Thursday, June 28, 2012

Two Options for Homeschool High School Online Classes

In summer 2011 I attended a homeschooling high school all day seminar given by the Pennslyvania Homeschoolers. They offer a slate of AP online courses for homeschoolers. At that time I did not know anyone who had completed a course with them.

The courses and the organization's mission appealed to me because they believe in rigorous academics.

One session that I attended was a meet the teacher panel talk of sorts. The teachers sat at the front and described who they were, what classes they teach, why they teach the way they do and other good stuff. I was not planning on enrolling my rising freshman in any AP classes so I was not there to check out certain teachers per se. I was impressed to say the least, with these teachers who all had a true passion for their subject (most teach just one subject, their favorite topics or their area of specialty).

I left there thinking that this was the best thing I'd ever seen being offered to high school homeschoolers to date, because it was a truly customized education. The ability to hire different teachers to teach our homeschooled kids high level courses seemed impressive and almost elitist. I always homeschooled for a customized education but this was so fantastic that it almost felt wrong -- I am a product of public schooling and with my own education had to settle for mediocre and to just "make do". The ability to hire such fantastic teachers for my kids seemed too good to be true. Hand picking each teacher and selecting the best of the best way to teach the various subjects, wow.

Another thing that I walked away thinking was that sometimes learning in isolation at home is just not as good as having a great teacher to discuss things with and having a class of similar minded kids who are really doing the work and actually learning stuff. Every memory of me in public school involves being with kids who didn't want to be there, most weren't really learning, many were not doing the homework, and many were cheating on a regular basis. Even in college many of the students were focused on cutting corners and getting by. It is hard for teachers to engage the class when most of the kids hate the content and don't want to be there or can't even discuss it as they didn't do the work. I knew this as a student and I saw it from the teacher's perspective when I was a corporate trainer who was getting new employees ready for a job they supposedly wanted. I saw it again as a homeschool co-op teacher when parents made a kid take the class and they didn't want to be there. It is hard for an interested student to enjoy learning and discussing if they are around kids who they can't engage with or who make fun of them for either doing well with learning or for actually having read the book. When you worry about being put down just for having read To Kill a Mockingbird it hinders the reading of the book and discussing it freely in class. So imagine a class where the kids are actually doing the work and able to discuss it, that's what was being offered by Pennsylvania Homeschoolers.

I liked that the courses had a common goal: the intention to prepare kids to pass an AP test or CLEP test or score high on a SAT subject test was more than most online classes or local homeschool co-ops offer. Some courses offered elsewhere teach what they say is good material but how that would connect to the expectations of the different tests was an unknown that left the student hanging. I as the parent have no way of knowing if homeschool co-op class X would truly prepare the student to fare well on the SAT subject test.

However more important than the idea that high test scores would result from taking the class was the obvious fact that these students were challenged and pushed and were given a serious and rigorous courseload: more than the public schools offer. Kids who take these classes and actually do the work cannot help but actually learn this stuff. Working in small settings the kids can't get away with not reading the book and by reading just the Cliff Notes (like I did in high school and even did a bit in college). The test scores are not the goal, the goal is real learning. The high test scores that students obtain are just what happens naturally by doing the work and studying. Amazing, that's what the tests are supposed to do but instead it seems that most school students care only about getting the course done and on the transcript and getting a decent grade so they look good on paper and make everyone around them happy or impressed (parents, teachers, or college admissions officers).

I left the seminar thinking that I honestly am not trained or knowledgable enough to teach all the high school level courses to my kids. In fact I doubt I'm competent enough to teach anything on the high school level. I always said I wanted rigorous academics and a high quality education but I was facing the fact that I was no longer able to deliver such a thing or that what I could deliver put my high schooler in jeopardy of getting a mediocre education. Our family's reliance on homeschool curriculum, reading books and using primary source documents is more now than in the elementary and middle school grades. I was happy to know that something exists out there when the time comes that we need it. Due to the upheaval of the long distance move our family was not in a position to figure out which online classes, if any, were right for my son, outside of one math online class offered by another company that he was already signed up to do in the fall of 2011.

