6

There are 4 main ways of obtaining a high school diploma as a homeschooler in the state of Pennsylvania:

1. Parent Issued Diploma

2. GED

3. Commonwealth Secondary School Diploma (both for homeschooled and privately-tutored students) – this diploma is awarded for either successfully completing the GED tests or by satisfactory completion of a minimum of 1 full year or 30 semester hours of study at an accredited institution of postsecondary education.

4. Diploma Program

 

Since the homeschool law went into effect, parents in Pennsylvania have been able to issue their own diplomas. Parents across the nation issue their own diplomas as well. There are only two states in the United States that even have diploma programs. The diploma program directors tout this as though it is something to be proud of. I disagree. Strongly. The reasons I have for not supporting the use of diploma programs can be summed up in three points:   Misleading Ideology, Money, and Extra Requirements.

When I began homeschooling in York, PA eight years ago surrounded by hundreds of other families who homeschooled, I heard mention of these diploma agencies in a presentation I attended on homeschooling through high school. I wondered how they kept their existence as so few people, in fact none at I that I recall, that I knew used these agencies. The majority of families there seemed to agree that these programs were, in their words, a scam.

Then I moved north. Upon attending a meeting in this area on homeschooling during high school, I was overwhelmed at the support for the diploma agencies and fear of self-issuing a diploma to their children. At my mention of the simplicity of parent-issued diplomas, people looked at me as though I had two horns upon my head. Their words were of shock and disbelief. These parents really believed and STILL seem to believe their self-issued diplomas were worthless.

The information given by diploma agencies, a few select colleges, or misinformed places of employments are giving more and more people and such institutions the false impression that a diploma agencies’ diplomas somehow have more merit than those issued by a parent/supervisor of a home education program. The fact is, our parent issued-diplomas are worth just as much as the local school district’s diplomas and those of the diploma agencies. I looked up a section on diplomas on the PDE website. It states: “Some parents choose to provide a parent-issued diploma…There is nothing that prevents a parent from exercising this option.” There is nothing here to declare that the parent issued diploma is any less recognized than any other diploma by the PDE.

In truth, diploma agencies themselves are misleading and give the ideology that they are somehow better and use wording to make themselves somehow appear to have higher merit than parent issued diplomas.  The word “agency” itself as used by one program leads some parents to believe this Diploma Programs is connected to the government or directly run by PDE. Parents have been led to believe that these programs have been through some sort of accreditation process – one such agency actually has the name accreditation in its name; however, none of them are accredited by PDE- the only agency that has any true determination on the bearing of my child’s diploma and whether it is acceptable by the Pennsylvania law. The diplomas issued by these programs are recognized by PDE as valid, yes, but no more so than my own parent issued diploma, the GED, or the Commonwealth Secondary Diploma that can be applied for after attending one year (30 semester hours) of college. In addition, one of the diploma program websites actually states they formed the program to provide homeschoolers with a ‘legitimate’ diploma insinuating  that a parent issued diploma is not legitimate   which is FAR from the truth.

Furthermore, a diploma itself is not an indication of what the child’s education entailed. The programs fixate so much on the diploma and with particular colleges or places of employment looking for particular types of diploma, one would think it had more significance. But, really, the diploma only demonstrates that education has been completed, not the details behind the education. It is the transcript that demonstrates this and it is the transcript (and SAT or ACT scores) that the great majority of colleges place their decisions on for admission. Along with parent issued diplomas, it is quite easy for a parent to make a transcript for their student as well.

The diploma programs charge money and because extra hoops for the parents to fly through that are completely unnecessary. Some parents seem to think it is easier to go through the agency than create their own diploma and transcript. I have some empathy here as I know having the weight of a child’s education on one’s own shoulders is a heavy burden to bare, but in actuality there is generally more paperwork involved in obtaining the right type of evaluation form, and mailing information back and forth than there is in just filling out your own forms, not to mention a savings of the money paid to the agency (and sometimes to a an evaluator that may be more expensive than others) to do the same things a parent themselves can do rather inexpensively.

