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Designing High School for Home Education (USA)

By Kristen Anderbeck

For an introduction to home education, read the page at World Family Education.

A quality high school (secondary school) experience provides a foundation for success later in life. That’s why the design process is vital for students educated at home. Depending on a family’s nationality and educational goals, the way this is implemented will vary. 

This article provides guidelines specifically for students whose passport country is the United States or for those intending to attend university there. Families of other nationalities may also wish to use these guidelines as a framework for designing a strong homeschool high school experience.

High School is Important

In the U.S. educational system, a student’s performance during the four years of high school is what universities evaluate towards admission. 

This includes: 

  • the coursework undertaken
  • the grades and standardized test scores earned 
  • any honors or awards received 
  • all the extracurricular activities completed or in progress, including volunteer work 

Step 1: Make a Plan

Since only those four years are considered for admission to college, parents should have a good plan in place from the very start of high school, or even in middle school.  

A strategic plan has the end in mind. What requirements must be met by the end of high school for a student to graduate and gain admittance to college? (Hint: It’s a great idea to prepare your students for attending college, even if they ultimately choose to not go. This way, the student has all options open to them both immediately after high school as well as years later if they change their mind.)  

Typical college prep requirements are as follows: 

  • English — 4 years  including literature and composition
  • Math — 3–4 years (4 years for selective colleges or STEM majors)
  • Science — 3–4 years with at least one lab (4 years for selective colleges or STEM majors)
  • Social Studies — 3–4 years
  • Foreign Language — 2–4 years of the same language 
  • Physical Education — 2 years
  • Fine Arts — 1 year
  • Electives — several

Whenever possible, students should exceed the minimum requirements. Exactly how one exceeds the minimum credits required — as in which subjects — depends on the student’s individual interests and goals and available resources in their overseas home. 

Parents may also have their own requirements for their high school students, such as courses in financial literacy or religious instruction.

It’s also advisable to consider the timing of required courses when making a strategic plan. Parents should consider at least two factors: 1) the timing of courses necessary to do well on relevant standardized tests; and 2) the timing of courses so that there’s a steady progression of learning and challenge all four years of high school. 

First, most high school students should take the SAT or ACT in the final months of their 11th grade or just after finishing 11th grade. This ensures that they receive results in plenty of time before applying to colleges in the fall of 12th grade, even if they decide to take the test more than once. To prepare for the test, students should complete appropriate subsections of math in homeschool coursework by late 11th grade (i.e., algebra I & II, geometry, basic trigonometry)*. 

Likewise, if a student plans to complete the essay portion of the SAT or ACT, coursework prior to the test should include plenty of timed, handwritten, essay-writing practice. The same principle applies to all subject-based tests, such as SAT Subject Tests, AP tests, or CLEP tests. For example, if a student plans to take a foreign language subject test, at least two years of studying that foreign language should take place ahead of the test. 

The other important piece regarding timing is to ensure that a student’s 12th grade shows rigor and challenge, appropriate for his or her abilities. It’s a big red flag when university admissions personnel see a lot of “fluff” coursework in the 12th grade and no further courses involving challenge. They call this a “senior slide,” and it can lead to rejection letters from universities. If a student challenges themselves with AP courses, honors courses, or dual credit courses in the 10th–11th grades, they should continue to challenge themselves in 12th grade. 

*For a breakdown of the math subsets on the SAT and ACT, check out these articles from PrepScholar:

What’s Tested on the SAT Math Section? Topics and Practice
What’s Actually Tested on the ACT Math Section? Concepts, Subjects, and Skills

Learn more about Major Exams for University Entrance at World Family Education.

Customize the Plan

Creating a plan based on who your child is (personality, interests, and abilities) will make homeschooling high school easier. Not only will kids likely learn more because their learning better relates to them, they’ll also stand out in college applications.

Children living internationally can often think out of the box. We parents can also think out of the box as we put together their courses and overall high school plan. At the end of this article is an example of an out of the box course completed by a high school student living abroad.

Reflect on your unique children and your unique situation, and then ask yourself: 

  • How do your children like to spend their time when not doing school work?
  • What activity drives you crazy because you have to tell your child to stop doing it, repeatedly?
  • What about their learning preferences? Are there any accommodations you must make so they can learn the material?
  • Has your child taken a career aptitude assessment? If not, can you arrange for one to be taken?
  • What frustrates your child the most in completing coursework? In what subjects do they finish their work faster than expected and perhaps even do bonus work?
  • What opportunities do your kids have in their multicultural environment? How can they impact and be impacted by the community around them, including locals or fellow expats?

Related to this is the idea of customizing high school according to the goals your child has. For example, does Suzie want to go into a nursing career? Go heavy on science and math classes. Do you think Johnny might aim really high for a selective university? Seek a good amount of rigor and external validation in courses, i.e., AP classes and exams and SAT Subject Tests. And be sure to exceed minimum requirements. Selective colleges usually want to see more foreign language credits than other colleges, and more courses in STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) subjects.

