample opportunities to hang out and socialize, especially since the academics typically take less time at home, where you’re not slowing down to deal with a wide variety of abilities in one classroom, and discipline issues are much less of a problem. MH: Most homeschooled children, including my own, are very active in typical after-school activities with same-age peers. My fourth child’s first traditional classroom experience was to enter a grade of over 1000 peers. She already knew many of them from our neighborhood and parish, her soccer, swimming and basketball leagues. Having relationships with same-age peers only is primarily a feature of conventional schools. That is not the norm for other areas of life. Most people work and socialize with people of varying ages, just like in their families. KA: My teenager and I have conflicts about simple things like household chores and screen time. How can I possibly teach them and not have it be filled with arguments? MH: No one is going to like my answer. To say “I cannot homeschool because we argue about screen time and chores” is simply to say you and your teenager argue about screen time and chores. And if you choose not to homeschool, aren’t you still arguing with your teenager about screen time and chores? I think most of us recognize weaknesses in our relationships with our children. So I would not dismiss homeschooling because your relationship is not perfect. Screens are part of our children’s lives whether we wish it were otherwise. We know our children need to accept responsibility for their belongings and contribute to the harmony of the household. Certainly it will be impossible to ignore these conflicts if you homeschool your teenager. As parents we are the best individuals to help our children manage these demands in such a way as to make screens not own them and to make sure that they know how to be responsible with their belongings and be responsible members of their family - how can they be responsible anywhere else? MK: I don’t think you can have teenagers without having conflicts. One of my kids adamantly did NOT want to homeschool. The first couple of months were miserable. She was so intractable during her weekly community meeting that the tutor asked me to sit in there with them to help manage her. Those weeks culminated in an entire day that my daughter would not even enter the building. She sat outside alone all day. Toward the end of the day I asked her, “What do you want?” She said she wanted to go back to public school where people cared about her. I asked if any of these people who cared so much about her had reached out to her. In fact, only her best friend had maintained any contact at all. I told her that not one teacher, not one counselor, not one administrator had even emailed me to ask how she’s doing. I said, “Those teachers, counselors, administrators-- they don’t care about you. If they did, they’d be checking in. You were a job to them. Their job is to get you through one school year so they can move you on to a different set of teachers next year.” I continued, “You are not a job to me. There is nothing on earth more important to me than you and your siblings. Do you think we're doing homeschool because it’s a fun kick for me? Why am I making you do this? Because I love you and I will do anything necessary to keep you safe and give you the best chance at having a successful life.” It was hard love and hard truth. But the next day she turned it around. It was like a switch flipped. I can’t say the rest of the year was without conflict, but there was no more of the tug-of-war, fight-tooth-and-nail attitude. I think that was her last-ditch attempt to break me, to get me to give up. When you love your kids and try to do the best you can for them, they know. They may not like it, they may never thank you for it, but they see and they know when they’re loved. Discipline -- making decisions that are best for them over the long haul -- is very much a part of that. Parenting isn’t for cowards, and neither is homeschooling. But doing both well pays long dividends for your child. KA: My child is very different from me temperamentally and I think s/he benefits from exposure to different personalities and teaching styles. How do I tap into other parents who might be willing to co-teach? MK: There are so many options for homeschooling now, especially in the northern Virginia area. Between online classes, teaching services, packaged curriculum, and homeschool communities, you won’t lack for alternatives to expose your child to different materials, personalities, and teaching styles. MH: I like the way Maria answered this question. I would add that homeschooling is an extension of any family dynamic and provides opportunities to see each other more clearly. There are many resources available to respond to needs we discover on the way. KA: We have a small home. How do I set up a classroom without any extra space? MH: I preferred to use one small room for all my schooling. My house was not a school. You need very little beyond what you already have in your home. I do not recommend creating a classroom like your child would have in school. More stuff does not equal better homeschooling. Now that I am returning to homeschooling my fifth grader under our present shutdown, I use our dining room table for our lessons. All school materials remain in my office