It has been six months since we started on this journey with our 14-year-old son, who began a home-based high school curriculum last fall. I’m no expert by any means, but you’d be surprised how much several trials by fire in a short amount of time can teach you. I know there’s a lot more knowledge to grasp with each year, but here are ten things I’ve learned so far.
1. You can’t just go with one curriculum.
Even though my son is enrolled in an online accredited high school, there are still gaps I need to fill. For example, Khan Academy has been vital for him (and me!) to understand Algebra. Also, it can be challenging to find Christian history, literature, and other educational materials from an African American perspective in a mainstream homeschooling curriculum. I’ve posted a few history resources here on UrbanFaith.com, but you can also check out Store.UrbanMinistries.com.
2. Think nontraditional.
The main reason we’re going through this journey is that the structure of a brick and mortar school was not working for our son. So why repeat the exact same schooling structure at home? I’ve learned that sometimes he works better at night. He doesn’t necessarily need the weekends off. He’d rather do a little bit seven days a week instead of a normal five-day week. You can learn anywhere — for example, we’re going to learn Spanish vocabulary in the grocery store.
3. You do need some structure.
Every kid is different, but I can’t leave the house without making sure he knows what he’s supposed to do and then following up when I get home. I’ve heard horror stories of people thinking their kids are working only to find nothing but a trail of video games and social media filling up the day. Setting boundaries are important, and you can include your child in making those decisions. For example, I will talk to my son about the week and what we are going to accomplish and we will agree on which days and times he will complete the work. Some families might have routines that are more strict. But this works for us.
4. Connecting with other homeschooling parents keeps you sane.
I’ve spent a lot of time on social media with other parents who have kids in the same program. It makes me feel less isolated as we’re all going through it together and sharing our stories. We all have kids of varying ages, but there are always a few moms with kids the same age as yours. You’d be surprised at the similarities in our stories. I’ve learned a lot from those moms and gotten great tips and teaching resources. Check out these groups when you have time.
5. You have more time in your day to make learning fun.
When you strip out lunch, advisory periods, the time between classes, gym, assemblies, and time for teachers to work with other kids, that streamlines your child’s day quite a bit. My son can pretty much do his entire day’s work in three hours. I’m finding that is common among other kids who are learning at home. So I’ve started to get creative. We’re going to take advantage of several museums that offer free museum days to area residents. Also, we’ll be going to work out together at the local YMCA, which has affordable pricing.
6. You become the school guidance counselor.
If you don’t go to an online accredited school, you’ll need to develop your own transcript for your child. The Homeschool Mom has a great blog post about this, but keeping track of all the courses, lessons, tests, and grades become your responsibility. Also, it’s on your shoulders to plan out your child’s future, making sure that they are taking in all the subjects necessary for whatever transition they plan to make after high school. I’ve created a spreadsheet for my son that goes from freshman through senior year and has all the courses he will need to take to graduate.
7. Standardized testing is a little more challenging.
My son needs to take the PSAT this spring and it was not easy to get the local high school to let him take it there. I made several calls and emails that were ignored. If you’re not enrolled in the school, don’t be surprised if they simply don’t care that much about assisting you. Unfortunately, when you call the people who administer the PSAT, they say to contact your local school. In the end, the only reason I got a response was that I pointed out that I do have another child at the school. It was very frustrating. The lesson learned here is to start a few months early if you want your child to take standardized tests. Don’t wait until a week before the test. They have to make special accommodations for homeschooled kids and that can take time.
8. It takes a village to homeschool a child.
In my opinion, homeschooling will be hard to do if you work full-time without other family members to support you. This is a tough one to write because I know not everyone can survive financially on a part-time salary. But honestly, you have to be present to make this work. You can’t give an assignment and just leave without touching base during the day and providing assistance as needed. Not to mention, it requires a lot of planning in advance on what to teach, what classes to incorporate into your curriculum, when to take time off, how to provide extra help in subject areas unfamiliar to you, etc. That said, I could see it working if there is an extended family in the house who can help share the homeschooling load. I have a friend whose mother is helping to teach her small children a few days a week. It gives her a break and grandma time to bond.
