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Ask Jeanne: Homeschool a Prospective Dropout?

I am seriously looking into whether homeschooling would be an appropriate option for my high school student who is failing in the public school system. She’s extremely bright, and excels in honors and higher courses, but is failing everything else.

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I believe homeschooling might be helpful, but I also know it could backfire too. However, my family is left with this feeling that if we do not do something very soon, she will end up a dropout. She’s so behind that she has almost a full two years of credits missing. And as time goes on, this gap is only growing.

My daughter has the potential for brilliance and happiness, and seems to love learning, yet hate school. Homeschool seems like it could be the perfect solution, and yet most of what I find online for us seems to try and deter us from going this route. We desperately need some expert advice!  ~ Concerned in Colorado

Homeschooling to Prevent Dropping Out of High School

Quite a dilemma, right? Yes, there are special circumstances when it comes to homeschooling older teens. I suggest you start off by reading my article “Bad News/Good News of Starting Homeschooling in High School.”

As I say in the article, there can be some drawbacks to starting school during the high school years. One of the most challenging is that in many states, it is more difficult to return to public high school with credits from homeschooling, should you or your daughter decide that homeschooling is not working out. I recommend you contact your state homeschooling organization or homeschoolers in your locality to find out how this works in your state.

But here’s the thing – if your daughter is already behind in public high school, and she’s falling further behind, she already has a credit problem. What I’m hearing from you sounds like the need for a rescue. I’m hearing that she is at serious risk for dropping out and is not making progress toward graduating from high school, despite excelling in honors courses.

Rising Out Not Dropping Out

She sounds like a prime candidate for “rising out” of high school rather than “dropping out.”

Many teens do rise out through transitioning to homeschooling, even as middling to older teens. Some do this because chronic physical or mental health problems prevent them from attending a brick and mortar school regularly. Some do this because they are bullied or face intractable social problems at their school. Some do this because school is academically a poor fit, or their special needs are insufficiently addressed. Some do this because school requirements have little to do with a teen’s interests and are out of sync with their maturity level.

There are a variety of homeschooling options for teens rising out of high school:

  • Homeschool using an all-in-one curriculum package, possibly online. This works well for teens who are in sync academically and don’t mind typical assignments and some busy work and “checking boxes” to meet requirements. It often fits well for kids for whom going to the school building itself is a problem because of health or social issues. It also often works well for high schoolers who are involved in intense passions, such as those who are training as gymnasts or performers. It often does not fit well for kids whose academic problems are due to poor fit with school requirements. Many all-in-one curriculum packages are very “schooly,” meaning there is not much difference between requirements of school and this type of homeschooling. This does not sound like a great fit for your daughter.
  • Homeschool independently, emphasizing interests and picking and choosing ways to cover typical subject areas that a college or employer might expect. For example, a teen who is doing well in honors classes might have a specific area of intense interest, be it history, philosophy, photography, cooking, zoology, creating writing, or math. The teen and her parent could figure out how learning through the lens of her interest would cover some of her credits. Then she could take homeschool courses or use homeschooling materials to cover areas that fall outside those interests. There are all kinds of atypical ways this can be done, and you, the parent, can award credit. Just take a look at my suggestions for learning enough for a high school government credit, for example. This kind of thing may be much more interesting to a teen who is bored with checking boxes and moving through a dry textbook.
  • Homeschool in conjunction with community college attendance. Depending on the entrance requirements in your state and the accessibility of classes where you live, community college can be a great combination with homeschooling. Just as many students in public high school dual enroll in community college, students who are homeschooled can dual enroll in community college. Check to see what the requirements are in your area. There may be entrance or placement tests. For teens in your daughter’s situation, I usually recommend at least a semester of homeschooling without any community college enrollment, then perhaps adding one community college class the next semester, and then adding more classes if things are going well. Dual enrollment and homeschooling often works well for teens who are bright but bored in high school or who need to be out of the physical school building. It also works well for kids with chronic illnesses because the physical time in classes may be more manageable.
  • Homeschool using an approach called “unschooling.” A radical departure from course requirements of high school, unschooling is not for everyone because it just seems so strange. However, long-time homeschoolers and unschoolers will tell you it can and does work, and unschooled teens do indeed attend and graduate from universities, find jobs, and start their own businesses. There are as many ways to describe unschooling as there are debates about it, but the basic idea is to live and learn as if there is no school. People add and subtract all kinds of things from this definition, which can make it seem more or less outrageous, but the point is, for some teens who have been in high school, a transition to unschooling can be a miracle. Released from the bonds of arbitrary requirements, these teens come into their own, learning about things they care about. They learn to do research, create projects, read and write about their passions, and value learning for its own sake. Unschooling often works well for bright kids who have a deep interest in intellectual authenticity rather than going through the motions of meeting requirements for lower level classes. It also works well for teens who have or discover specific passions that drive their learning. Unschooling is also great for kids who are hands-on and who have skills-based interests that are not touched in most high schools, such as kids interested in blacksmithing, mechanical work, woodworking, sewing, or cooking. And yes, unschoolers can go on to college and employment.

Will Homeschooling Work?