when we are not using them. MK: Having been a classroom teacher, I would’ve loved setting up a separate room and creating a dedicated homeschool space for my girls. But I quickly realized that would never work, because the two of them already share a bedroom (against their wills) and they do not want to spend any more time in each other’s company than they already have to. At the beginning of the year I staggered their start times by an hour, so my younger daughter began her day at 9:00am and my older daughter (who liked to sleep in) at 10am. We sat together at the dining room table and went over the work that needed to be accomplished that day. I’m a list person, so I made sure each girl had a checklist each day. Once they knew what they had to do, and didn’t need anything more from me (such as being given a spelling quiz, or having me queue up a video we were meant to watch together), I’d let them head off and work wherever they preferred. We have a desk in the living room and another in their bedroom. But given a lap desk to work on they’d choose to sit on the couch, or on their beds, or outside on the front porch if weather permitted. Whenever they finished one task they were to bring it to me before starting the next. But by the end of the year those constant check-ins were no longer necessary as they were pretty autonomous and I could just keep track of their progress in the background. KA: I can work from home, but can I do that and homeschool at the same time? MH: I was not employed while I homeschooled, so cannot offer any insights here. MK: Not having homeschooled young kids, I can’t speak to what it looks like to work from home and have elementary-aged students to homeschool. I haven’t had traditional full-time employment since I had kids, either. With older kids, I haven’t really struggled to find time to get my own (self-employed and volunteer) work done. I get interrupted more frequently, of course, but it hasn’t been a big issue for me. I can say that the younger the child, the less time they spend on academics, so an early elementary-aged child may only need to spend two or three hours a day on school work. KA: How do I get life maintenance (errands, administrative tasks, chores) done and teach at the same time? MH: During the years I was homeschooling four children (ranging from age two through seventh grade) I had plenty of time after lessons to attend to ‘family life maintenance.’ Many families I homeschooled with kept Fridays short - or limited Friday (or another day) for just fun family time and sometimes just to tackle household chores. My children took on many chores and became quite capable of contributing to the upkeep of the house (great life skills!) I became used to bringing my children with me on errands when they were too young to leave home alone. This may be a big change for parents who use the school day to tackle these things. Older children of course can be left at home to work while you run errands. Some families arrange for their young children to play together at one another’s homes and take turns running errands alone. To be frank, though, at times our weekends involved grocery shopping and house cleaning that simply did not get done during the school week. But I think this is the case for any family. MK: I appreciate what Mary said: kids need to learn to contribute to chores. Even small children can dust furniture, unload a dishwasher, or clean a toilet. My goal as a parent has always been to train my kids in life skills so that by the time each is 18 s/he could manage a functioning household alone. In our family I do what I can to keep up the housework, and whatever didn’t get done during the week I put on a list for the kids to do on Saturday. And each has been washing his/her own laundry since turning nine years old. KA: How do you pick a homeschool program? How expensive are they? Won’t I spend thousands on books and other resources? MH: You can spend as much as you wish on homeschooling materials and products. Spending more does not translate to better educated children. During the years I was homeschooling my four older children, I attended an annual homeschooling convention in the NoVa area where vendors sold new and used material. I often was able to purchase many of the books I wanted used and in very good condition. Faithfully committing your time is the biggest investment in homeschooling. MK: Homeschool is another expense. It’s a lot cheaper than most private schools, but not “free” like government-run schools. Some states provide families a cashback benefit if they don’t utilize public school for their kids, but Virginia does not. Last year our family spent around $6,000 to homeschool our two girls. Next year my older daughter’s classes at the teaching service we utilize run about $450 per credit hour. Various programs and organizations like HSLDA offer grants and scholarships, but we haven’t utilized those so far. After we decided that we would start homeschooling for the 2019-20 school year I embarked on a fact-finding mission. I talked with several parents I know who have homeschooled for years, and I found out what programs they had used as well as what they liked and didn’t like about those programs. I visited one program and observed their classes. I scoured the HSLDA website. I read reviews of different programs. And I ultimately chose based on the needs of our