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Reentry: When Homeschool Students Enroll in Traditional Schools

Teen girl in school hallwayNot all homeschool families make a lifelong commitment to homeschooling; as family circumstances change or as children age (and approach calculus-level math) some choose to switch from home-based to in-school learning. But while the notion of a fresh-faced homeschool student entering the crowded halls of public high school and struggling to open his locker may sound like the premise of a John Hughes movie, the truth about homeschool students entering (or reentering) traditional schools is a bit more nuanced.

Jeffrey Koonce, a school superintendent in Miller County, Missouri, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject. His findings? While every student’s experience is different, the keys to academic and social success seem to lie with the parents. “Homeschooling means so many different things. … It all boils down to [parental] leadership,” he says.

Koonce’s research suggests that children of parents who opt to homeschool for pedagogical reasons—that is to say, because the parents want to try a different academic approach than might be available in a traditional school—tend to do better when they enter public schools than the children of parents who homeschool for ideological or moral reasons. Koonce theorizes that that’s because the former group tends to be more academically focused, while the latter tends toward a more “shoot-from-the-hip approach.” As he writes in his dissertation:

    Parents need to have a home school structure and curriculum solidly within their grasp before starting to home school. An unstructured, undisciplined approach will academically hurt their children, regardless of the nobility of one’s motives in home schooling.

But as any high school freshman can attest, getting along in school isn’t just a matter of academics. Kenneth Bernstein, a high school government and social studies teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland, estimates that about half of his previously homeschooled students experience “some difficulties in adjusting,” though, he adds, “once they form networks of friends, these largely disappear.”

A larger issue than finding friends, says Bernstein, is the fact that some students who come from a homeschool setting have not been exposed to “diverse points of view,” and thus aren’t used to being in settings where their patterns of thinking get challenged by students or teachers whose ideas are very different. For these students, a high school government class can feel foreign—or even hostile. But, he adds, every homeschool experience is different; for every homeschooler who struggles in high school government class, there’s likely to be another who is excited by the exchange of ideas.

Aside from academic and social concerns, traditional school can also usher in some unexpected logistical challenges—including waking up early, catching the school bus and managing time during tests. Laura Brodie, an English professor who decided to homeschool her middle daughter for fifth grade in an effort to “give [her] a break from the usual routine,” made it a point to keep up with the fifth-grade math and science curricula, because she knew that her daughter would be returning to the classroom after a year. Still, upon her return, Brodie’s daughter Julia scored a D on her first math test.

“I was shocked,” remembers Brodie, who later wrote about her experiences in the memoir Love in a Time of Homeschooling, “because I knew we had thoroughly covered and exceeded the fifth-grade math requirements. So I asked her what happened, and she said that one of the word problems in the middle of the test was interesting, so she spent the rest of the period thinking about it and didn’t finish the second half of the test.”

Preparing homeschool students to enter traditional schools can be tricky—after all, what parent could anticipate their child being sucked in by an “interesting” word problem? Although each homeschool student is likely to experience a unique set of challenges, there are some basic guidelines that homeschooling parents can follow to help ease the transition to bricks-and-mortar-based schooling. Here are six tips:

  1. Follow an academic curriculum that corresponds roughly to that of your school district, and have your child take yearly standardized tests so that he’s familiar with the tests he will be faced with in school.
  2. Document your child’s academic progress as a homeschooler and be ready to share it with school officials if need be.
  3. Help your child form social networks by engaging her in community activities and sports teams well before the first day of school begins.
  4. Teach your child according to your own philosophical or moral beliefs, but try not to shelter him from opposing viewpoints.
  5. Arrange for your child to visit the school and sit in on a class or two before enrolling her.
  6. Send your child to school with a good attitude. “Public schools are not the big bad ugly monsters” people might think, says Koonce. “Go in with an open mind: these people are here to help [you]. That’s their job.”

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