The ultimate guide to homeschooling and unschooling in Pennsylvania

Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling and Unschooling in Pennsylvania

Every so often, this map (courtesy of the Home School Legal Defense Association) makes the rounds among homeschool bloggers.

It talks about the degree of regulation that each state puts on its homeschoolers, and our state, Pennsylvania, is always rated among the most heavily regulated.

If you live in Pennsylvania, it’s probably not a surprise. Even homeschoolers elsewhere have heard the horror stories that home learning here is restrictive, hard to do, highly regulated and so on.

Yet our family has homeschooled successfully in Pennsylvania for two generations (during my teen years, and now during Sarah’s) with little issue.

That’s why I’ve made the time over the past few weeks to compile what I hope will be the ultimate guide to homeschooling and unschooling in Pennsylvania – because it’s VERY doable when you know the law.

Here’s who this guide is for:

  • Parents who want to homeschool in Pennsylvania but have heard it’s super-complicated.
  • People who want to understand the different options for education in Pennsylvania, like cyberschooling, charter schools and more – and how they compare with homeschooling.
  • Those already homeschooling in Pennsylvania who aren’t sure what the law really requires.
  • Parents of homeschooled middle- and high-schoolers who are concerned about diplomas and transcripts.
  • Unschooling or relaxed homeschooling families who aren’t sure how to produce the right documentation without a traditional curriculum.
  • Pennsylvania families (homeschoolers AND otherwise!) who are looking for fun field trips around the state.

That’s a big list, right? Mostly, I encourage you to read through and see how we’re making homeschooling work in our home state – even if not all these areas apply to you.

I love living in Pennsylvania – and I hope I can shine a light on some of the resources that have helped us homeschool without a problem, and while having a great time!

As a full-disclosure disclaimer, I’ve got to be very clear: I’m not a lawyer, and my interpretations of the law aren’t to be taken as “legal advice” of any sort!

Pennsylvania homeschool laws: An overview

Note: This guide is up-to-date with the October 2014 changes to the Pennsylvania homeschool law to the best of my understanding. As I said above, I’m no lawyer, but this info is current as I understand it.

If I can impress nothing else on you, please know this: The best thing you can do in Pennsylvania is read the homeschool law yourself. Read it over and over. Read it some more. Next month, read it again. Do it again the month after that. It is a bunch of legalese, but it is understandable, and your absolute best safeguard in any situation is to truly know what is and isn’t required. I can’t tell you how much this has helped me personally!

You can read the law on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website here. You can also check out more info via the Home School Legal Defense Association site.

I also heartily recommend – and you’ll hear plenty about this throughout this guide – the amazing Ask Pauline website, which truly is an ultimate guide of ultimate guides to Pennsylvania homeschooling.

Specifically, Pauline’s Guide to Pennsylvania Law is a great walkthrough of what you need to know. I encourage you to read through this guide, then come back, click that link, and read through it and all the links contained in it; if you do that, you will know more about the PA law than most school district administrators!

We’ll come back to the specific documentation requirements for homeschoolers in Pennsylvania in a little bit, but the bottom line is this: If you have a high-school diploma or the equivalent, and if no adult living in your home and/or having custody of your child has a felony conviction, you are legally qualified to homeschool in Pennsylvania.

Cyberschooling, private tutoring and cover-schooling in Pennsylvania

Before we start talking about what homeschooling requires, let’s talk about some things that aren’t homeschooling, at least in a legal sense, in Pennsylvania.

One of the biggest things “mistaken for homeschooling,” as it were, is the cyber charter school program. You might be familiar with programs such as Commonwealth Connections Academy, PA Cyber, Agora, PA Distance Learning, PA Leadership Charter School, PA Virtual Charter School, 21st Century Cyber Charter School and more. We have friends in many of these programs, and while the material and approach vary slightly between them, they all have much in common.

Under Pennsylvania law, cyber charter schools are the legal equivalent of public schools. That means that your children, if enrolled in a cyber charter, are subject to all state public-school testing (such as the PSSA tests and Keystone exams), and will have their curriculum chosen for them based on the state’s prescribed standards.

Maybe that’s OK; in our family’s case, we are not in agreement with some of Pennsylvania’s procedures, including the pending move to Common Core, and we did not want to use a program of learning-at-home that applied the public-school standards and selections.