Diploma agencies have led to more requirements/ expectations from school districts. It is of my opinion that these programs have most likely been a large part if not all of the reason school districts have raised expectations/requirements of homeschool portfolios and evaluators. Portfolios need to contain all that the agency requires (for the eyes of the evaluator) which is above the expectations of the Pennsylvania Law. Evaluators are often required to write out extensive evaluation letters, which has seemed to lead many evaluators to write out such extensive letters for most of their clients. Thus, when some evaluators choose to write out a simple one page form and only give the districts what is necessary by law, they are met with irritation and requests for longer summaries with more information. This is something I refuse to do as an evaluator as it serves no purpose or need in the child’s education. The school district needs to know I followed the law. They do not need to know all of the extras we do.

I have to ask myself why, when so many homeschoolers complain already about the excessive requirements for homeschoolers in Pennsylvania already, would they give into the demands of a diploma program and pay money to do so? One of the reasons I homeschool is to allow us the flexibility of selecting the coursework and schedule that I feel is appropriate for MY child. Why would I want someone else to tell me how many books my child should read in a year or what kind let alone how many research papers, how long those research papers or compositions have to be and how many speeches he or she needs to do to be prepared for whatever they will be doing in their future? Maybe I’ll do all those things anyway. Maybe I won’t. But I’m not paying someone else to tell me what my child’s requirements should be.

In my recent research of this situation, I spoke to or emailed several parents, evaluators and other sources in reference to diploma programs.   I also exchanged several emails with a spokesman at HSLDA. HSLDA (the Homeschool Legal Defense Association whom I do support) does support the diploma programs as they see them as an extra resource and blessing to many members – I’m guessing here due to having someone else handle the paperwork? – BUT also feel parents should have the FREEDOM to choose whether to use a diploma program or not. Therefore, we shouldn’t be forced by the government or anyone else to use such a program. The spokesman did relate that it is frustrating, however, when employers or schools use these programs as a standard to judge other diplomas but also stated it is a rare occurrence among their members and feels that more private colleges and employers are accommodating to homeschoolers. While I understand their viewpoint, I feel the existence of these programs is leading to such an occurrence.

These occurrence/challenges do happen. Several state schools across the state and some places of employment do require a diploma from a diploma program ( I have been told, so I think it is important to note however, that even some of these schools that state they require a diploma program diploma have made exceptions for some students). HSLDA does assist members in such situations but most lower-income families do not have the added comfort of being members of HSLDA- thus they cave to the diploma programs – which, in my opinion, gives the programs more leverage and leads the path for more places to make the demands.

It’s a hard call for some parents, I know. Some worry about their children finding local jobs when some businesses have a reputation for requiring a diploma program. No one wants to be the ‘poster child’ fighting the injustice of the prejudice of homeschoolers. Yet, if enough people gathered together to fight the injustice, they would most likely win a legal case and make the community a better place for homeschoolers without having to jump through the unnecessary hoops.

We had no problems with our parent issued diploma for our daughter. She was accepted to each school she applied to, none of which even wanted her diploma but were only interested in the things that demonstrated her potential – her transcript and SAT scores. Some colleges ask for course descriptions but the ones she applied to did not. But what will happen in 2 years when our son begins applying to schools? Will we be forced to call HSLDA in defense of our parent issued diploma?? It is my hope that when my son determines his goals for college, we will find out what schools will meet his needs that do NOT have a requirement for a diploma from one of these programs.

Diploma programs are not a true benefit at all in my opinion. So while my son will be doing many things these programs require, it will be because I deem it important to his education and will approach it in a way meaningful to HIM – NOT because I’m paying someone else to tell me to do it - or how or when to do it.

And, while I admit that I have done evaluations for these programs in the past, as I then felt called to do so to help out some friends, I have chosen now to not do it. It made me feel like too much of a hypocrite and felt too stressful knowing I was supporting these programs even in this small way – even giving one money to do the evaluation (Yes, at least one program even charges the evaluator to be an evaluator for them!) I just refuse to support these programs in any way any longer.

