Emergency homeschooling

When traditional school fails your child mid-year, what's a parent to do? As one desperate mom discovers, there's no place like home.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

I'll just say it: my daughter's school is a disaster. For over a year, I was unhappy with the academics. Then one day last month, an email from my daughter's seventh grade English teacher pushed me over the edge.

Months earlier, the teacher asked us get a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird so students could read it as a class. Note: this was the first time she assigned a book to read — which was alarming in itself. Week after week passed without her assigning a chapter. Finally, via email, she announced, “We don’t have time to read the book. So we will watch the movie.”

I'd been trying to persuade Ava to switch schools for 18 months. A social butterfly who thrives on her friendships, she'd refused. But this incident was too much, even for her. “I want to learn something,” she told me after school one day. “I’m sad about it. But I want to leave.”

I seized my moment. It was too late in the term to switch to another school we liked, but that was no reason to let her brain languish for another four months. The next time I went to the school, it was to fill out the paperwork to transfer her to our home school.

A growing trend

I'm not the only parent being pushed by circumstances to take over my child’s schooling. A 2007 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, found that over half of America's 1.5 million homeschooled students named concerns about the school environment, dissatisfaction with instruction, or other circumstances like health and travel as reasons for leaving their school. And homeschooling is steadily rising: between 1999 and 2007, homeschooling made a 74 percent relative increase.

Rebecca Kochenderfer, senior editor at  Homeschool.com and author of Homeschooling and Loving It!, doesn’t recommend my hasty start. “It’s best to move thoughtfully, to finish out the term if possible,” she says. But sometimes emergency homeschooling happens. “I’ve seen a lot of it recently,” says Linda Dobson, founder of Parentatthehelm.com and author of several books on homeschooling. When things go terribly wrong and you need to react quickly, homeschooling's a good fallback — even if just as a stopgap measure.

Rediscovering a love of learning

Although I acted quickly, I didn't make this decision lightly. You see, I’ve done this before. When my high-school-age son was in the fourth grade, I pulled him out in the middle of the day when his teacher told me she refused to work with him until I put him on medication — even though a doctor insisted he didn't have ADD. I acted out of shock and anger, but it turned out well. Within weeks, Cole rediscovered his love of learning and discovered interests — history, programming — that still inspire him. He studied at home the remainder of fourth grade and all of fifth. This time around, I was ready to home school the minute Ava was willing.

I'm a freelance writer, a life not unlike perpetual graduate school, so incorporating Ava’s education into my day was simple: I set up her own desk in my office and signed her up for online classes at K12.com. Her classes were live 24 hours after I filled out that transfer form. Her books arrived a few days later. And within two weeks of our “emergency homeschool” decision, she's read several books, is two chapters into writing her own novel, has discovered a fascination with biology (she wears a lab coat to the office) and Native American history (Columbus was a jerk!), and — with a tutor's help — discovered she's quite good at math.

There are dozens of reasons a school suddenly doesn't work for a child and family: bullying, a bored child or one with attention problems, illness, a job relocation, a floundering school district, the lack of funds for private school. “Listen to your child,” suggests Kochenderfer. "....If your child is resisting school, take it seriously. That act of listening can be great for your relationship with your child and for your child’s self-esteem. You can always go back to school. But your child will remember that you listened.”

Next page: Don't burn bridges

Don't burn bridges

Kochenderfer warns against burning bridges with your old school. You may want to go back if homeschooling doesn’t work out, after all. Or your child might want to attend a single class or participate in sports at that school. (Whether homeschooled students can play on sports teams or take individual classes is determined by state law and the school's principal.)

Ava's school doesn’t allow partial participation, but we still had reason to maintain a good relationship. She loves many of the people at her former school and wants to go back to visit. So, although it was tempting to spout angrily at a board meeting, we kept our cool and simply told the school that Ava needed more structure. And that was that.

Instant homeschooling 101

First, look up your state’s homeschooling laws. I was surprised by how simple it was to start. I had to think up a name for our school and mail in a form. I'll also have to issue end-of-grade tests.

Keep in mind that the rules vary from state to state. You may have to provide your planned curriculum in advance, take attendance and provide the records, issue end-of-grade tests, give grades, possess a requisite level of education, or supply other paperwork.

A support group

No really. A homeschool support group will give your child other kids to socialize and take field trips with during the day. It also allows parents to share resources and teaching duties. Finding a group was easy for me: I wasn’t the only parent from Ava’s school who had decided enough was enough. And I still keep up with the parent group I joined back when I homeschooled my son. (To find a homeschooling community near you, go to Homeschool.com.)

The teaching is easier than I thought it would be. Ava takes all her classes online. I'm merely a coach: I answer questions, provide supervision and direction, and drive her to swim team and to her tutor. She's not only learning more — and enjoying it — it’s easier for me, too. I don’t have to rush her out the door in the morning or leave work to pick her up every afternoon. And we're enjoying each other’s company — most of the time (she is after all a teenager) — because we aren’t arguing over grades, bedtimes, lost permission slips, reading logs, or homework.

Choosing curriculums with care

How you set up your home school depends on your life circumstances and your child's age. But both Kochenderfer and Dobson suggest taking your time when choosing a curriculum. “Don’t buy into a structured curriculum the day you start,” says Kochenderfer. “Or you might spend that money and discover later your child is better suited to something else.” They both suggest allowing your child some time to decompress from school, especially if you're making the change because of a school-related trauma. Go on some field trips, find out what your child wants to learn, and give him time to rediscover his love of learning.

Of course, homeschooling isn't possible for every family, depending on the child's temperment, as well as work demands and other practical issues. If you have a younger child, he obviously needs supervision, and even an extremely self-sufficient  teenager shouldn't be left to manage his learning on his own day after day. Still, there are ways to work around some of the obstacles: an older child might be able to work independently part of the day, then go solo from a tutor to a relative or neighbor, for example. And if you have some flexibility in your work schedule, you can trade classes with other homeschooling parents: you teach their child math, they teach your child history. An older teen can also take classes at the local junior college. “The great thing about this,” says Kochenderfer, “is that homeschoolers can usually get both high school and college credit for the same class.”

Taking control of learning

In fact, you might be surprised by how much your child wants to learn and takes control of his own education once you hand him the reins. “If you take away the TV and video games, kids usually wake up after a few weeks, rediscover their natural curiosity, and pursue all sorts of learning on their own,” says Kochenderfer.

The teacher who pushed us out the door may have done more for my daughter’s education than she'll ever know. In just a few weeks, Ava has learned she's in control of what she learns — not the teacher. And that's a lesson that will serve her well, no matter what school she attends.

Next: What happens if you get a bad teacher?

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.