Traditionally schooled students get to walk into a classroom and take a course for which someone has already done the hard work of planning it—but which has the drawback of being “one size fits all.” For homeschoolers, designing courses takes some work and ingenuity. However, with the proper knowledge and perspective, students and parents can work together to come up with a course of study that will be equivalent to (or better than) an honors level course at a traditional school—and that fits the student’s needs and abilities.
Three main steps will start you on your journey: Research Your Requirements, Optimize Your Options, and Customize Your Courses.
Research Your Requirements
Before your student starts high school, you need to search out the typical requirements for high school graduation in your area (though you will not be “copying” these requirements, but just using them as a general guideline). In addition, you’ll want to know the requirements for admission to state universities and any universities in which your student may be interested. This information is readily available on websites of the universities or your local school districts.
More specifically, find out how many years or semesters are required for each academic subject area, as well as any specific instructions for content of these courses. It is not a bad idea to contact two or three local high schools (both public and private) and to obtain copies of their course descriptions and requirements for graduation. Note that private schools are not obliged to fulfill the identical course requirements for public schools and vice versa. Looking at both of these options will help you decide what is appropriate for your homeschool.
You may notice as you peruse college websites that honors and Advanced Placement courses are strongly recommended for students who wish to be competitive. Thus it is wise to plan or seek out such courses.
General areas of course requirements, with typical years required, are as follows. These are just guidelines—always be sure to confirm the exact requirements for your desired college. More selective universities will require additional years of some subjects.
English – 4 years
Courses should include reading and discussion of literature, essay writing, speech and/or debate, grammar, and vocabulary.
Mathematics – 3 years (at least to Algebra 2)
Math courses taken will vary depending on the student’s abilities and aims, but often include algebra 1 and 2, geometry, pre-calculus (combined with trigonometry), and perhaps calculus, especially for students bound for selective colleges.
Science – 2 or 3 years, with at least two being lab courses
Courses include biology, chemistry, and physics, though some colleges will accept other lab sciences in the lineup. It is important to have at least two years of lab science in which the student conducts experiments on a frequent basis and gains practice in analytical skills and writing lab reports.
History/Social Studies – 2 or 3 years
Typical requirements include world history or geography, U.S. history, government (civics) and economics. Some states require a course in the state’s history.
Foreign Language – 2 or more years
Many colleges require three or four years of the same foreign language, and the student’s decision regarding which language to study can be based on the language’s usefulness, the availability of curriculum, and the student’s motivation. You may want to choose a language in which the student can take the SAT Subject Test or AP Exam to validate his or her progress.
Fine Arts – 1 year
Courses might include music, visual art, or drama. It’s important to understand the university’s requirements of what does and does not count for fine arts.
Physical Education – Variable Requirements
Vocational Education or Life Skills – Variable Requirements
These might include computer or technology courses, or courses in business skills, first aid, or home ec.
If there is additional time in the schedule, you and your student may design courses of your own choosing and/or may include additional courses in any of the areas described above.
Optimize Your Options
After finding out what courses are needed and making a rough plan to cover these requirements in four years of high school, the next step is to determine where and how your student can take these courses. Looking at the list of courses, determine which ones you know you could handle at home, either with resources you know of now, or with additional advice and help from other homeschoolers or from teachers in traditional schools.
Options for “home-based” courses can include standard packaged curriculum, customized curriculum, unit studies, online courses, DVD courses, private tutors or private lessons, correspondence courses, online information as supplementary instruction material, or use of test prep books as a skeleton for a course.
If “home-based” is not possible for one or more courses, you may branch out into the homeschool community or the community at large. Ideas include co-ops, discussion groups or study groups, community center courses (art, music, fitness), adult education courses, and courses held at churches or community clubs and groups (Toastmasters, etc.).
Finally, if none of these sources will work, try traditional school-based alternatives such as having your student take one or two courses at a local private or public high schools, or a few courses at a community college.
You might also try “hybrid” alternatives such as tutorial services, retired or part time teachers, or assistance from a classroom teacher. Mix and match options to create just the right “recipe” for learning, using your common sense and choosing options based on your student’s comfort level, personality, and learning style.
Customize Your Courses
Finally, customize your student’s courses as desired for his or her own needs. This would include designing honors and AP courses or augmenting your courses into challenging, interesting, and individualized courses. Homeschooling is ideal for customized or interdisciplinary courses where your student can study two or more subjects (i.e., history and literature) combined into one course. It is also perfect for pursuing interests in great depth. Take advantage of these opportunities to give your student a unique education, and be brave enough to experiment a bit with each new course that you design!
As you design courses, some precautions are in order. Note that a few university systems—thankfully, not many—have “pre-approval” requirements for admission into their systems. This means that homeschoolers (or even students from schools which have not submitted courses for preapproval) may have difficulty in convincing the university that their courses are equivalent to those the university has placed on its “approved” list. Check with such universities ahead of time, ideally before your student even starts high school. Ask if you may submit course descriptions for approval. If not, find out under what other circumstances your student might be able to be admitted (test scores, other outstanding achievements, community college courses, approved online AP courses, etc.). In general, these hurdles would apply only to large institutions such as state universities. By and large, private colleges and universities understand the concept of homeschooling and are much more flexible in working with your individual course of study.
Additionally, find out how hours and credits are accounted for in your local area, whether this be one credit for a one-year course, or perhaps 10 credits for the same course. Strive to make your courses look equivalent on paper to the courses the colleges will be seeing from traditionally schooled students.
Finally, do some research into typical depth requirements of some of these courses, and how course descriptions are written up. You can easily find sample course descriptions online (search for high school course descriptions and syllabi in a particular subject).
Though course planning may seem daunting at first, it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Break down the task course by course, brainstorm for outside resources, and above all, include a healthy dose of creativity as you customize your courses to your student’s needs and interests.