Part-Time Homeschool: A Win-Win for Family and Community
By Rebecca Berbaum
Last year, my 12-year old son, Owen, opted out of public school science and social studies in order to dedicate that time and energy to reform our school lunch program. He joined our school district’s wellness committee, conducted research in our school lunchrooms, presented his findings to local teachers and administrators as well as to students across the state, applied for grants, conducted a district-wide parent survey, designed and 3D printed a lunch tray prototype, was selected to compete against adults in a health innovation contest, and initiated several changes through research-driven advocacy.
It would be easy to look at this list and get a picture of a relentlessly self-driven child, or perhaps an ambitious and overbearing parent. The reality looks more like a clumsy but rewarding path of mutual decision-making, frequent re-envisioning, and submitting our obstacles to God in prayer. We stumbled through many attempts at time and task management. Sometimes he got so frustrated with his lack of progress that he gave up on his own great ideas, and I had to bite my tongue and accept this. Sometimes I pushed my agenda and made everything more stressful.
In the end, though, this is what he had to say about his experience:
“It’s really uncommon to feel like the things you do impact more than just a few people, but I felt that I did make a difference in my community this year, and that’s a really good feeling, a surprising feeling. Even though some days were hard, it was worth it. I learned a lot of things that I wouldn’t have normally learned at school, like how to collaborate with adults and find the best way to achieve a goal. Next year I want to build on what I’ve already done and figure out a way to include my friends in tackling problems in our community.”
Honestly, what I’m most proud of are not the accomplishments that are obvious to others, but the challenges we overcame together day by day, the little victories of hope and patience and discernment.
Part-time homeschool? How does that work?
Owen was enrolled at our local public junior high school during this time. He took the bus to school, participated in elective courses, speech therapy, math, language arts, and band. There were significant upsides to this:
He was able to keep school friendships intact.
He could continue to be influenced by other adults who cared about him and the content they were teaching.
School connections we're essential as resources for achieving his goals.
We were able to focus our time on the areas he was most passionate about.
There were downsides, too:
You may be surprised to learn that in the state of Illinois, students are eligible to benefit from all or part of the free education offered to them through public schools. This allowance is dependent upon whether there is adequate space in the school (full-time students would get priority).
We’ve been participating in part-time public school with our children for 8 years. At first, our elementary school was not sure this would work. Our request was met with some resistance, but only because they didn’t know how they would report attendance, which has legal and financial implications for the school district. Once they were able to talk to a lawyer and work out the logistics, they accommodated our request.
Our state requires that homeschooling be done by the child’s parent or guardian, but it does not require documentation or testing. Parents are trusted to decide what kinds of activities constitute “science” or any other subject. With that kind of radical permission, families have the opportunity to truly think outside the box, looking at the problems our children are passionate about as educational goldmines.
This is nothing new
If you’ve dipped your toe in homeschool literature, you know that there are others who’ve written about homeschooling this way. One of the early leaders of the unschooling movement, John Taylor Gatto, has suggested a student-led approach in his book, A Different Kind of Teacher, inviting homeschool parents to see themselves more like librarians (providing resources as needed) than like teachers. He and others, like David H. Albert (in his book, And the Skylark Sings With Me), have pointed the way toward community-based education, where students are supported by parents to find mentors and apprenticeship-like opportunities.
Many leaders in the realm of public and private education have also stressed the importance of student-centered approaches, especially inquiry-based and project-based learning. The Montessori model is known to embrace this value, but public schools have also made many attempts to integrate student-centered learning approaches (KWL charts, Genius Hour, etc.). Most of the teachers and administrators I have known believe that student-centered learning is a goal they want their schools and classrooms to work toward. However, the strict standards requirements have functionally operated more like conveyor belts than adventure maps, so students and educators have continued to feel pushed along a track that is less than ideal.
We parents are often disappointed by this as well, but stepping off a conveyor belt is scary for anyone, especially when you wonder if that belt represents “progress” and if your child will be able to catch up with his or her peers after you’ve tried a different approach. Unless your child is having a catastrophic school experience, you might find it hard to step entirely away from the educational and relational constants provided there. Yet, that is precisely what happens in a high school foreign exchange program, which is often described as a rich, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and does not prevent students from re-joining their peers afterward. Replacing one or two subjects in the school day with intentional time for your child to address real problems in his or her community is not nearly as extreme but also of great value.
A friend of mine once said, the key to homeschooling is to make sure you lay enough track (curriculum) ahead of the train, otherwise the train stops. That's wise advice, and generally I find it to be true. But the metaphor changes a bit when you're orienting your child's learning around a problem. There are many ways to approach a problem, and until you try them out, you don't really know which ones will be the most successful. That's part of the learning process. This type of homeschooling is like driving in the train yard, with lots of tracks side by side and track switches available along the way. You must lay down track in each one and always be ready to switch. This level of adaptability is generally easier for kids than it is for parents, but our thinking becomes more creative and flexible when we embrace these kinds of rapid-learning opportunities.
In our case, we started out with a primary goal of improving the nutrition of our local school lunches. The various tracks along this route included becoming experts on nutrition recommendations from USDA & AHA, doing in-house research on what parts of school lunch the kids were actually consuming, writing grant applications or requests for fresh fruit donations from local grocery stores, promoting improved nutrition policies on the wellness committee, etc. However, after my son saw how much trash was generated in the lunchroom, he became more passionate about the environmental impact of the school lunch program. We started to include that focus in our goals, too, and many more tracks opened up, including inventing a foldable reusable lunch tray that kids could bring to school in their lunchbox, use for their school lunch, and then bring home with any uneaten food.
The key was revisiting our primary goals every week, choosing the tracks we were going to focus on that week, and using those tracks to guide the weekly task list. We also used file sharing (Google Keep) to archive articles, documentary recommendations, and other resources that could come in handy on various tracks. These ideas were included in our weekly collaboration to create the task list. On a daily basis, my son would look at the week's list and choose what to focus on for the day, crossing off tasks as completed. Sometimes, when we needed a little extra motivation, we'd commit to going out to lunch together on Friday to "check out" other healthy lunch ideas if all the tasks for the week were completed.
From my experience, here are the components needed for this to be successful.