So there you have it. This is my honest opinion on Pennsylvania homeschool diploma programs and why I simply do not support these programs. I’m sure there are people that will disagree with me – obviously the people behind these programs will as well as the institutions that, in my opinion, have been duped into believing diplomas issued by these programs somehow demonstrate any more ability in a student than someone who has worked just as hard, often more, to earn their parent-issued diploma, and many who use these programs will disagree as well. That’s okay. But I need to not hide my own opinion. I feel the call to speak out and inform parents. I need to let people know that legally, your parent issued diploma has just as much merit as any other. Don’t let an institution that wants your money make you believe differently. Don’t cave in to something that has the potential to make requirements higher for homeschoolers in the future. Don’t let your students see you cave to pressure. And most of all- believe in your rights and your own merit.

5

Too many times as an evaluator for homeschool students, I see children who HATE to write.   I can't imagine hating to write but I think I understand where it comes from.  Too many times educators and parents put sooo much emphasis on the spelling, grammar, and punctuation that the creativity and fun is lost. I've been guilty of this myself.  I guess I had too many years of public schooling in my system and add that to the worry of being the only one now responsible for my children's ability to learn to write well... well even the creative writer in me buckled under pressure to conform to how writing "should be taught."

I've tried at various times to incorporate creative writing just for fun into our homeschooling though.  It just hasn't always lasted as it does take time and along with anything else fun and relaxing, I'm guilty of worrying about future SAT scores and setting it to the side.  But in the back of my mind I'm thinking...I should write it... a writing curriculum that teaches all that important stuff, sure, but focuses on the creative fun aspects of writing. Maybe one day I will...

One way I've approached it with my kids is to do fun writing exercises they enjoy.

My son, just the other day, asked, "Hey how come we don't do those neat writing things anymore?"  I'm guilty.  My first thought... 'and just how am I going to fit that in the schedule??'  but realized later, 'where there's a will, there must be a way.'   So I'm hoping next week to restart those.  Even if we manage just once a week it will be good for him and good for me.

This is the exercise we will start with.  If I recall correctly, it's his favorite.  It's called Stop 'N Shop and I got it out of A Writer's Notebook by Caroline Sharp. With this exercise you imagine you are working as a check-out clerk in a convenience or grocery store.  A customer wanders up to the register with about 5 items.  Tell their story....   The book suggests coming up with ten character profiles first (29-year-old woman, sixty-four year old widower, etc).  My son and I skip that.  We just randomly list our items.  Then we decide what kind of person might buy those things and why.  Here is a sample from some time ago:

The List ( we take turns- one of us comes up with 2 items and the other 3)

  • pickles
  • peaches
  • granola bar
  • yogurt
  • milk

The Story (we usually time ourselves with 5 minutes)

This healthy young lady is on her way to yoga class.  She has grabbed some granola bars and yogurt for her breakfast before class.  She'll have peaches and milk after class.  The pickles are a snack she likes to have at night while she's reading.  She's weird tha way and knows it's a healthier choice than chips or cookies.  After class, she will go to the library where she works.  She likes working there amidst all the books and likes recommending her favorites to others.

It's not a prize-winning paragraph, but it's a fun way to be creative.  My son and I share one another's stories after we are done writing.  Sometimes these stories can be really funny.  And guess what else?  We DON'T check for spelling, grammar or punctuation.  We just have fun because writing SHOULD be fun.  I'm looking forward to starting this exercise again.

4

Apparently, Pennsylvania is known for having tough homeschool laws. Supposedly there's a lot of paperwork involved.  As a former public school teacher, I can assure the rest of the homeschool mom's out there that, in retrospect, what we have to do as homeschool teachers is nothing in comparison.  Sure, as a homeschool mom, I can understand not wanting to have to do one more thing for the state.  I get that.  But it really is not as time consuming or difficult that some homeschool parents are making it out to be.  In my experience as a homeschool evaluator, I find most parents doing MORE than what they need to do.  So I'm going to try to put it all here in a nutshell.  What do we really need to do in Pennsylvania?

