Does a homeschool year look like a school year?
Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes.
New homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers frequently wonder about whether the "homeschool year" follows or needs to follow the traditional calendar used by most public and private schools in the United States or if they can create their own homeschool calendar.
Long-term homeschoolers frequently find their answer to that question changes as their children get older. Casual observers of homeschooling might think "of course" homeschooling has to follow a school calendar in order to be legitimate and sufficient.
Let's take a look at how it works.
First, homeschoolers definitely don't need to follow a school calendar that is marked by "back to school" in August or September, winter holidays in December, spring break, and a big summer vacation.
In some states, homeschoolers who are legally required to provide notification to local or state authorities may need to make note of legal deadlines at a certain time of year. In all but the paperwork sense, though, this does not mean the kids are confined to learning only on a specific schedule.
For instance, in Virginia, those who homeschool under the Home Instruction Statute submit a notice of intent to homeschool annually by August 15. (Your state may not have this requirement or might have a different date).
While this paperwork may contain some description of the upcoming year's anticipated studies, there may not actually be a clear line of demarcation between "last year" and "this year" in the kids' learning.
A child who has been learning about the Civil War might read straight on through the summer and into the fall. A kid in the middle of a math curriculum can keep doing the next chapter.
The parent's paperwork can still be an accurate projection of the family's learning plans, but it might be seamless in practice for the young learners.
In other states, there is no notification requirement, so there is not that kind of administrative reminder that the non-homeschool world is gearing up for "back-to-school."
Whether your state requires annual paperwork on a certain date or not, as a homeschooler, you can decide when to do what. You can decide when or whether to take breaks and when or if to specify structured formal learning during certain months or seasons. You can also change your mind. You can also decide on a more holistic approach, encouraging a year-round learning lifestyle.
What should you take into consideration when deciding on the homeschool calendar for your family?
Consistency with the schedules of other families or other children in your own family
The path of least resistance leads many homeschoolers to follow the same calendar as the public school in their community. This feels familiar and provides a comfortable framework that works for a lot of people.
Family travel and vacation coordinate well with other family members and friends who vacation in the summer, and expectations are met to buckle down and embark on a "school" schedule September through May.
This school calendar is ingrained in society in most of the United States, despite some moves toward year-round schools in some communities. This means that a family homeschooling on this schedule will at least roughly follow the same schedule as their neighbors, which facilitates neighborhood play.
It's also handy for something that is being seen more and more—the family that has some kids attending public school and some kids learning at home. It's just easier in that circumstance to keep everyone on the same academic calendar.
Consistency with extracurricular activities
Related to the consistency factor is the fact that most extracurricular activities for kids in the United States are coordinated with the traditional public school calendar.
Soccer clubs and theater groups plan day-time camps during the summer and school breaks; they schedule practices and rehearsals as after-school activities during the regular school year. They reconfigure their classes and teams between spring and fall. This affects everything from carpools, to dinner, to study time.
Yes, in cities, there are some homeschool-specific extracurricular activities, especially for the younger ages at introductory levels, but in general, homeschooled kids are attending a lot of karate and dance and scouts with kids who go to school, and the presumption is that the school calendar prevails. Many homeschool families find this means it's simply easier to go with the flow.
Consistency with co-op schedules
Families who participate in homeschool co-ops will most often organize their co-ops around the traditionally expected academic year. If you participate in a co-op, you'll probably find yourself with that "back to school" sense in September, a break at Thanksgiving and during mid-winter, a spring break, and a long summer break.
Flexibility in your own schedules
Even among homeschoolers who follow the school calendar because of logistics or a co-op, a lot of flexibility can come into play. It's common for homeschoolers to start their "school year" a few weeks earlier or later, to take longer or shorter breaks during mid-winter, or to create a spring break week that works best for their individual plans—even if it might mean missing a scouts meeting or a choir practice.
Homeschoolers will tell you, in fact, that this flexibility is a primary advantage of homeschooling--to be able to plan travel, sightseeing, and museum visits when crowds are smaller and employers have fewer people leaving the office for vacation.
Fit with your homeschooling style
Homeschooling style is another factor in figuring out your homeschool year. Homeschoolers who follow a precise curriculum may map out a calendar that specifies when each chapter in each subject should be covered. That kind of calendar may even be laid out for you by the curriculum provider.
