The Perks of an Umbrella School vs. Remaining Independent

At one time or another, many homeschool families examine the possibility of enrolling in an umbrella or cyber school. An umbrella school is a homeschool program operated by public charter schools or directly by regular public schools. We can be counted amongst them.

I eluded to this briefly on a Facebook post in October but have yet to elaborate on our decision until now. I suppose I wanted to give it some time to see how well the administration followed up on their promises. When we lived in California, we tried a charter school for a term but withdrew as we felt we had been misled and the kids spent an inordinate amount of time undertaking one standardized test or another – rarely engaging in the enrichment opportunities we had been promised. Other than this short blip, we had always homeschooled independently.

I am not opposed to public education. I am in fact, a certified teacher. Before beginning a family of my own, I taught full-time. I continue to work in the school system today as a substitute teacher and home tutor. I am an advocate for choice and have always advised those who have asked my opinion to forge their own path.

homeschool teen using ipad with text: The Perks of an Umbrella School @EvaVarga.netOur Homeschool Evolution

A year after we moved back to Oregon, we again began to consider the possibility of enrolling in a charter school. A friend of my daughter (a homeschool teen) informed us she had done so but would be taking all her coursework at the college. “They will cover all my tuition costs,” she explained. “I can do my high school work all online whenever I wish.” 

When we looked into it, we learned that while her statement was true, they wouldn’t be able to continue swimming on our local high school swim team. In Oregon, homeschooled students are permitted to take part in extra-curricular activities including sports with the permission of the principal. While our resident district would allow homeschooled students to participate, they would not permit students enrolled at another school. Being a part of the team was important to my daughter, or so she believed at the time, so we tabled the discussion.

As the 2016-17 school year came to a close, both of my children began to lose interest in swim team. While this is a topic for another post, their decision to close that chapter of their lives lead to new opportunities.

When we began to re-consider, my daughter had already earned 24 college credits which we had paid for out of pocket. It was important for us that she continue to have this opportunity. Our local high school didn’t generally allow students to begin dual enrollment coursework until their junior or senior year. As a high school sophomore, I wanted to assure she would be able to continue the path we had begun independently.

Benefits of a Partnership

There are a variety of advantages cited by homeschoolers choosing to participate in a charter school. Amongst them are the accredited high school diploma, access to enrichment classes, a laptop computer or chrome book, Internet access, software, textbooks, and support by certified teachers – of course these benefits vary by institution.

Often, charter schools offer expeditionary, project-based learning that the district-based school does not. Though publicly funded, their independence allows them to offer specialized courses and approaches that neighborhood schools can not.

The biggest plus for partnering with the school we chose was that my daughter’s tuition costs at the college would be paid (up to 12 credits per term). In essence, she would be able to earn her associate’s degree while also fulfilling high school graduation requirements. Two years of college, paid for. That’s too big a carrot to not give it a try.

I was also assured that their independent pursuits could be translated to credit on their high school transcript. My son’s passion for Minecraft and YouTube, for example, could be morphed into a class on “multimedia technology”. My children’s continued private lessons in Mandarin could be translated into credits on their transcripts.

homeschool teen using pc and ipad with text: The Perks of an Umbrella School @EvaVarga.netThe only obligation on our part was to provide evidence of their work in these project-based experiences, essentially an activity log as well as samples of their work that would be evaluated by a licensed teacher.

Logically, they would also be obligated to take part in state testing. Oregon public schools test students in English language arts and math in grades 3 through 8 and 11, and in science and social sciences in grades 5, 8, and 11. While I am not a fan of standardized tests, I could agree to an occasional test.

Loss of Freedom?

As any homeschool family will tell you, private homeschooling is thriving, with no help from the government. The studies all show homeschoolers are academically above average from the elementary level all the way through college.

Opponents of charter schools that cater to homeschoolers will tell you that homeschoolers returning to government schools puts this freedom at risk. The fear is that as homeschoolers “yoke” together with the public schools through charter school programs and cyber schools, the public schools and the state will once again dictate to us our curriculum, teacher qualifications, and methods.