If you want to read the actual law, Session of 1988  Act 1988-169,   there are many sources online that provide this.  The link above is one from CHAP (Christian Homeschool Association of Pennsylvania).

But what does this really mean?

The Beginning:

You must fill out a notarized Affidavit and hand this in to the local school district before beginning to homeschool your child either at the  compulsory attendance age of 8 (or the school year in which he or she will be turning 8) or before pulling them out of the public school if he or she has already started or been registered for attendance there, regardless of age or grade.  An affidavit  will include the names of your children (that are to be homeschooled), the name of the supervisor of the homeschool program (this is usually the mother though I recently saw that CHAP actually recommends the father),address and telephone number of the home education site,  and a statement that no one in the house has been convicted of a felony and that the homeschooling parent has a high school diploma. The affidavit should also include a statement that the students listed have received the health and medical services required by the Public School Code (dental exams upon entry into school and in 3rd and 7th grades and medical exams upon entry into school and in sixth and eleventh grades as well as immunizations OR an exemption due to religious beliefs or medical reasons). The affidavit must be legally notarized.

Along with the affidavit, the supervisor must hand in a listing of proposed objectives.  This does NOT need to be difficult!  As a former teacher, I struggled with this one.  I really wanted to give very long, drawn out, detailed objectives.  It's not necessary.  Your list of proposed objectives is really a set of goals.  List each subject you plan on covering through the year (Note the word "PLAN" here:  It is okay to change your plans.  You are not required to fullfill the exact objectives you hand in.  It is just that.  A PLAN.).  For each subject that you list, write about 3 vague or specific obejectives.  For example,  if you are covering 3rd Grade Math, the objectives may be:  - to introduce multiplication and division facts,  - to use math skills in everyday situations as in grocery and Christmas shopping,  - to continue improvement of math skills on a 3rd grade level.   See?  Very easy!  If you are wondering about a subject and what to write for objectives, let me know.  I'd be glad to help!

This is all for the beginning, UNLESS your child has been formally identified throught the school district as having special needs.  In this case you must submit objectives that have already been approved by a "licensed clinical or certified psychologiset or a teacher with a valid certificate from the Commonwealth to teach special education".  In other words, find an evaluator ahead of time that can approve your objectives ahead of time.  (More on evaluators later.)

During The School Year:

Teach.  Duh, of course, right?!     🙂   (But don't teach your kids to say duh....just a little humor...hope you're smiling)

You are obligated by law to provide instruction in the required subjects for 180 school days or 900 hours if your child is in elementary grades, 990 if he or she is in secondary grades.  Most people use a list to show days rather than hours but this is entirely up to you.  Keep the list of days in calendar form or in some other form of logging style to show your evaluator and put into your portfolio for the end of the year (see below for more information on portfolios and evaluators).  The 180 school days is no more than the public school child.

Standardized testing is required just as it is for the public school children but, thankfully, only in grades 3, 5 and 8! So during the course of the year, you will need to find a resource that allows your child to take a standardized test that is one of the approved tests and include the results of this test in your portfolio at the end of the 3rd, 5th and 8th grade years.  The approved tests at this time are:  California Achievement Test, Comprehensive Testing Program (CTPIV), Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Metropolitan Achievement Test, Peabody Achievement Individual Test --Revised Edition, Standford Achievement Test, Terra Nova, and the Woodcock Johnson Revised Tests of Achievement.  Some homeschool co-ops offer one of these tests on a yearly basis to their homeschool group.  One of these tests is actually available online.  Most require another adult to be present during the testing time other than the homeschool parent/supervisor.  You will need to do your research in advance.  Do NOT wait until the end of the year as you need the results to give to your evaluator and to put in the portfolio.