family. I considered academics (one of our kids is stronger in reading/writing while the other is stronger in math/science), personal preferences (we are changing programs this year for one child both because of academics and because she really didn’t like the structure of the program we did last year), and parental involvement (my first-choice program required full parental participation, including either teaching or full-time assisting a class, and that just wasn’t possible for me at the time). MH: I knew what I wanted for my children's primary education: mastery of the basic academic foundations in reading, writing, numeracy, learned in a faith-based setting. I looked at what friends were using with their own young children and that provided a good starting point to refine my search. What I started out with was largely what I continued with, but, like Maria, I made changes to better suit individual strengths and needs among my children along the way. KA: I have younger children. How can I teach and keep younger kids entertained at the same time? MK: I didn’t start homeschooling until my youngest was eleven, so I can’t really speak to this one. Mary? MH: I began homeschooling a rising 3rd grader, rising 2nd grader, rising kindergartner and a two-year-old (our fifth had not yet been born). Organization is key and you naturally develop what works. At these young ages, I would work with one child at a time, allowing the others to play together. You will not need much time to get through daily lessons with young children. KA: I have kids in middle and high school and I don’t remember the subjects they are taking that well and/or they are doing more advanced work than I can teach. How do I teach if I don’t have subject expertise? MH: I schooled only through grade 7. Many homeschooled middle and high school students participate in co-ops or are taking classes at community college or are taking classes online. While this may not seem like homeschooling, it can be a best of both worlds. MK: We definitely outsource a lot of material for our high schooler, especially because she is already two years ahead in math and one in science. This past year she took an online math class that can be self-paced or taken in bi-weekly online meetings. She also took a biology class at a teaching service in Springfield. Both of my kids did a packaged curriculum for their core subjects this year, which met once a week with a support tutor and other kids, but that worked better for one of my kids than for the other. My high schooler is going to take most of her classes at a teaching service next year. She’ll attend each class once a week, then do the rest of the work at home, with support from me. Oh, and by the way, her chemistry and psychology classes next year are likely to be dual enrollment for both high school and college credit, even though she’ll only be a sophomore. KA: How much time do you spend planning in addition to teaching? MK: Because we used a packaged curriculum, and we supplemented with an online math class and a biology class from a teaching service, I had little if any prep to do. Everything was laid out for me on a week-to-week basis: materials, assigned work, etc. I intentionally chose this format, because homeschooling was completely foreign to me a year ago, and I wanted as much support as I could get for the first year. For the 2020-21 school year, however, I am offering two classes at the teaching service, so the prep for that is exactly like when I taught in a high school. So, the amount of prep you will do depends on the format you choose: will you create a completely customized curriculum for your child, where you source the materials and assignments all by yourself for every subject? or will you choose a fully packaged, pull-it-out-of-the-box-and-go program? or something in between? MH: Not much to add here. I also followed a mostly comprehensive program. I believe most programs let you know how much time you should expect to spend preparing to give the lesson and grade/review your child’s work and how much time your child will spend on each subject lesson. KA: How will I know if I’m doing a good job? How do I know if my child actually is learning? MH: I think many parents who homeschool their children wonder if they are doing enough. I think this doubt goes along with parenting. If you are doing what you set out to do with fidelity, let that be the answer. As for knowing if your child is “actually” learning, if the progress you observe your child making on the program you selected does not satisfy you, there are any number of standardized academic assessments available. These are assessments that place your child’s test performance alongside a large number of their peers, similar to the SOLs in Virginia, the SATs and ACTs. These assessments may help you identify an area to focus on or they may offer assurance that your child tests well in some academic areas. This question may come to mind more from parents who have relied mainly on test scores or report cards as “proof” of what their child learned. MK: Virginia requires that homeschool families provide evidence of progress at the end of each school year. There are a number of ways to meet this requirement, including homeschool testing and evaluation services. At a minimum a person who holds a masters degree in an education-related field can evaluate your child (even if it’s the child’s own parent) and certify that he or she is making adequate yearly progress. This is not a difficult wicket. KA: On my best days, I struggle with follow-through as a parent. How do you keep your focus? MK: Schedules and lists are paramount for me. I have spreadsheets for both girls, with their classwork entered each week. There are homeschool management apps as well, but I haven’t tried one of those yet. Sometimes, when someone’s having an off day, I just let go of schoolwork for that day. That’s another benefit to homeschool. If you don’t finish the work by the end of May or the end of June, there’s still July and August. MH: I think this question is broader than homeschooling. But, homeschooling requires even the most focused and committed parent to have a plan, or like Maria said, a schedule. Then, like with any commitment, if follow-through is not happening, when you revisit your plan, you will likely see where and why. Thankfully, with homeschooling, recommitting to that plan (or revising it) is as easy as waking up to a new day. KA: If you struggle or have questions, where do you go for support? MH: Find homeschooling families and talk to them. I never intended to homeschool. I began reconsidering my children’s education after my three eldest had completed grade two, grade one and pre-k in a traditional school. I talked to several parents who homeschooled. Some parents homeschooled from the start, others ended up taking their child out of conventional schooling to homeschool for various reasons. These conversations helped me to clarify my thinking about educating my children and of course these parents were also very helpful about addressing the practical considerations related to homeschooling. MK: There’s a lot of support available: if you choose to participate in a program you’ll have tutors and directors available to you, an HSLDA membership ($125/year) makes all of their resources and support available to you, there are local, state, and national online groups for homeschoolers, and of course you can tap into the wisdom and experience of the thousands of families who have been doing this for decades. KA: How does your child do sports or extracurricular activities if they aren’t part of a school community? MH: County and club sports are based on age and neighborhood and homeschooled kids, including my own, played team sports with their age peers. And you will see homeschooled teams playing in many private and independent school athletic leagues. And some families continue homeschooling because a child is quite committed to something -- an instrument, gymnastics, swimming, etc. -- and homeschooling can be the best way to allow the child to pursue this interest. MK: All of my kids do sports through the parks and rec department. There are also so many extracurriculars offered to homeschoolers. We have friends whose kids do theater through Northern Virginia Players, and others whose kids do debate and compete all over the place. One of the benefits of homeschooling is that you can schedule your school work at whatever time you prefer. If you want to attend a museum event all day on a Tuesday, your child can do his schoolwork in the evening that day, or double up work the day before or after. KA: Does your child miss the plays, concerts, assemblies, field trips and other events that kids enjoy in traditional schools? MK: As I mentioned earlier, there are so many opportunities for these things via homeschool as well. In October our homeschool community went out to Cox Farm for the day (on a Friday, when almost no one else was there). My older daughter went to Baltimore with her homeschool class in December and spent a half day working at Operation Christmas Child. One homeschool dad had a friend at the Capitol and arranged for a personal tour for our group, including going up into the dome. There would’ve been a dinner-and-theater event in the spring if not for the lockdown. There’s no lack of events and activities. MH: Activities abound for homeschoolers. KA: I really like having a break from my kids and I think they need a break from me, too. Do you have time to pursue any of your own interests or have time to yourself if your kids are there all day? MH: Yes. Homeschooling will not consume your day. You will have time to yourself. The dynamics of your family will have a lot to do with how much time you spend directly interacting with your child who is learning at home. If you are teaching young children to read and write, your interaction with them will be different than your interaction with children who are older, who have mastered basic skills. As your child matures and learns your child will need to be working independently after you have taught or presented some new material, or after you have evaluated work and determine that you need to spend more time together to develop understanding and mastery of already introduced material. Again, most families are also schooling together, at times trading off teaching subjects or you may join a once a week co-op or you may enroll your child in art or music lessons -- giving parents more time apart from their children. MK: We have another homeschool family in our neighborhood, and our kids did the same curriculum and participated in the same community this year. We swapped kids occasionally, where her daughter came to my house to study with us for a few hours, then my daughters would go to her house another day. It was helpful for several reasons, one of which was that the other mom and I have different areas of strength and weakness with the material. It also gave us a break from one another.