9. People will be judgemental.
I’ve had people tell me they think I made the wrong decision. That I just gave in to my son’s anxiety. They’ve said there’s no way he can learn at home what he could learn in a public school. Some scare me with warnings that he won’t get into college. It’s hard to hear. From my point of view, my son actually doesn’t mind learning now. No more “I hate school” mantras. I know we made the right choice for our family.
10. Choose your path based on your circumstances.
If your goal is to give your child a flexible schedule in the short-term and you intend for him or her to eventually go back to regular brick-and-mortar schooling, consider starting with your local public school first. A lot of school districts have home-based, online curriculum partnerships you can look into if your child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Or, they may have a program where you can work with your child’s teachers and take the work home. We did that when my son was in middle school. If this is a long-term choice and there’s really no going back, do your research first before you make the leap if you have time to do so. Talk to other homeschooling moms. There are so many options now and you can tailor something specific to your child’s interests. Start with the Homeschool Legal Defense Association.
After playing for years on a very competitive baseball team, my son lost interest, complaining that his stomach hurt. He went from a kid who loved the game, to one who was repelled by it. The pain came and went sporadically. Then two years later at the start of 7th grade, it got worse. The trigger seemed to be increasing demands at school, from big presentations to stressful unit tests to just a lot of unfinished homework piling up.
Every morning was torture. I’d go to wake him up for school and I didn’t know whether he would fight his way awake or just pull the covers over his head and curl into a ball. I couldn’t understand why it was so impossible for him to fight through the pain. He would look at me with watery eyes and say he just couldn’t move.
My husband and I wanted to make sure he didn’t have some kind of underlying medical issue, so I took him to all sorts of specialists who examined him thoroughly with X-rays and blood tests. He was missing weeks of school at a time, but the tests revealed he didn’t have any physical ailments.
Finally, we broke down and had a full neurological exam, which cost us $1200—even with our health insurance. After the doctors reviewed surveys from us and his teachers, we finally got a diagnosis. Our son suffered from depression and anxiety disorder. Since both my husband and I have family members dealing with mental health issues, it wasn’t that out of the realm of possibility, I just hadn’t realized that this was how it could manifest itself.
Seeking Help & Support
We decided to enroll him into a Christian school anxiety and refusal program at a children’s hospital near our home so he could keep up his studies while getting therapy.
When we pulled up to the hospital for the first time, I saw a gigantic statue of Jesus with open arms — you know, like the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil. I felt like I was in the right place. After a few months of therapy, it seemed like we were making progress. However, he didn’t seem particularly eager to go back to his regular school.
In fact, this is when the idea of homeschooling first came up. My homeschooled her kids in their elementary years and her oldest, who was accepted into one of the most competitive high schools in the Chicago area, had just been accepted to Stanford University. When my son asked to be homeschooled, too, I shot him down pretty quickly. That wasn’t even something I felt I could consider. Sure, I’ve been to college and I have a master’s degree, but in no way did I consider myself a teacher. People go to school for years to learn how to teach kids, I reasoned. I felt like I’d be short-changing his education.
Feeling alone and frustrated, I started talking to parents in my church about our challenges. It turns out that two moms I talked to regularly also had kids suffering from anxiety and depression. Both had put their kids in similar school refusal/anxiety programs. In fact, one had a son who was pretty close to my kid. They often attended youth activities together at church, but the mom never shared what she was going through until I opened up about our family’s struggles. The other mom served as the youth director for the church. I still appreciate our heart-to-heart conversations. I also began reaching out to church leaders for support and they gave us the gift of love, checking on us regularly and adding us to the prayer circle. The senior pastor even took an interest in strategizing on ways the church could support my son to help get him back on track. No one judged us. I so appreciated that.