Keep a portfolio.  The portfolio is NOT that big of a deal.  But do yourself a favor.  Decide at the beginning of the year how you are going to set up your portfolio and start saving and organizing the samples to put in it through the course of the year instead of being an overwhelmed homeschool mom at the end of the year who isn't sure what to do with all these stacks of paper!  My suggestions is just purchase a 3 ring binder... no bigger than one inch!  Put dividers in the portfolio for all of your subjects you are covering.  Now as the year goes on, every month, put in one sample of each subject behind the divider for it.  At the end of the year, you will have enough samples in your portfolio!  Easy peasy!

Keep a Log.   This is probably the most contraversial piece of material in the PA law because there are soooooo many interpretations as to what this log is, besides a list of reading materials.  There must be a list of reading materials.  There is no doubt about that.  So keep track of those books your child is reading.  HSLDA provides a thorough explanation of interpretations of this part of the law on their site. Their recommendation is keeping a calendar form and marking the materials you use each day in a type of code.  I will confess, most people do not use this method.  Usually, people hand in a simple reading log within the portfolio that lists all reading materials for the year and often includes curriculum used as well.  This seems to satisfy the majority of school districts. In addition to the reading list, they have a type of calendar form or number list showing the 180 days that have been covered in the year.  It is preferred by most evaluators that this list does show the actual dates of school and not just the numbers 1-180.

The End of the Year:

Before handing your portfolio in to your school district, your child must be evaluated by a qualified evaluator. Most evaluators are certified teachers but some are psychologists while others are homeschool parents who have taught at all levels.  The certified teachers and psychologists are automatically qualified (as long as they have experience testing at the level your child has completed),but those not having certification must be pre-approved by the school district.  Most homeschool co-ops are able to porvide you with lists of evaluators in your area but there are websites that also provide this information:

              CHAP Online         Askpauline.com            PHAA

Be sure to ask the person you call what their qualifications are.  Some are only qualified for particular grade levels (elementary vs. secondary) while others are qualified for all grade levels as well as special education.  Ask their price for the evaluation.  There can be a great variation with this price.  Some, but not many, will come to your home or meet  you somewhere. Some automatically do a long extensive write up for the district that is required by homeschool accredidation agencies (which are not necessary to join) while others hand in a simple form that meets the expectations of the law without providing more than necessary to the school districts.  This may affect the price as well.  Also, be sure to make your appointment in advance!  Do NOT wait until the end of the school year to make an appointment!  Many of these evaluators already have an extensive client list and book up fast for evaluations.  Others may not evaluate past a particular date.  So please, contact them early.  It is not unheard of to at least contact an evaluator early in the year to find out when to call them to make the appointment. Also, by contacting an evaluator early, they should be more able to help guide you in preparing the portfolio and knowing what to expect during the evaluation and possibly answer any other questions you might have about the process or homeschooling in general.

Once you have the evaluation, you will be ready to hand in your portfolio.  Your evaluator will probably all ready make sure it contains all that it needs to contain:

  • reading log
  • 180 day log
  • samples of each subject covered (there should be about three samples from the beginning, middle and end of the school year for each subject, totalling approximately 9 samples for each subject) Samples may be workbook pages, tests, essays, book reports, pictures of events, activity, art exhibit, etc., or artwork.  Unschoolers often use lots of photos in their portfolio with captions to explain the subject being covered.
  • Test results if it is a year of required testing
  • Evidence of Fire Safety being covered (Fire saftey is the ONE subject that MUST be covered EVERY year)
  • A copy of your signed evaluation form given to you by the evaluator

That's it!  Just walk into your district office and hand it in, always obtaining a written receipt that states you have handed in the portfolio with the above pieces included (I always type up my own form, listing everything that's in the portfolio as in the list above and just have the secretary or who I hand the portfolio to sign my receipt).

I usually advise to my evaluation clients that this is the perfect time to hand in the affidavit for the next year as well along with the objectives and to get a receipt for that too.  This way, one is free to begin homeschooling and counting days on July 1, the first day of the school year, if they choose to do so.  This is great as it allows those great summer field trips to count as school days! 🙂

I love helping fellow homeschoolers, so again, if you have any questions, let me know!  If I don't know the answer, I might at least be able to offer a source that would!

Happy homeschooling!