Eclectic homeschoolers, who use a variety of resources and varying curricula to cover traditional school subjects as well as children's particular interests, may follow a typical school calendar or may "just keep going" as a child completes learning goals or finishes using a certain resource.
Those using unit studies may plan a certain number of weeks to cover "poetry," "Gettysburg," or "edible plants," or they may plan a backbone of reading and activities around a unit and allow interest in the topic to have its own life.
This will mean that any attempt at creating a precise "academic calendar" will be difficult for some families using unit studies, because a mom can't be sure whether "edible plants" will be a passing interest where she'll get her own botany agenda met in a week, or whether the kids will really want to dig in and spend weeks exploring a topic.
I'll never forget the year we were going to study a multitude of ancient civilizations and ended up getting stuck on Egypt for the better part of a year. It was a good kind of "stuck," and the kids and I learned a lot from the depth of that study that could be applied in future years of homeschooling. One impact of our Year of Egypt, though, was that reading and learning about Egypt became really integral to our daily life—we didn't just turn it off because the kids down the road were on spring break.
"Academic year" is pretty much a non-starting concept for homeschoolers who emphasize living a learning lifestyle rather than use of a curriculum. You may identify as an interest-based homeschooler, a relaxed homeschooler, an autodidact, or an unschooler. You'll find that learning doesn't stop during summer months or winter breaks.
Unless you have paperwork to provide to stay legal, the idea of a "school year" may not even be noticed in your family. There is no neat "starting" with a "back to school" season, and no "school's out forever" feeling in May or June. Unless. . .
. . . unless, that is, your unschooled child seeks more structured learning that follows a more specific calendar.
Many unschooling kids decide at some point that they do indeed want to participate in a homeschool co-op whose calendar happens to be the same as the calendar for the local schools.
Many decide to participate in extracurricular activities or, when they are teens, to take community college classes. While they have been brought up to live a learning lifestyle, they find that learning more about their interests or preparing for a future goal (attending university, learning a trade) means homeschooling on a traditional, public school-like calendar after all.
Flexibility to change your mind
Homeschoolers' approach to the idea of a "school year" frequently changes over the duration of homeschooling. What's funny about this is that it changes in both directions. The young idealistic curriculum-using homeschool mom is sure she'll keep her chapters and her weeks aligned. The young idealistic unschooling mom is sure she'll never prescribe a school calendar for her natural learners. But reality intervenes.
The curriculum-using mom finds that her new baby really throws a kink into the schedule, so she takes a break in February and then uses the summer to catch back up. She finds that one child takes much longer than expected to learn long division--and so she first tries doing extra work which extends the school year--and then tries letting this area of her child's learning to lie fallow, so he can develop further.
The unschooling mom finds that one of her natural learners loves structure and requests a very systematic approach to learning something. This morphs into taking classes at a local science museum, which, you guessed it, operates in coordination with the calendar used by the local schools.
When my kids were little, I found that I almost intuitively operated on a seasonal schedule more than a school calendar.
Summer was a time for visiting the beach, swimming, and staying up late to enjoy the long evening twilight.
Fall was a cool crisp time for nature walks and a beginning of turning inward with books and notebooks.
Winter was hot tea and candles (even during the day-time), reading and writing.
The traditions I did with my young boys—apple picking, pumpkin gathering, mantle decorating, egg dyeing, beachcombing—seemed writ larger on our lives than arbitrary school start dates, and they somehow provided the rhythm for our learning, too.
As the boys grew older (I'm down to one at home now), society's school year had more impact, partly because we just live in society, and partly because our kids' specific choices of activities and experiences were set up that way.
Homeschooling families don't need to follow the traditional school year—or they can. One family might use a three-week on, one-week off rotation through all 56 weeks of the year.
Another family might work like crazy to get through all the bookwork by April 30 in order to enjoy the beautiful month of May unencumbered. Another might eschew all thoughts of learning at prescribed times.
The homeschool year is just that—a year of homeschooling. Reflecting the individuality of the families who choose homeschooling, the homeschool year will look different as it plays out in homes around the world.
Homeschoolers can do what works, regardless of what month it is.
If you're reading about "The Homeschool Year," you might like to read The Homeschool Mom's page on Homeschool Organization.