By the end of 7th grade, we had gotten him back going to his regular public school, sort of. He still was missing a few days every week or so, but nothing like the year before where he missed nearly thirty days of school in one semester. I thought we were moving past a difficult phase. I was wrong. Eighth grade was almost as bad as seventh. He barely graduated and he wasn’t looking forward to high school.
Starting Public High School
Two months into his freshman year, the stomach ache absences started again. At this point, he was on medication to deal with his disorder and to keep the pains at bay. He was missing school every single week.
Ironically, I had started writing a story on how more Black parents were homeschooling, which had me interviewing friends, parents and other experts. My son saw me working on the article and raised the question again about homeschooling. After talking to people who were doing it with kids the same as age as my son, I started to think maybe it wasn’t so far-fetched. I was really surprised at the support and encouragement I received from people I didn’t even know. I learned that homeschooling is different for everyone. There is no right or wrong way as long as your child is learning and thriving. Still, we weren’t ready to completely cut the cord with our public high school.
The counselors suggested a schedule where he came to campus for two classes and then took four classes at home through our district’s online schooling program. Our son also would need to have an individualized education plan, but the testing to receive this plan could take three months to schedule. Also, with the program, he still would have to come to school for tests. Given tests are a trigger for him, that wasn’t going to work for us. This plan started out okay, but even with only two classes on campus, the absences due to illness slowly returned.
However, he was doing very well with the online program so a month into the plan, we took the leap of faith and enrolled him full-time into the online high school. The school social worker didn’t think this was the right decision because she felt like we were “giving in” to his mental health issues. His counselor said that most kids he knew who went this route weren’t successful. But we did it anyway.
We also were worried about our son’s learning environment. Our community still is reeling from being featured in America to Me, a docuseries that brought to light some of the grumblings I’ve heard from African American parents over the years who were concerned about their boys and the learning vibe in our school system for people of color. I wondered if, without preconceived notions about what he could achieve, homeschooling could help to build up his confidence and reduce his anxiety.
We didn’t pull him without a plan. I knew what our state required for homeschoolers so I wrote a letter to the high school with details of our plan to educate our son. The day after we withdrew him from the high school, we received a letter in the mail from the attendance office telling us he had missed too many days to get credit for his courses. That confirmed we made the right decision.
We enrolled him in a regionally accredited online private school called Acellus Academy, which is run by the International Academy of Science. Four months in, things are so much better. He has virtual teachers in videos and a regular curriculum, but I am still very involved in the process, monitoring how he’s doing and stepping in when needed. Even as I am pleased with the program so far, I do feel the need to supplement with additional lessons from Khan Academy, Teaching Textbooks, and YouTube. (There are A LOT of very good teachers explaining just about everything on YouTube.). I’ve also learned a lot from private parenting groups on Facebook. Additionally, I’m going to incorporate Black history, field trips, and some faith-based teachings. I was looking for an all-in-one solution that I could build on, but every family is different and there are so many ways to structure a homeschooling environment. Some states even offer free programs through the local public school districts.
As for my son, the stomach aches have stopped altogether. He is very good about doing his work and currently has six classes and a 3.8 GPA. It only takes him about three hours to do his work, which I’m learning is fairly typical for homeschoolers. When you strip out lunch, gym, study hall, questions from other kids in the classroom, and other activities unrelated to learning, you can gain a lot more time to do other types of learning. When he turns 16, he may even get a job during the school year.
Homeschooling Blog on UrbanFaith.com
By sharing my story, I hope other parents will feel encouraged to consider homeschooling. Whether you’re dealing with a child with medical or mental health issues, or you just want a unique and positive educational experience for your kids, it can be a satisfying decision to take control of your student’s academic success. I plan to write about the good and the bad of our family’s journey on UrbanFaith.com, providing as many resources as possible for working with kids of all ages. My family is a little late to the game with a high schooler now learning at home. I’m not sure how our story is going to pan out in the end, but right now I have faith that we made the right decision.
Jonathan Banks, author of Raise Your GPA: God’s Way to Win @ School & Life, gives families practical strategies for raising academically strong and spiritually grounded kids.