The tradeoff is, if that works for you (for instance, if everything about public school was fine for your child, but they need the ability to work from home instead of at school), there is no paperwork or documentation requirement on the parents of cyberschoolers. Again, it’s just like sending your child to public school.

Private tutoring is another piece of the Pennsylvania education-at-home system that is often misunderstood. It is homeschooling (and, in fact, falls under “Act 169,” or the Pennsylvania Homeschool Law of 1988) but it is more specific: It is homeschooling done by someone with a Pennsylvania teaching certificate, who only teaches members of one family, and who receives payment or other consideration for their service.

This is a great option because it has the potential to require significantly less paperwork and regulatory oversight for the homeschooling family, but it is often misunderstood (even by various “experts” across the state!) I highly recommend the Ask Pauline page on private tutoring for details on this option if you or someone you know is a certified teacher in Pennsylvania.

Our only personal experience with this option comes from friends of Sarah’s are homeschooled by their grandmother under the private tutor code in our district, and it has worked out quite well for them! As with other options, this is a case where being informed will make all the difference.

An option that is prevalent in many other states but not, really, in Pennsylvania is that of a cover school or umbrella school. In this system, your child is enrolled as a student in a “private school” recognized by the state, but that school’s students are all studying independently at home under the guidance of their parents. Then, rather than reporting to the local public school district as traditional homeschoolers would, these families “report” to the cover school.

Cover schools are not addressed in Pennsylvania’s homeschooling law. This is important to note, because some of them exist – but how your district treats them is up for debate! I highly recommend reading up on these via Ask Pauline’s cover school page, and I’ll echo her key advice: Most people who use what in other states would be considered a “cover” school still do and should file PA homeschooling paperwork and documentation as if they were homeschooling without it.

So we keep talking about these other things that aren’t what you’re probably here to hear about: Standard homeschooling in Pennsylvania. So how does that work? That’s what we’ll talk about next!

Required documentation in Pennsylvania: Overview

The are, essentially, either 5 or 6 paperwork items that you are required to have as a Pennsylvania homeschooler. Two (or three, depending on your situation) come at the beginning of the year (or the beginning of the homeschool program if you’re withdrawing your student mid-year) and three come at the end of the year.

The October 2014 changes to the law make drastic changes to which of these items need to be submitted to your school district superintendent at the end of the year, but not to the start-of-year documentation.

At the start of the year, you must provide to your district:

  • A notarized affidavit.
  • A list of objectives for each child in the homeschool program.
  • If your child has been identified by the school district as a child with a disability and has an IEP in place, your objectives for that student must have a pre-approval by a qualified party, and that preapproval becomes the third item required just in those cases.

Get sample copies of some of our family’s documentation


· Our 2012-13 seventh-grade history AND science portfolio sections, done from a radical unschooling style
· Sample secondary objectives (editable)
· Sample official homeschool transcript (editable)
· Sample letter revoking consent for IEP (editable)

All are free for Unschool RULES email subscribers. Get your copies here.

At the end of the year, you must meet with an evaluator (more on this later) and share with them a portfolio including:

  • A log, by date, showing materials read (commonly called the book log).
  • Proof of attendance showing the appropriate number of days and hours completed.
  • Samples of work from a variety of areas.
  • Only if your child is considered to be in 3rd, 5th or 8th grade, the results of an accepted standardized test.

After meeting with your evaluator, you will receive a certification letter from that person confirming that your student has made continuing progress.

That, and only that, must be submitted to your school district’s superintendent by June 30 of each year.

Let’s go into each of these items in detail.

The notarized affidavit for Pennsylvania homeschoolers

Believe it or not, this is the simple part. You just need to swear in writing, and have it notarized, that you meet certain stipulations:

  • That instruction will be given in English
  • That the person supervising the home-education program is the student’s parent or legal guardian
  • That said parent or legal guardian has a high school diploma or equivalent
  • That the student has received any immunizations required by law (or that the student has a religious or medical exemption to the same)
  • That the student has received any other health and medical services required by law
  • That no adult living in the home or any person having legal custody of the student has been convicted of particular crimes within the past 5 years
  • And that the home-education program will comply with the state’s provisions

In all these cases, your statement in the affidavit is enough. You should never need to submit a copy of your high school diploma, a vaccination record, a criminal clearance or any other “supporting documentation.”

There are districts that will ask for these things. Normally, a polite, “Actually, the statement in the affidavit is considered fully sufficient under the law” will end the issue; I have to use this each year when I don’t provide a copy of my daughter’s medical records.