It was said in the sessions as well as in private conversation with me that most 9th graders should not be taking AP classes. A handful of 9th graders who were friends with my son planned to take a US History AP course through Pennsylvania Homeschoolers in the fall and I was feeling a bit of peer pressure or that my son was not measuring up to their kids. I thought that if I enrolled my son in that class with his friends it would monopolize his time and wind up robbing him of the ability to do basic academic work in the other subject areas. I decided that doing well on all the high school subjects was our priority, not acing one AP class and neglecting to even teach multiple other core subjects due to not having enough time in the day to get it all done.

I was told that perhaps a student who has time and some internal motivation to take one class should select just one AP class to take in grade nine. It was said that pushing too hard and having 12-15-20 hours a week of homework for just one class may backfire and cause the student to fail and to hate learning or hate that subject or get turned off to rigorous academics. Most classes were said to require 15-20 hours of homework per week. Instead it was said to MAYBE try one AP class in grade 10, again, something they really love.

Over and over it was said that grades 11 and 12 are the right time to take AP courses. Grade 11 is the most important because those class and test scores will be available to colleges at college application time. This shows colleges that homeschoolers actually are learning things are not padding their transcript or exaggerating. Taking AP courses in the senior year shows the colleges that the student is continuing a rigorous courseload but the test scores won't be back in time to help the college see how they can perform.

I wished there were other courses online that were rigorous and would help a student prepare for college level work and prepare them for future AP classes. One vendor there was Debra Bell, someone I thought maybe I'd heard the name, but knew nothing about her. I purchased her book about homeschooling high school and read it. That book: Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Teens focused on two things: a rigorous education to prepare students for admission to selective colleges and about raising Christian kids and doing Christian homeschooling.

The topic of rigorous academics in homeschooling is one that is not written about enough and the closest that comes to it is The Well Trained Mind by Wise and Bauer, although TWTM focuses on custom creating a program that the homeschool parent-teacher or the student will teach themselves. Bell's book is open to online classes, community college and other outsourced teaching (which some of us need as our teens are doing a push-back for independence thing which is typical and a normal developmental stage).

If you yearn for a book on the challenges of homeschooling high school and about rigorous academics read her book even if you are not Christian, because you can read and take what works and leave the rest behind.

Another thing I learned was that Debra Bell has some online classes for regular high school content (not AP) and also some pre-AP classes. She said something about expanding her course offerings in the future and using other instructors. I filed that information away for exploration later. As I write this I have enrolled both of my kids in some of the classes offered on Debra Bell's site (but the classes have not started yet). I plan to blog more about that specifically in another post.

Note: I was not paid to mention these online course companies.


Angela said...

As a long time PA homeschooler and director of an academically focused co-op, I know a number of families who have used the PA Homeschooler online classes. The responses and results have been varied. The biggest negatives have been that the courses are so geared toward the test, and there is absolutely no time for exploration on individual topics as you are railing through the course at such a pace. Others question the need for AP tests, as most academically strong HS locally end up taking some courses at the community college before they head on to university, etc. Taking a costly AP course in no way guarantees testing well and getting transfer credit. Positives are heard mainly from the parents, who enjoy have a teacher for challenging subjects and the structure for their student.

(@) said...

I am the mother of a 4 yr old a 6 yr old and an 11 yr old.
I have been homeschooling my 4 year old and since his birthday falls after September 1st. I may have him one more year. My question to you is this. Your kids, 12 and 14 are they ok? Do they fit in. socially with other kids?
I have been thinking about home schooling them all for four years now. I hate sending them to their schools.

April said...

We are using Veritas Press Scholars Academy with my incoming 10th grader. It has been an EXCELLENT and challenging experience so far.
They have quite a wide offering as well.