"Can families in New York State unschool their kids?"
This is a question I get a lot from people who think unschooling sounds great but are daunted by the relatively strict reporting rules in place in New York State.
The short answer is that yes, unschooling is absolutely a viable option in the Empire State. Both of my kids were always unschooled, and I've been sending in my IHIP'S (Individualized Home Instruction Plans), quarterly reports and annual assessments without issue for the better part of 15 years now.
If you live in NY there are a few things to remember:
First, the paperwork is your friend. There is no stronger defense of your choice of learning lifestyle than the Letter of Compliance from the DOE. Should anyone question why your child isn't spending their days inside government sanctioned buildings, (which honestly, has never happened to me or anyone I know, but still), being in compliance with the regulations is the only answer you need.
Second, paperwork is NOT difficult, or particularly time consuming.
Third, if you think the regulations should change, the way to go about it is by taking your suggestions to Albany and not by refusing to work with the people in the local offices to whom you report (by not handing in paperwork or arguing with them regarding deadlines, etc). They are just employees who have boxes to check off. If you work with them, they can become great allies.
So how does it work?
The nuts and bolts are as follows:
If your child is not yet of school age, you don't need to send anything in. Reporting only needs to begin the year your child turns 6. So no kindergarten or preschool reporting necessary.
Starting the year your child turns 6, and for every year thereafter, you must send in a Letter of Intent to Homeschool and an IHIP, or Individualized Home Instruction Plan. These must be submitted individually for each child. The official deadline for this paperwork is July 1st, but if you don't make the decision until later in the summer, it's not a problem. Just send in the paperwork as soon as you can. If you live in NYC, you'll send your paperwork to the Central Office of Homeschooling. Paperwork can now be submitted via email to email@example.com (Hurray! We've been asking them to do that for YEARS and they finally instituted it last Fall.)
A Letter of Intent is simply that - a very short letter stating your intent to homeschool your child for the coming school year. * You should also state that you will cover all subjects as required by state law and outlined in NYSED regulations Part 100.10.
*In the eyes of NYS, we are all homeschoolers, so I use the term interchangeably with unschooling here. Unless you live in NYC, you should simply say you are homeschooling on all paperwork. Most districts outside of the city don't know what unschooling is, and unless you really want to take on the task of educating them about it, it's just easier to use the terms with which they are familiar. The reporting is the same no matter what your individual approach may be.
An IHIP is more detailed. This is the part where unschoolers get nervous - because how do we know in advance what our kids will be learning? I always tell parents to do the following: Make a list of all the stuff your kid did over the summer. Travel, outings, projects, books read, conversations had, movies/shows/documentaries - whatever. Then compile a list of stuff they are likely to do during the first quarter. Spend some time putting it into categories that roughly coincide with the required subjects. Your IHIP can then state that you are providing them with an outline of likely courses of study or activities, but that these are all subject to change; and that you will provide detailed quarterly reports stating what was actually accomplished. As long as you are providing some detail, it will be fine.** Even if all of it changes for your quarterly reports.
**Regarding paperwork, NYC has an advantage because we have an entire office dedicated to dealing with homeschoolers and our crazy, non-standard paperwork. The people in our office know what unschooling is and are big supporters of our right to allow our children to learn in non-traditional ways. I've heard from people around the state who must report to their local school districts that they often have to construct their paperwork in a much more structured fashion in order to satisfy an administrator who knows little or nothing about homeschooling/unschooling. If that is the situation in which you find yourself, just be aware that you may need to use the standardized paperwork packet (which we here in the city generally recycle or use for scratch paper) and tweak your list to "fit" what they are trained to see. I'm willing to help with that, if need be.
Once you turn in your Letter(s) of Intent and IHIP(s) - remember, one for each child - you'll receive a Letter of Compliance and if you are in the city, a student Metrocard which allows your child 3 free subway or bus trips daily, excluding weekends and late nights (roughly after 8:30pm). Sometimes these letters take time, but if you've submitted your initial paperwork in early to mid July, you should receive a compliance letter around the time school is set to begin in September. Same goes with the Metrocards, which are valid only during the official school calendar year.
Quarterly reports follow roughly the same format as your IHIP, except that you will of course be telling them all the things your child has done, instead of predicting what they might do. My method is to keep a running list (I do it in a draft email to myself, but whatever works for you is great) of things my kid does. So every day or two I go in and make a few notes. Remember that you should notate things like conversations about anything topical as well as longer term classes or outings. It's all fair game on reports. Usually I find myself with too much info, rather than not enough. Quarterly reports should not be more than 2 pages. Trust me, the people getting them do not want to wade through many pages. They want to be able to take a quick glance and check that box.
Also, at the top of each report you should put attendance hours. In all my years of reporting this is the only note I ever got from them. I was saying my child had "perfect attendance" because of course she did, we unschool! And they told me I needed to note the attendance in hours. So for the 1st quarter I would write that my child had perfect attendance completing a minimum of 225 hours for the quarter as required by law. Then for the 2nd quarter it would say "perfect attendance, completing a minimum of 225 hours for the quarter and 450 for the year to date..." etc. (Once they are in high school, the total hours goes up to 950, so you adjust accordingly.)
And finally, annual assessments. Every year my inbox gets flooded with panicked messages from parents who think they need to send their kid out to be assessed, or have a licensed teacher do an assessment, etc. I've never done that. Here in the city, we've always been able to write assessments ourselves, stating that our child has made adequate progress in all required subjects (I usually specify a couple of areas in which I feel particular progress has been made) and will be moving on to the next grade level in the following school year.
Once your child is officially in 4th grade, you need to be aware of testing requirements. NYS regulations state that homeschooled children must be tested every other year from 4th-8th grades. However, the 4th grade year can be taken as the "off" year, so you really only need to do a test in the 5th and 7th grades, and then every year through high school. Test results should be turned in as part of the annual assessment, on the years they are required. A list of accepted tests are given on the NYS DOE homeschooling info page on their website. These tests can be ordered online through companies like Hewitt Homeschooling or Seton Homeschooling, and administered at home under relaxed conditions. Your child have a composite score in or above the 33 percentile nationally to be deemed making adequate progress.
It sounds like a lot, I know. But trust me, once you do it a time or two, it's easy. I spend no more than 20 minutes writing up my son's reports each quarter, and a minute or two every few days making notes outlining activities and things that will later go into those reports. After so many years I actually enjoy the reports, because it allows me to look back at all the amazing things my kids do, mostly out of their own drive and desire to do so. Rather than a burden, I encourage parents to see writing the paperwork as an opportunity to reflect on this amazing life path we've chosen. Trust me, it's worth every minute.
Postscript: If your child has been enrolled in school and you are pulling them out, the reporting is exactly the same except for one important item. You must give the school a letter (preferable hand-delivered to ensure it was received) stating that you are pulling your child from school and will be homeschooling from this point forward. This is a separate letter from the Letter of Intent which is delivered to whatever office you'll report to. The offices DO NOT share information, and if you don't let the school know, there is a high chance they won't check and will just mark your child as truant. So that's one extra, mildly inconvenient step for those pulling their children from school. But more than made up for by the fact that parents who see the needs of their child and pull them from school are HEROES!!! It is much more difficult to pull your child from school than to never send them at all, and I salute you."
Amy Milstein has helped homeschoolers/unschoolers in New York for years. She wrote about her daughter's experience with getting into college: An Unschooling Path to College. Amy currently works as an NYC photographer. You can follow here on Instagram @AMilsteinphoto
Leave your questions below in the comments - or ask in our Unschooling Mom2Mom Facebook group. We'll get the questions over to Amy.