You can find many sample affidavits online. The Pennsylvania Home Education Network’s affidavit form is available here; The Christian Homeschool Association of Pennsylvania’s affidavit form is here; and finally, there are also many details and sample forms available on Ask Pauline here.

Objectives and special-education preapproval

Wow, I hear a lot of people stress out about the objectives that they’re required to file with their school district at the beginning of the year.

“Do I have to list out all the curriculum I plan to use?”
“What if I don’t plan to use standard curriculum?”
“What if we don’t do all the things we say we’re going to do?”

The answers to these are NOPE, DOESN’T MATTER and ALSO DOESN’T MATTER!!

Ask Pauline offers a huge list of sample objectives here. These have been submitted by real Pennsylvania homeschoolers, using a variety of styles, across a variety of ages and grade levels.

Here’s a hint: These can be broad! For example, here are the science objectives I submitted this year.

SCIENCE

  • Student will increase her scientific knowledge through experimentation, observation, museum visits, classes and reading.
  • Student will continue to pursue focused advanced scientific study in areas of interest, including zoology and chemistry.

That’s it. It’s also likely what I’ll submit next year, and the year after that… which is the great thing. The phrase “appropriate for her age, interest and ability level” appears multiple times in our objectives – because it means that we’ll do the same type of thing, with changes as Sarah becomes more skilled.

Don’t stress too much about these. Resist the urge to over-specify. The law clearly states that “The required outline of proposed education objectives shall not be utilized by the superintendent in determining if the home education program is out of compliance.”

There is one particular case in which you have one extra step to do here. If your child has been officially identified by your district as a child with a disability – which, essentially, means if you were a former public-schooler with an IEP in place, as we were – your objectives need to be pre-approved by a person meeting particular criteria before they’re submitted to the district.

To pre-approve objectives for a student with a disability under this law, you must be:

  • A teacher with a valid certificate from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to teach special education, or…
  • A licensed clinical or certified school psychologist

This person does not need to be a current special-education teacher, nor does this person have to be your evaluator. We used Sarah’s psychologist to pre-approve when we first decided to remove her from public school, then her evaluator, and now a local psychologist who is also a homeschool mom.

There is generally not a “form” for preapprovals, but the professional should sign the objectives as well as print their full name and any relevant ID number or certification information.

This isn’t a huge deal, usually, once you find someone to do it regularly. The alternative is to terminate your child’s IEP, a process we’re actually sorting out now, but that comes with both pros and cons. (You can read more about that option at Ask Pauline and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.)

The book log requirement for Pennsylvania homeschoolers

One part of the portfolio required each year for Pennsylvania homeschoolers is what many of us call the “book log.”

Specifically, the state law requires the portfolio to include “a log, made contemporaneously with the instruction, which designates by title the reading materials used.”

There’s a lot of debate and interpretation wiggle room in that statement, and I can’t begin to do it justice, but (as is the case for so much of this Pennsylvania homeschooling stuff), Pauline of Ask Pauline has an amazing resource on logs here.

I can tell you that we log our books read with the date, generally as we go, using this book log form. (Yep, that’s from Ask Pauline too; in fact, there are a bunch of varieties of log forms available here!)

In sixth and seventh grades, we literally only included books. Moving forward, I might begin including relevant movies, video games, TV shows and more, to help as we create a high-school transcript for Sarah. I’m not sure yet; I am definitely not a fan of providing more than the law requires!

Standardized testing requirements for Pennsylvania homeschoolers

The last thing I mentioned in end-of-year requirements states that you must include in your portfolio, “in grades three, five and eight results of nationally normed standardized achievement tests in reading/language arts and mathematics or the results of Statewide tests administered in these grade levels” if you’re homeschooling but NOT operating under the private tutor law.

Don’t get too freaked out about this. It does not mean that your child needs to take the PSSA or the Keystone Exams (the public-school assessments given in our state). It does not mean that if your child scores “poorly” that they will “fail” or anything of the sort. In fact, at worst, your evaluator may ask supplemental information.

When you turn in your evaluator’s approval, it would be rare, but if your district were to feel that you were not making adequate progress in your family’s education, officials there could ask for supplemental information, or request a hearing, but that is incredibly uncommon.