Step 2: Source Materials and Resources According to Your Current Situation and Your Child

Students commonly complete homeschool high school with textbook/workbook/DVD-based curricula or curriculum-in-a-box options. But these are not the only options to fulfill high school course requirements. Many home educators outsource entire courses to others, or they design their own courses using eclectic resources. 

Flexibility is paramount. Change things up if something does not work. Parents may be attached to a certain curriculum, but it might not work for your individual child or in your unique circumstances.

Students may utilize high school course resources such as: 

  • complete online courses for high school, including AP or dual credit classes
  • online courses taught by college professors*
  • free massive open online courses (MOOCs) (i.e., Coursera, EdX, MIT OpenCourseWare, Modern States)
  • courses with a fee (i.e., The Great Courses, Udemy, Sophia)
  • online apps/channels (i.e., Khan Academy, Duolingo, Mondly, Sophia For Students, Crash Course, etc.)
  • tutors or coaches 
  • high school reading lists
  • documentaries or subject-focused websites, such as the Stellarium planetarium
  • co-op classes
  • excursions to museums, historical sites, concerts, art exhibits, factories
  • interviews with professionals or job shadowing
  • hands-on skill development, i.e., cooking, construction, gardening, coding, graphic design, calligraphy, music, theater-related activities, animal care, chess, etc. 

Read more about Online Education Options at World Family Education.

Factors like availability of high-speed internet in your area, budget, and the kinds of opportunities that exist in your overseas environment have a lot of influence in deciding how to cover high school courses. And as with deciding on which courses to cover, you should also consider the personality, aptitude, and learning preferences of the child in determining how to complete the course. If young Suzie struggles to learn algebra independently, for example, finding a tutor for that subject might make things far easier. 

*Check the length of online courses. Are they only 5 weeks long or contain only 10 hours of video content? Then you must supplement with other materials or activities to make a full ½–1 credit course.

Step 3: Determine Credit Value
(for independently designed courses)

Unless a child takes a course with a teacher who provides all the content and the grades for that course, parents get to determine what makes up particular high school courses. 

There are different ways to determine what makes up a course. Home educators frequently use both of these measures to determine high school credit: 

  • textbook*/DVD*/reading list/full online course completion for that level
  • estimating the number of hours spent on a subject, including hands-on project completion

Based on a standard school year of 36 weeks (180 days), the usual guideline is: 

  • 60–90 hours on a subject/one high school semester = ½ credit
  • 120–180 hours on a subject/one high school year = 1 credit

This includes all work done in each subject, not just instruction time. If a student takes music lessons, for example, all the practice time each week counts for credit in addition to the lesson time. 

*The general rule of thumb for textbook or DVD curricula is to consider it a full course if 80% or more of the material is completed.

Step 4: Determine How You’ll Evaluate
(for independently designed courses)

Parents can assess a student by the output he or she produces. This can include: 

  • written – essays, research papers, tests/quizzes, lab reports, journals
  • verbal – discussion, speeches, presentations
  • something created or performed 
  • a level achieved or badge earned on an online app

Parents should decide upon a scale for giving grades. A commonly used grading scale is:

<60% F

Tests and other written work are not the only output that can be graded. Parents can also include things like attitude, effort, organizational skills, and growth in or mastery of concepts and skills. 

Parents use different means to factor a grade. Here are just a few examples. 

  • One way to grade an English class is assigning:
  • 1/3 of the grade for completed reading assignments 
  • 1/3 for completed composition assignments
  • 1/3 for discussion
  • One way to grade a music class is assigning ½ of the grade for daily practice and ½ of the grade for performances or exams.
  • It’s also possible to simply give a grade for demonstrated mastery of a subject, i.e., 100% of the grade for demonstrated proficiency in a foreign language. 

Learn more about how to document high school for home education at World Family Education.

Step 5: Have Fun

There is ample room for creativity. And letting your unique child’s interests and passions shine through in their high school courses can pay off both in the fun your family can have as well as in college admissions and scholarships. 

Here’s an example of a unique elective course taken by a home-educated student living internationally: “Fictional Language Development.” With a natural interest in science fiction and a passion for creative writing and language, the student developed a fictional language spoken on a made-up planet. As part of the course she collaborated with a friend (also living internationally) to write a short novel set in that planet, with the novel’s dialogue in the medium of the fictional language. 

The parent gave a grade based on the amount of effort and time logged on the project and the output produced, which included the written novel, the development of the planet’s language and culture, and the production of a map of the fictional world. 

The friends had great fun, the student had an intriguing elective class title on her homeschool transcript, and college admissions personnel loved to see it. 

Kristen Anderbeck has lived in southeast Asia for many years and successfully homeschooled her children, guiding them to university with full scholarships. Kristen leads the High School Guidance Services team for Asia Education Resource Consortium