Lifestyle

Home Alone

By JODY ALLARD

Staff writer

Last year, nearly 200 Federal Way families pulled their children out of the public school system and embarked on home-based education. How those 394 kids are doing now is a question neither the district nor the state can answer.

There are few regulations concerning homeschooling. Under state law, parents can choose to teach their children at home by filing a declaration of intent with their local district.

Although families are required to meet limited guidelines -- parents must have either completed 45 college credits, finished a state-approved homeschool instruction course, or be supervised by a certified teacher, usually for one hour per week -- the requirement can also be satisfied by gaining approval from the superintendent of the child’s school district.

The curriculum families follow and the subjects taught to students are left entirely up to the parents. While some districts rent textbooks to homeschool families, Federal Way Public Schools has no involvement in homeschool curriculums.

“The law says that the parents are in control of the curriculum when they are homeschooling. They are kind of left to their own discretion,” said Linda Elder, district coordinator of student placement. “Providing textbooks would be a way of us saying ‘We’re going to accept whatever you’re doing.’ We don’t have any control over what they teach, when they teach or how they teach, so we don’t provide textbooks or curriculum.”

State law RCW 28A.225 defines home-based learning as instruction that consists of 1,000 annual hours for students in first through 12th grades, and 450 hours for kindergarten. The only other requirement the state places on homeschool families is that each child takes an annual approved standardized assessment test, such as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL).

Despite those requirements, there are no advisors or committees ensuring that families remain in compliance.

“There’s no provision in the law for anybody to check up on parents to assess whether or not their children are making good progress. The school can’t come in, the state can’t come in,” said Donna Hanson, spokeswoman for the state superintendent of public instruction.

Although parents have the responsibility of re-enrolling their children in an accredited school if their test scores and academic progress consistently fall below state guidelines, Elder acknowledges that “it’s really all up to the parent. There is no one that polices that.”

The only way the district has any knowledge of a homeschool student’s progress is if the student chooses to return to the district. Students who have re-enrolled after a period of homeschooling “are not necessarily doing better than they were,” Elder said.

With no involvement in the education homeschool students receive, the Federal Way district has chosen not to grant high school diplomas to students participating exclusively in home-based learning programs.

Without a diploma, local universities say students are at a disadvantage for admission. Unless they obtain a diploma, a GED or gain more than one year of college credit prior to applying, homeschool students are subject to a special review process in order to evaluate their academic achievements and abilities.

Despite the challenges, there are options for homeschool students who want high school diplomas. Once enrolled in the district, even part-time students can petition the district for credit for homeschool courses.

Using a combination of home-based learning, Federal Way’s Internet Academy -- which enables students to take some or all of their courses at home using the Internet, while remaining enrolled in the district -- and Running Start and public school courses, many homeschool students are able to graduate from public high schools.

With homeschool increasingly gaining in popularity, numbering nearly 20,000 students in Washington last year, districts statewide are implementing programs that enable parents to teach their children at home -- and preserve the districts’ state and federal funding for homeschool students.

The Puyallup School District is one such example. With the launch of its TRIAD Shareschool, homeschool families have the option to keep their children out of the classroom while remaining enrolled in the public school system. Using the standard district curriculum and books, home-based learning programs are supervised by the district, and students and parents meet regularly with certified teachers.

Citing added curriculum help and support from the district, not one of Puyallup’s 450 homeschool students returned to public school last year. In Federal Way, 78 homeschool students returned to the classroom.

With homeschool programs varying by district, state education officials say they have no record of how many districts have chosen to implement district-supported homeschool programs, or even what local districts require from parents and students.

“It’s one thing we always caution parents,” said Hanson. “They really need to find out from the district what they are going to want from the parents.”

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and jallard@fedwaymirror.com

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