On Thu, Oct 30, 2014 at 12:57 AM, a parent wrote to a homeschooling e-mail list (I forget which one now):
I want to prepare my kids for college, but I also value them spending an hour drawing, or trying to get a fire by rubbing cottonwood sticks together, or making a ridiculous video for fun. Can’t we have it both ways? I’ve already written off UC for freshman year, but I don’t necessarily want community college to be the only option they have. I want his 16th year to be just as fun as his 6th, filled with math and writing, yes, but also with whatever his passions are. That seems like an exciting time to get real world experience, like interning at an environmental organization, helping with water quality research, becoming a park docent, going on amazing backpacking trips … as opposed to sitting studying biology with a textbook, for example.
Am I in dreamland? Are my priorities right here? He is in 8th grade, so according to these presenters, 9th grade is around the corner and we should be figuring out this fast.
I’m coming from a different place than many home schoolers, as we did public and private schools through 9th grade, only switching to home school for 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. I understand that the reverse path (starting out in home school and switching to public or private for high school) is more common.
Having just sent my son off to college this fall (at UCSB in the College of Creative Studies) after three years of home schooling (with the aid of an umbrella school in the local school district), I can answer a few things with some confidence:
- No matter what you do, entry into the super-selective schools is effectively a lottery. Most people don’t win the lottery. All the crazy-making prep changes the odds very little on the super-selective admissions lottery. Unless you donate millions to buy your way in to a private school, your odds are not much better than the ones you get from the Common Data Sets for each college.
- High school can involve a lot of fun activity—my son took at least 22 different theater classes in his 4 years of high school, about 8 of them in his senior year (mostly through WEST). There were at least 15 different performances in his last year (see his theater page) with four different shows four weekends running one month. He also started a tech start-up with other home-schooled teens (something that he is continuing in college—they’re expecting their 4th prototype back from China this week and hope to do first sales through Kickstarter in December). He also was involved in a couple of the MATE underwater ROV competitions, did science fair (up to state level) every year except his senior year, kept up a full load of UC a–g courses, and still had time for his main recreations (reading and computer programming).
- Some springs got a bit stressful, with the umbrella-school trip to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, State Science Fair, WEST performances, MATE robotics, and AP exams all piling up in the same few weeks. Time management and priority setting required parental support (though my wife and I sometimes disagreed about how much parental support was needed). Extra parental support was needed some years (like for flying from CA state science fair to Ashland, Oregon, when two events overlapped by a day, or finding a way to get AP exams offered in the make-up time slots, when AP exams conflicted with the Ashland trip, or even just finding a way to take AP exams for AP courses not offered in our county, like the AP Physics C exams).
- Taking courses at Cabrillo College and at UCSC can be very good experience (my son had 2 at each: Spanish at Cabrillo and math at UCSC). Cabrillo courses are much cheaper, but the hassle of biking 45 minutes each way for classes (or taking even longer on the bus) made scheduling them harder. The practice of getting himself to classes on an irregular schedule was good prep for college, where he has a different schedule every day (from Wednesdays with classes from 8am to after 8pm to Fridays with one class at 1–1:50). Getting into lab classes at Cabrillo turned out to be very difficult, so we ended up doing all science at home (calculus-based physics for 2 years, then on-line AP chemistry for one year).
For students thinking of University of California (still a very good choice, even if the state legislators and state governor don’t put much money into UC any more), I’d recommend trying to make sure that the a–g courses are covered in spirit, even if the courses are at home or through other non-UC-approved sources. It is not a perfect curriculum, but it represents a good compromise between many different views of what a high school education should include.
The time-management skills my son learned from doing too many of the things he loved should help him get through college, where he is likely to set up the same sorts of stresses for himself—he took a fairly light load first quarter (4 courses: 2 math, 2 computer science), but is planning a heavier load for winter (6 courses: 2 math, 3 computer science, 1 theater, I think). Luckily 2 or 3 of the courses are graded on a rather strange system, where the teachers decide at the end of the course how many units were earned, so if he slacks a bit on those courses his grades won’t suffer—he’ll just earn fewer units.
Of the generic advice from the Khan Academy about what all high school students should be doing:
- Take college-prep courses. Yes, definitely. The a–g courses are a good guide.
- Focus on your grades. Not really—we kept him focused on learning, not on grades. Most of his courses were ungraded, though we had very high standards for what we expected him to do. Those courses from outside providers that were graded got high grades, but that was a natural consequence of focusing on the learning and doing all the work to high standards, not from paying any particular attention to grades.
- Explore and commit to extracurricular and leadership activities. We considered his theater work and his start-up company as curricular activities, but someone with a more conventional view of education would have considered them extracurricular. I don’t know whether his odds at super-selective schools would have been different if we had spun the work as extra-curricular rather than curricular.
- Find summer volunteer opportunities/jobs/internships. Nope, he spent his summers doing more theater, more on the start-up company, and relaxing. He worked very hard at the theater and on the start-up, but it wasn’t a “job” where he was reporting to a boss—it was more like professional work, where he had to manage his own time, sometimes with externally imposed deadlines.
- Begin an ongoing dialogue with your parents about how to pay for college. Start saving for college. High school is rather late to be thinking about paying for college. We saved 10% of my salary each year in a 529 plan from the day he was born. As it turns out, because he ended up at a state school, we saved more than we needed to, so unless some of it gets used for graduate school expenses, we are likely to end up paying a tax penalty in 4 years for the previously untaxed earnings in the 529 plan.
- Search and apply for non-traditional scholarships (those available before you are a senior in high school). Other than the National Merit Scholarship (he was a Finalist, but no one offered him money except desperate schools that had nothing of academic value to offer), he did not apply for any scholarships. Most of the scholarship applications are a lot of work (comparable to another college application), with very little expected return. He decided to put his time into his startup company instead, which has given him very valuable learning and experience, even if it never breaks even. Because he ended up at a public university, and we had been saving enough to be able to pay for his going to a private school, he did not need a scholarship to go to college. So the investment of his time in learning how to design electronics widgets and get them manufactured was probably a wise one—it will pay off later much more than a $1000 scholarship would.