The most I’ve heard done regularly is that some parents will include a brief note if their child scores below their overall skill level with some explanation. That is certainly not required and may, in fact, draw more attention to the scores than is merited!

The evaluator is tasked with looking for “progress.” That means that test scores, while part of what you’ll submit a few times, are not by themselves a make-or-break.

You also have your choice of several tests. According to the State Department of Education’s circular (read more here), you can choose:

  • California Achievement Test
  • Comprehensive Testing Program (CTPIV)
  • Iowa Test of Basic Skills
  • Metropolitan Achievement Test
  • Peabody Achievement Individual Test – Revised Version
  • Stanford Achievement Test
  • Terra Nova
  • Woodcock Johnson Revised Tests of Achievement III
  • Wechsler Individual Achievement Test III (WIAT-III)
  • … or the PSSAs

There are differences between each that make research important. In our family, we only had one year of required testing (eighth grade) as homeschoolers, since we pulled Sarah out of public school midway through sixth grade. Sarah completed the CAT, or the California Achievement Test, which we chose because it can be administered in the home either online or on paper as long as it’s proctored by an adult who is not the supervisor of the home-education program.

We had actually considered, briefly, having Sarah take the PSSA, which I hate, but which she knows “how to take” because of her public-school indoctrination. In the end, we left the choice up to her, and I admit I’m glad she chose the CAT!

Some tests will require a specific type of person to administer. As always, the Ask Pauline website is a great resource here, with pros and cons of various tests listed on the testing page, as well as a ton of other great information, including details on testing levels (for instance, if I wanted, I would NOT have to give Sarah the eighth-grade CAT!) and how to actually get tests to administer.

Above all, I encourage you not to stress about this. One of the biggest downfalls of Sarah’s public-school career was the district’s need to teach to the PSSA. I am so glad that we have the freedom in homeschooling not to do that; why would I worry about something that will take us less than 3 hours?

Pennsylvania homeschooling portfolio requirements

So you’ve got your book log. You’ve got your standardized test results if your student was in third, fifth or eighth grade. Soon, you’ll head to your evaluator meeting (and we’ll talk more about that soon).

Meanwhile, there’s one final portfolio requirement. It says you should include “samples of any writings, worksheets, workbooks or creative materials used or developed by the student.”

If I can impress nothing else on you, let me say this: Don’t go crazy on samples. Seriously. You do not need to include the end-of-chapter test from every textbook you use. You don’t even need to include any “graded” material, and we’ll talk more about that when we talk specifically about unschooling in Pennsylvania.

Your evaluator may have a specific number of samples he or she prefers. We’ll talk more about that in a minute, but please know that you have a lot of leeway in what a “sample” might be. In our family, we don’t do worksheets or textbooks. Many of our samples are photos from trips, blog posts, etc.

Some evaluators will only want to see your log, an attendance statement, test scores (if applicable) and one or two samples. Others expect to see a large number of work samples as part of the documentation they receive. Once again, Ask Pauline offers an amazing portfolio walkthrough.

One final note about portfolios: Somewhere in what you submit to your evaluator, you need to verify that you’ve met the state’s attendance requirements – either 180 days of education or an appropriate number of hours (900 for elementary students, 990 for secondary students).

Some people use a log to track this – for instance, I use this ultra-simple calendar; I bet you can’t guess where it’s from, can you?

Meanwhile, other people believe that a statement in your portfolio (usually in a cover letter) attesting that you’ve met your required number of days or hours can and does suffice. A lot of this is also evaluator-dependent; in our case, it’s no extra work to keep my super-simple calendar, and it helps me have an idea of where we “are” in terms of our documentation for the year.

Working with your evaluator and your school district in Pennsylvania

Finding an evaluator who’s a good fit for your family is the single biggest job you have as a Pennsylvania homeschooling parent.

In fact, we “evaluator-shopped” last year and chose a new evaluator because our previous one, while very nice, was not someone Sarah was comfortable with.

In our family’s case, a lot of our portfolio documentation comes in the form of photos and travel brochures, and during the evaluation, the evaluator will often want to hear from the student about what he or she learned, especially at the secondary level. Well, when Sarah is not comfortable, she… Just. Doesn’t. Talk. (Uhoh.) WAY too stressful.

Our new evaluator works in a style much more comfortable to Sarah (most of the questions are done in writing, with the interview part very informal). She also asks for a much smaller number of samples that’s way more in keeping with how I read the law. (Our previous evaluator wanted 10 samples in every “subject,” much more than the state law requires.)