KA: How do colleges look at homeschooled kids? Are they at a disadvantage in the application process? MK: I have not started the college process for my homeschooled kids yet, but my research and the guidance I’ve gotten from those who have indicates that homeschoolers are no longer considered the dumb country cousins of college applicants. Studies are showing that homeschoolers are not only competitive with but are actually outperforming government-schooled kids on metrics across the board. They tend to have better self-management skills and buy-in about their own education as well. MH: I homeschooled through grade 7. If you are homeschooling college-bound children, you will want to consult the many available resources, including prospective colleges and universities, about what essential area of studies your child should be pursuing now, and what assessments or standardized tests the college or university expects. All this information is readily available. I suspect also that many colleges and universities have dedicated admissions officers who evaluate homeschooled applicants - just ask. KA: What has been the worst part of homeschooling? MH: Looking back, the worst part of homeschooling included those days I felt I was not doing the best job, not progressing through my to-do list that day. I think the worst part of homeschooling is no different than the worst part of parenting, or the worst part of any meaningful work. MK: I do miss having more stretches of time without interruption. I’m a writer, and I haven’t been able to make much progress over the last year, because I really need several uninterrupted hours to get good fiction writing done. I simply can’t craft a story if anyone else is in the house. The absolutely worst part of homeschooling this past year was the deschooling process with my older child, who was resistant to leaving public school. But my husband and I held firm and we got over that mountain. KA: What has been the best part of homeschooling? MH: I think we feel we are at our best when we believe we are doing what is best for our children. For us, the decision to homeschool was simply the answer to that question: what serves our children best right now? And, we asked ourselves that question every year. MK: Getting to spend more time with my kids, and getting to know them better. We’ve had some really fascinating discussions this year about history, politics, math -- you name it. Homeschool takes less time than public school did as well. Whereas public school took up roughly eight hours of my kids’ weekdays, homeschool only takes an average of 3-4 hours for my younger child, and 5-6 for the older one. I love the flexibility to let them work on their preferred schedule, since one is an early bird and the other is a nightowl. They have more time to pursue their personal interests as well. One has been making and selling masks and the other is a beta tester for a new online game from Wildworks. KA: Will my child be able to reintegrate back into a traditional school setting if this doesn’t work? MK: Academically, certainly. While I don’t have experience sending a homeschooled child back to public school, I’ve heard a number of stories from other homeschool families about kids who desperately wanted to experience public school. They tried it for a year and then asked to be homeschooled again. Public schools seem to have become a twelve-year Lord of the Flies experience for a lot of kids. MH: My children each returned to traditional schools (three different schools) at various grades (fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth). They had no problems.
If you have further questions about homeschooling, or would like help investigating other educational options, please do not hesitate to contact the Arlington Parent Coalition for support. Kristen Allen has six children ranging in age from 13 years old to college graduates. The older children are enrolled in or attended both public and private schools. Her youngest attends an Arlington Public School middle school. Over the years, she was curious about homeschooling but always struggled with many of the posed questions. Now, she and her husband are questioning the ability of Arlington Public Schools to provide a robust education to their son during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Mary Hazzard has five children and due to the APS shutdown she is currently homeschooling her fifth child, a fifth grader who has disabilities. She homeschooled her older four children for eight years, spanning grades pre-kindergarten through grade 7. Mary’s older children each transitioned from homeschool to various traditional schools including a private Christian school, an independent Catholic school, and APS. Maria Keffler is a former middle and high school English teacher who pulled two of her three children from Arlington Public Schools in 2019 to begin homeschooling. Her son and two daughters are currently 16, 14, and 12, respectively. One of her homeschooled children is twice exceptional: on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and identified as gifted in math, science, and art.