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Ask Jeanne: “Does school decide what grade?”

Ask Jeanne: Who decides what grade a child is in?Hi Jeanne, I have an interesting situation with my son here in Indiana. He is in 3rd grade and has always been academically behind, falling about one year behind. I have tried relentlessly to hold him back and have him repeat a grade to build his foundation, instead of being pushed through. Due to our “No child left behind” and “ESSA” acts, the schools will not grant my request.

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I am not in a situation where I can fully commit to homeschooling, due to losing income and hours at work. I am interested in homeschooling for only the first semester of next school year and building and reviewing his 3rd grade foundation.

We have moved and I would like him to attend our new home public school at the beginning of the second semester. My questions are… If I began the school year doing 3rd grade work, would they accept him as a 3rd grade student at the second semester? Who decides what grade a child enters when they return back to public schools? If you are unable to answer these questions for us, do you know of anyone who might be able to? Thank you for any help that you can give here!!   ~ Laura in Indiana

Who Decides: The Short Answer

Your questions are important ones, Laura. You want to help your child, but you don’t plan to homeschool long term. Homeschooling when you know a child will return to school does create some special concerns.

Let’s go right to the crux of your email — “Who decides what grade a child enters when they return back to public schools?”

The school decides.

“If I began the school year doing 3rd grade work, would they accept him as a 3rd grade student at the second semester?”


Who Decides: The Long Answer

State Law Rules. As I wrote in When Your Child Goes from Homeschooling to Public School, schools have authority over children’s grade placement. Because state laws vary, your best resources for information about laws that could affect these decisions are homeschoolers in Indiana. Look for a solid state-wide homeschool group in Indiana, and read their website to find out if there are any laws that specifically pertain to homeschoolers returning to school. However, in general, keep in mind a child enrolled in public school is subject to the policies of the school, including grade placement.

Homeschooling Gives Flexibility. Homeschooling is much more flexible, and in fact, some homeschoolers might go for years without paying much attention to a child’s grade level because they are just “doing the next thing” that a child is ready for. Schools, on the other hand, are locked into the model of grades and have their own guidelines about where children should be placed.

Therefore, when a homeschooling parent considers enrolling a child in public school, one of the first things I recommend is to have a discussion with an administrator at the school your child will attend. Because you are moving and planning to homeschool for a semester, you have good reason to make an appointment at the new school. You can ask for their guidelines for placement of incoming students, and you can follow that with your questions to determine whether they are flexible.

Schools Vary. Some schools may look at work done at home or work done at previous schools. They may look at previous test scores. Some schools may administer placement tests. Some may consider parent requests, and others may contact a child’s previous school for records or recommendations. Some schools simply default to placing children in the grades that are typical for their ages.

Some Things You Can Do to Prepare

Know that things change. A few caveats about speaking with school officials: Sometimes policies change, and a school official may not be able to follow the same course of action that was available a few months earlier when you talked. Sometimes administrators retire, quit, or change schools, so the person who told you “we will put him in third grade” might be gone when it’s time to enroll.

Get it in writing. Anything you can get in writing at the time of your meeting may help you appeal for the grade placement you seek, but you have to remember — once you enroll your child in school, their policies prevail. You have already run into this as you have tried “relentlessly” to have your child held back, so you know what I mean. Honestly, this is why many people choose to homeschool — because the standardization required by school does not meet the individual student’s needs.

Look for opportunities. It could be that the change in schools will present you with an opportunity. Some schools use different guidelines (even though they are ultimately governed by an umbrella of state law or policy) or have more flexible administrators who want to consider parental input. Many school administrators want to do what they perceive is best for the child. Even just the fact that your child is entering a new school may mean that since he has not been in a certain grade at that school, there is less motivation to “keep him on track.” That’s because some measures of school competency may include passing most children from grade to grade without repeating within that school. Since your son would be a new student, the new school may not have to fear that data point!

Some Things You Should Think About

Is there a learning disability?
Is it possible that your child has a diagnosable learning disability? It can be controversial to discuss this among homeschoolers because some homeschoolers see many learning differences as ranges of “normal” and that learning in a home environment can accommodate the child. They don’t want “labels” to pathologize a range of normal that just doesn’t fit well within institutional school.

