One of the methods to legally homeschool in the state of California is to enroll in a private independent study program (ISP). These programs are referred to by a variety of terms including umbrella school or cover program; regardless of what it is called, the standard term is a private school which offers an independent study program. This article will examine how these programs operate; the benefits and negatives of enrolling in a private ISP and what to look for when choosing one for your family.
The Private ISP Option
The private ISP is operated as a business, frequently by veteran homeschool families. Families enroll their school-age children in these programs in much the same way one would enroll in a physical-setting private school. These programs file one R-4 private school affidavit covering all enrolled students each year with the county or state office of education. Private ISPs also maintain the cumulative record of each child. While the services offered by private ISPs can vary, these programs will generally serve as a liaison between enrolled families and any school officials which may question enrollment of the children and/or threaten truancy actions. If a family is removing a child from a public or private school, the private ISP will most likely request the child’s records be transferred.
Private independent study programs are not regulated by the state, county or local school districts, so each one brings unique and varied offerings to its enrolled families. These programs range from ultra-structured to minimal paperwork/maximum learning and everything in between, with no two being similar. The ultra-structured ones tend to require students to follow a prescribed curriculum for each grade level, along with a sheaf of paperwork (lesson plans, reports and such) to be completed by the parent/teacher. The majority of these programs can be expensive due to the cost of books and materials, tuition fees (sometimes for each child) and some private ISPs will assign each student a teacher or facilitator, who also charges a fee. Many of these programs will also require regular teacher-parent-child meetings to either go over the child’s work or lesson plans; while others will mandate “in-service” sessions for the parents (without their children).
The minimum paperwork/maximum learning programs are exactly that – they don’t require a lot of paperwork from either the parent or the child; nor do they require a specific curriculum or course of study. These programs tend to be less expensive and more user-friendly for the family who wishes to pursue their own style of learning while receiving less administrative input.
Other services offered by the private ISP could include: assisting the family in developing a curriculum; locating and/or loaning learning materials; classes on specific academic subjects; support group activities; field trips; newsletters; graduation or end-of-year ceremonies; student ID cards; virtually anything that the program director feels would be helpful to the families.
Private ISP versus R-4
The family who seeks the most amount of freedom to homeschool their children, would undoubtedly chose either the R-4 or private ISP option. What are some of the reasons why a family would opt for a private program over filing their own R-4? As with choosing to homeschool over traditional educational fare, determining which legal option you should follow is very much a personal issue. There is not one option that works for all families. Additionally, many families find that one particular option works for one academic year, while another option suits their needs for the next year.
There are three main reasons why a family would favor the private ISP over the R-4: privacy; less hassle when removing a child from school; and many newcomers feel more comfortable having someone a phone call or email away who is knowledgeable in homeschooling concerns, whether the issue is dealing with a truancy officer or just needing some reassurance that you’re not ruining your children by educating them at home.
Some families do not feel comfortable filing the R-4 because they need to provide identifying information (name, address and phone number) to a government office. Enrolling with a private ISP does not require the family to divulge this information to a public entity. The private ISP lists their information on the R-4; the only data that the state receives regarding enrolled children is nothing more than citing the number of students enrolled in each grade.
Less Hassle with School Officials
When a child has previously been enrolled in a school where their needs have not been met, the parents and school administrators/teachers frequently develop an adversarial relationship. To remove the child from school under these circumstances could potentially create problems for the family requesting the child’s records to be mailed to a “new” school which has the same address as the family. Additionally, those children who have been identified as learning disabled or another special need that has brought forth an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), may also be scrutinized. These IEPed children bring in more state and federal funds and schools do not want to lose them.
When you’re new to homeschooling, there is some level of comfort in being able to contact a veteran homeschooler to ask questions and express worries. Further, should a truancy officer ever show up at your door, you will be able to direct them to a “school” who will be able to verify enrollment.
I operated a private ISP and come in contact with attendance officers on a fairly regular basis. In one case a truancy officer contacted me to verify enrollment on a family who were homeschooling their numerous children. He told me that the district’s attendance office had received a complaint and they were required to investigate it. I verified enrollment, he thanked me and said that the case would be closed as the children were clearly in compliance with attendance laws since they were enrolled in a private school. A couple of weeks later the same officer phoned me again and apologetically told me that a problem remained and that his supervisor would like to speak with me. The supervisor also apologized and proceeded to tell me that a teacher residing in this family’s neighborhood had recently retired and was the one who had turned them in because their children were noisy. He said that he told her that the family was legally homeschooling and she told him that homeschooling was illegal. He was calling me back because while he knew that homeschooling was legal, he wasn’t familiar with the related education codes and he wondered if I could provide him with these codes (before he took the time to search for them on his own) so that he could set this person straight. I gave him the codes, he thanked me and I never heard from him again.
Choosing a Private ISP
Your family has decided that enrolling in a private ISP is the best option for you at this time. Now, how do you decide on which program will meet your family’s needs? Here are some tips to assist you in your search for a private ISP.
• Does the program share your educational philosophy or at least respect varying philosophies? These philosophies can include everything from standardized testing (if you are opposed to them, will the program honor this?) to religion (if they are Christian-based, will they respect your Pagan lifestyle?) Many programs simply do not care what a family’s lifestyle entails regarding religious, political affiliations or style of homeschooling; they simply are there to provide an administrative service while reserving judgment on you and your opinions.
• What is expected of the child and the parent regarding paperwork and other aspects of accountability?
• Does the private ISP tuition fees fit into your budget? Make sure that you are aware of all possible costs: does the tuition cover extras such as completing forms (concurrent enrollment in community college, etc.); proctoring tests; preparing transcripts; guidance sessions and anything else that is important to you.
• How does the private ISP administrator handle contacts with truancy threats and proceedings, as well as Child Protective Services (CPS)?
• Are you required to join the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) or other legal defense plan?
• If the program is not within the state of California, do they have someone residing in this state to file the R-4 for them? Keep in mind that enrolling in an out-of-state correspondence school is not a legal option by which to homeschool.
• Do you personally like the individual(s) running the private ISP? This may seem silly, but it is important that you are comfortable working and communicating with them. You have entered into something of a partnership with this program and its director(s) to protect your right to educate your children. If in your communications with the program staff, you consistently feel ignored or rushed and/or your ideas dismissed; then you need to ask yourself, “Is this the person I want as my advocate should my family ever get hassled by authorities?” Keep in mind that many private ISPs are operated by homeschooling families who may be busy or otherwise distracted at times when you call. If this should occur, inquire as to a better time to discuss your concerns by phone or in person. If this treatment is common practice, then it might be time to find a different program.
You are not locked into a private ISP for life. Many families will try one private ISP for awhile, find it doesn’t meet their needs and enroll in another program. Others will remove their children from school in mid-year, feel more comfortable enrolling in an established program and then decide to file the R-4 affidavit for the next school year. Homeschooling is about personal choice. The private independent study program is a choice well worth examining.
© 2001 by Lenore Colacion Hayes, M.S.