Can you see any of this working? Can you see one of these homeschooling strategies, or a blend of them, as better for your daughter than her experience in high school? If so, then it sounds riskier for her to stay in high school than to rise out to homeschool.

However, moving to homeschooling is not a guarantee of success, however you define that. Some kids, no matter which approach to homeschooling is taken, still cast about and struggle. Some of them have underlying issues such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. Some, despite not being successful in school, can’t figure out how to function well without it. Some teens don’t get the parental support they need to continue learning outside of school.

That said, in some cases, even a non-miraculous transition to homeschooling is better than staying in school. For example, a teen may not totally engage in learning through homeschooling, but she may have a chance to re-connect to her interests, or to her parents and grandparents, or to address mental health problems that parents were not really aware of. While in quantitative ways, this may not seem as good as “meeting all requirements for graduation,” we can see that such a scenario may actually and eventually lead to a better life and the happiness you mention. There can be healing. Then the child can move toward furthering her education.

The Need for Deschooling

Which brings me to another thing: deschooling. Kids who transition from school to homeschool really do need time to deschool. It is the initial adjustment to having a different routine and expectations, but it is also the opportunity to find oneself outside of the expectations of school. Teens, especially those who are not meeting school expectations, also need this transition time. For kids who have found school painful, boring, or even traumatic, deschooling means healing.

Some parents who take an older child out of high school to homeschool find that the deschooling period means their teens need extra time at home rather than attending college at 18. For parents of teens who are having problems with credits in school, this may make homeschooling seem like it will not be “better” than staying in public school, since homeschooling will not have efficiently made up all the credits a child was missing.

Of course, this fails to credit the ways that homeschooling may allow healing, rediscovery, and reconnection to self and family – all things which may lead to a better life more effectively than remaining in school and feeling unsuccessful – or becoming an official high school dropout.

No Pumpkins at 18

If you decide to help your daughter begin homeschooling, I urge you not to see her as someone who will turn into a pumpkin at 18. We long-time homeschoolers know many teens who have taken a fifth year at high school or gone the slow way through community college classes in order to best prepare for their next stage in life. Sometimes this can include the positive impact of working a paying job or developing and pursuing a passion or interest or starting a small business.

I want to close by responding to some of the details you mentioned in your email:

It seems there is a lot of information to wade through, and yet time is obviously of the essence here.

Time is of the essence if you are on a public high school timeline and if she may drop out before you can help her rise out.

My daughter has the potential for brilliance and happiness, and seems to love learning, yet hate school.

There is a lot of information in your observation that she loves learning but hates school.

Homeschool seems like it could be the perfect solution, and yet most of what I find online for us seems to try and deter us from going this route.

Homeschooling can be a solution, but there is seldom a “perfect solution,” as you refer to it above.

There is No Homeschool Guarantee

I’m fond of saying there are no homeschool guarantees. I’m not sure what information you’re finding online, but there are two possibilities. One is that it comes from sources that are biased toward school.

People who have lived and breathed the public school system often have little knowledge about how homeschoolers transition to work or higher ed without an institutional education. They are just sure it can’t be done or shouldn’t be tried. They don’t know the third way. To them, there is graduating or dropping out, a binary choice. They will certainly encourage staying in school.

The other possibility is that you’re hearing from people who do know about homeschooling, but they don’t want you to go into this with your eyes closed. They want you to realize that credit for work done at home might not transfer back to a public high school. They want you to realize that underlying problems may not be magically solved with a “homeschooling band-aid” on top.

They don’t want to oversell homeschooling and neither do I.

Ultimately, no one can tell you and your daughter if homeschooling is the better choice.

I can tell you that people do begin homeschooling in high school and go on to have successful lives, including when they have been prospective high school dropouts first. But being a homeschooling advocate doesn’t give me the gift of prophecy, so I can’t know whether homeschooling would end up being something you’d consider a success for your daughter. You have to weigh the pros and cons, and decide whether getting her out of this known negative school situation is worth the risk of the unknown of homeschooling.

No matter the age your child begins homeschooling, getting started requires this leap into the unknown, or at least the lesser-known.

Good luck with your decision. I’ll be thinking of you and your daughter.


For more information, try these resources:

Homeschooling the Teen Years by Cafi Cohen

The Art of Self-Directed LearningBetter Than College, and College Without High School by Blake Boles

Unschool Adventures

The Teenage Liberation Handbook and Guerilla Learning by Grace Llewellyn

Jeanne Faulconer

A popular speaker at homeschooling conferences, business groups, and parents’ groups, Jeanne Potts Faulconer has homeschooled her three sons in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia. She is a former college faculty member, former editor and book reviewer for Home Education Magazine, a long-time editor for VaHomeschoolers Voice, and a recent news correspondent for WCVE, an NPR-member station. Jeanne teaches writing and literature for her youngest son’s homeschool co-op, and she is a student of how learning works – at home, in the music room, in small groups, in the college classroom, on the soccer field, and in the car to and from practice. Holding her Master of Arts degree in Communication, Jeanne conducts portfolio evaluations for Virginia homeschoolers for evidence of progress. To read more of Jeanne’s writing, inquire about a homeschool evaluation, or ask her to speak to your group, see her blog, Engaged Homeschooling.

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  1. Schaka

    thank u very much for the prompt reply.

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