However, other homeschoolers say that if your child is going to attend school, having learning disabilities recognized and diagnosed may help parents with grade placement and services that will help a child thrive in that setting. The website WrightsLaw explains the laws governing how schools should assist their students who have learning disabilities and special needs. Parents of children who are behind in school may want to consider whether they should be pushing for the school to assess their child, investing in a private assessment that can be reported to the school (often much more quickly), or resisting assessment in order to avoid labeling. Sometimes schools resist assessing children for learning disabilities because the testing itself is costly and providing extra services for children who qualify is also expensive.

This article is sort of the opposite of what you are talking about doing, because it is about children who are pushed out of school rather than your voluntarily taking him out; however, reading When the School Tells You to Homeschool may give you some additional information about related issues.

Is One Semester Enough?

You may have heard about homeschoolers thriving academically. You may picture the one-on-one time you can spend with your child during this semester off, shoring up the basics he needs and then getting him enrolled in a grade you find appropriate. However, what you may not know is that many homeschoolers who withdraw their children from school actually go through months of “deschooling,” a process where a child and parent decompress from school expectations and reconnect with curiosity, interests, and natural learning styles.

Deschooling is part of what leads to the ultimate success of homeschooling for many children. Obviously, short-term homeschooling may not allow time for months of decompression. Yes, providing the structured review you have in mind may help your child “catch up” on skills and knowledge, and I’m not saying it’s a bad idea.

You really will have one-on-one time that will allow you to tutor him. This may be enough to get him on track and ready to succeed in school. However, children for whom school has been a poor fit or who have lost confidence, lost interest, or become disconnected will not receive the same benefit from short-term homeschooling as they would from longer-term homeschooling. The healing time is just not baked in. You can see what I suggested to the mom who wrote to me about homeschooling a child behind in school — more of a long term recovery than a short-term shoring up.

Be realistic about what short-term homeschooling can accomplish — though it might be just what your son needs, and I hope it is.

Could You Homeschool and Keep Working?

This may not be an option for you, and you are the expert on your situation, but I will just mention that many people do homeschool their children while they are employed. It is challenging, and it may not be right for you and your son. However, I did want you to know that many homeschool moms are employed in full-time jobs that their families depend on. If you are interested, you could do some research on working and homeschooling. We even know some parents who are able to take their children to work with them in unique situations, resulting in office schooling. 

Your son is fortunate to have a mom who is concerned about his well being. I wish you the best in creating an educational scenario that works well for him. Your pro-active communication with school personnel and your spending extra time with him will certainly be positive factors. I’d love to hear back from you about how the homeschooling and grade placement work out.

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Jeanne Faulconer

A popular speaker at homeschooling conferences, business groups, and parents’ groups, Jeanne Potts Faulconer homeschooled her three sons in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia for twenty years. Jeanne is director of Brave Writer's Homeschool Alliance, which provides homeschool coaching, community, and "grad school for homeschool" for parents. She is the contributing editor for TheHomeSchoolMom newsletter and writes the popular Ask Jeanne column, addressing homeschool parents' questions here at TheHomeSchoolMom. 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 news correspondent for WCVE, an NPR-member station. Holding her Master of Arts degree in Communication, Jeanne has conducted portfolio evaluations for Virginia homeschoolers for evidence of progress for many years.

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  1. Robyn

    Hi Jeanne – We are exploring the option of homeschooling my 9th grader, but feel that she would learn better with other students in an outside home setting. Do you know of any families that utilize this type of model for homeschooling in the Baltimore, MD area?

    Thanks in advance for your feedback!

    • Mary Ann Kelley

      Hi Robyn – What you describe is a fairly common style of homeschooling for high school students. My daughters both homeschooled high school using a variety of resources, including co-op classes and dual enrollment at the local community college. You might be interested in seeing our 10th grade homeschool plan. You can get in touch with local homeschoolers through group listings on our Maryland homeschool page (there are separate pages for classes, sports, and groups linked in the sub-navigation menu). Best wishes to you and your daughter on your homeschool journey!

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