For more on choosing an evaluator who’s a good fit, of course I recommend the Ask Pauline guide. CHAP, the Christian Homeschool Association of Pennsylvania, offers a large, searchable list of evaluators here.

A few notes about finding an evaluator, just based on my experience:

  • Find an evaluator that is comfortable evaluating for your style and your family’s needs.
  • If you need to have objectives pre-approved for special education, while that CAN be done by some evaluators, it does not have to be done at the same time.
  • Understand the criteria for evaluating; many families have an educator friend who qualifies and who could provide the evaluation if willing. The law extends beyond current working teachers to any teachers with valid credentialing – retirees, for instance, qualify.
  • While people who are not teachers can evaluate under the “other qualifications” provision, the school district does reserve final say in accepting those evaluations, and you need to get them OK’d ahead of time. There was an evaluator WELL-known in my area (a longtime homeschool mom and consummate professional) and I believe every school district in my county accepted her – except mine. So double-check first!
  • A clinical or school psychologist is another option for evaluations, one not often explored. If your child meets with one regularly, consider whether that might work!

Graduation requirements for Pennsylvania homeschoolers

Let me be super-clear about one thing up front: You do not need to use a “diploma program” to graduate your child from a homeschool program in Pennsylvania. While such programs exist, the law is clear – and, I believe, helpful – in that it lists out some basic requirements, and if your child meets them, they are a high-school graduate. It’s that simple.

And, with the October 2014 changes to the law, the diploma you issue as a parent, signed by your child’s 12th-grade evaluator, holds exactly the same weight as any other diploma issued in Pennsylvania. (The Department of Education is supposed to making publicly available on its website the diploma form that must be used, but as of December 2014, nothing yet; I’ll keep you posted!)

So what is required?

There are two parts to the law. First, at the secondary level (between seventh and 12th grades), you need to reflect the following courses for your student:

  • English, to include language, literature, speech and composition
  • Science
  • Geography
  • Social studies, to include civics, world history, history of the United States and Pennsylvania
  • Mathematics, to include general mathematics, algebra and geometry
  • Art
  • Music
  • Physical education
  • Health
  • Safety education, including regular and continuous instruction in the dangers and prevention of fires.

The law also says “Such courses of study may” (emphasis mine) “include, at the discretion of the supervisor of the home education program, economics, biology, chemistry, foreign languages, trigonometry or other age-appropriate courses…”

Notice what the law does not say.

  • It does NOT say that you need to include any of these courses every year.
  • It does NOT say that you need to have a year-long course on geometry, algebra, civics or speech.
  • It does NOT say that you need to represent foreign-language study. 

These are some of the biggest misconceptions I hear about homeschooling high school, and I am again here to reassure you that it is doable. In this case, a “homeschooling high school expert,” Donna Botterbusch, who was for many years before moving out of Pennsylvania an evaluator in my area, says it best. She said in a workshop I attended last year that the law gives us a lot of freedom in this area.

And this isn’t something you have to lay out in a nice neat document (though I’ll talk about how you might choose to do that later). Essentially, this is a standard that your evaluator will be looking at to help measure whether your child has made consistent progress, and it’s a framework that allows you to know that what you’re doing stands up to any challenge!

Now, specifically to graduate, here’s what the law says:

The following minimum courses in grades nine through twelve are established as a requirement for graduation in a home education program:

  • Four years of English
  • Three years of mathematics
  • Three years of science
  • Three years of social studies
  • Two  years of arts and humanities

Let me say it again: If you meet these requirements, your student is a high-school graduate.

There are certainly “requirements” above and beyond this for admission to certain colleges. However, if college is in your child’s future, I encourage you to simply start a dialogue early (freshman or sophomore year) with a few schools of interest. Many have arrangements that go beyond their printed or online admissions policy.

In some cases, for instance, there may be a foreign-language “prerequisite” that can, with arrangement through the admissions department, actually be taken as a summer college course.

Knowing what goal you’re shooting for will help you know how you best want to work with your child to meet it!

For details, you can read much more about homeschooling high school in Pennsylvania on Ask Pauline.

Finally, one last thought: Keeping a good transcript, while not legally required in any way, is an excellent plan. I have already started keeping Sarah’s, and I’m following the guidelines of 120 hours of study as a full credit in any subject, 90 hours as three-quarters of a credit, 60 hours as a half-credit and 30 hours as a quarter-credit. This came from the Homeschooling High School workshop I attended locally with Donna Botterbusch, but you can read a variation of it from HSLDA here.