This could be true, but I am confidant that we can also change the system. The best way to do that is by being involved and proactively seeking strategies and solutions that are in the best interest of our children.

We all want what is best for our children. Education is not a one-size fits all solution. Being involved and willing to give voice to my expectations, hopes, and vision can only help to provoke change.

Homeschooling in California: Beginning the Journey

With growing opposition to Common Core, the number of families that are choosing to homeschool is growing exponentially.

As a veteran homeschool mom, I know first hand that making the choice to homeschool is both exciting (it opens a whole new world giving you the freedom to do what works best for you and your family) and intimidating (your child’s education and future is truly in your hands).

No matter when you choose to take this journey (whether your child is just a toddler, is in the midst of third grade, or has just entered junior high), I want to reassure you that you can do this.

You CAN homeschool successfully.

I have had the privilege of homeschooling (thus far) in two states, initially in Oregon and presently in California.  I am familiar with the laws in both states and will be writing about each over the next few weeks.

homeschooling caliBeginning the Journey – How do I homeschool in California?

When we first moved to California, I debated the pros and cons of the homeschool choices available to me:

  • Establishing your own home-based private school (R4),
  • Enrolling in a private school that offers independent study (PSP),
  • Using a public school independent study program (ISP) or charter school that caters to homeschoolers or,
  • Using the tutorial option (if you have a credential).

Facilitated Homeschooling

For those just getting started in homeschooling or whom simply want someone to guide them along the way, I would suggest any of the three latter methods (private school, charter school, or hiring a tutor). As each school is very different in their approach and what they have to offer, you will want to learn about the specific options in your local area.

Compare and contrast the programs they provide. Some will assign you the curriculum materials they have adopted for your child’s grade level, some will purchase on your behalf the curriculum you choose, and others will provide you with a monthly stipend. Some charters will also provide 1-2 days of enrichment activities (art, science, music, language, etc.) and quarterly field trips.

If possible, meet with the facilitators and find out just how much freedom or flexibility you will have.  How often are you required to meet?  What kind of student work or documentation is required?

Be aware that charter schools are in fact public schools. As such, as a student enrolled, participation in the Common Core exams will be expected. Presently, it may be possible to opt out of these exams. Be sure to read all the materials before signing enrollment contracts.

When we first moved to California, I was intrigued by the myriad of opportunities. Each of these options appealed to me in different ways, but in the beginning, we opted to partner with a public charter school (or umbrella school).  I selected one in which I felt would best meet our needs and I met with the facilitator one afternoon.  I liked her right away and the kids were excited for the weekly enrichment day.

Within a few months, however, we discovered that an umbrella school was not the choice for us.  We had become too accustomed to doing things our way and I felt constrained by the requirements expected of me by the state. The busy work was killing us! 

Unbeknownst to us, many of the enrichment day activities were gobbled up with testing requirements of one sort or another.  We thereby opted to return to what we were accustomed to – doing it on our own – and I thereby filed an R4 to establish our own home-based private school.

Other homeschool families I have spoken with since have shared their experiences with umbrella schools (whether private or public charters). Everyone has a different story – some love the guidance and support. Others, like me, felt constrained by the requirements.

What is important is that you find a match for your needs.  Find what works best for your family. 

Independent Homeschooling

Undoubtably, if you choose to homeschool independently, you will have more freedom. Filing an R4 is a pain-free, simple form that is completed online once each year in early October (or upon disenrolling your child from another school).  It takes just a few minutes; you simply list the number of students that will be enrolled and what the grade range.  There is no need to denote what curriculum you are using or to specify what courses you plan to teach.

Establishing a home-based private school can at times be a little daunting but it is also a very rewarding option. Though you are technically on your own, there are so many resources available today that help is just around the corner.

I will talk more about choosing curriculum and finding resources again next week, Homeschooling in California: Choosing Curriculum & Finding Resources.

To learn more about the specifics of each homeschool option in California, you may also be interested in the California Homeschool Network’s How to Homeschool