(And, if you’re within driving distance of York County in central PA, keep an eye on this page for info on upcoming Homeschooling High School workshops offered by the York Homeschool Assocaition. WELL worth a trip.)

Important ages and dates for Pennsylvania homeschoolers

  • Age 8: The beginning of compulsory school age in Pennsylvania (mostly/kinda). If your child has never attended another school and doesn’t live in the Philadelphia School District, you do not need to file any kind of home-education paperwork until the school year in which they either are 8 or will turn 8 within the first 2 weeks of the school year. There are a bunch of complicating factors here, including past attendance in a public-school first grade and a bunch of other weirdness; all I can do here is refer you to Ask Pauline for details!
  • Third grade: The first year in which standardized testing results must be included in your end-of-year documentation.
  • Fifth grade: The second year in which standardized testing results must be included in your end-of-year documentation.
  • Eighth grade: The third and final year in which standardized testing results must be included in your end-of-year documentation.
  • Age 17: The end of compulsory education requirements (mostly/kinda). There’s weirdness here, too, including reasons why you might want to continue to file paperwork even after your child turns 17, if they haven’t yet graduated. Again, Ask Pauline can help!
  • June 30 of each year: The last day you may complete your “educational year,” both in terms of meeting the days/hours requirement and the date by which you must submit your evaluator’s letter to your school district.
  • July 1 of each year: Assuming you’ve filed your affidavit and objectives by this time, the first date which you may begin counting days/hours for the new school year.
  • Aug. 1 of each year: The date by which, if you’ve homeschooled in previous years, you must file an affidavit and objectives with your school district. (There is no date requirement if you’re unenrolling your child from another school mid-year; you can file your affidavit and start at any time in that case.)

Unschooling in Pennsylvania

Let me be as clear here as I can be: Unschooling is legal. Unschooling is legal in Pennsylvania. You just have to know how to fit what it is that you do into the state laws, which I can tell you is very doable with a little practice.

And there is one key tip to start with:


Get sample copies of some of our family’s documentation


· Our 2012-13 seventh-grade history AND science portfolio sections, done from a radical unschooling style
· Sample secondary objectives (editable)
· Sample official homeschool transcript (editable)
· Sample letter revoking consent for IEP (editable)

All are free for Unschool RULES email subscribers. Get your copies here.

Keep good records. 

An unschooling family of my acquaintance recently faced some pretty close scrutiny from their district because their portfolio was missing some information. I’m not suggesting you overcomply and send in a picture from every day of the year or anything like that – far from it. (And with the new reporting requirements, your district no longer sees your portfolio anyway!)

But if you want to be able to convince your evaluator that your learning-from-life lifestyle is working, YOU need to be prepared to hold up your end by showing them some of what you do, not just telling them, “Hey, we learned about x, y and z this year.”

The law requires us to show samples of work. It might not look like workbook pages or quizzes – our portfolio, for instance, is VERY heavy on photos from trips with a couple sentences about them – but be prepared to keep records that show you’ve done this awesome stuff!

Think broadly. This is my biggest unschooling takeaway. I resist the urge to fit our life into curriculumy-sounding boxes – except when it suits my need for appropriate documentation.

As I’ve worked on Sarah’s transcript, it’s been easier than I thought to fit the things we do into “classes” and “credits” – not for our use, but for Sarah’s future use pursuing work and higher education.

We won’t do “English 9″ on a transcript. But we’ll definitely have a credit course reflecting “Literary analysis and film adaptation study.” Sounds neat, right? It’s something we do ALL THE TIME. We read books, and we watch movies based on them, and we talk about the differences. We don’t do it because it’s part of a “course,” but done over four or five years, it certainly adds up to one!

Be willing to think broadly. Match up things that seem unrelated at the time later on when you see a theme. (And guess what? That’s much more easily done when you’re keeping good records… see how that works?)

Know the law. Realize that graded material is not required or even discussed in the law. (Some evaluators may ask for it, but you have the right to choose a different evaluator if so!)

Realize that you don’t need to provide a “course” in speech or civics or any other topic that is listed in the law to be covered.

Realize that providing “samples of work” does not require you to frantically print out worksheets during the third week of June and sit your child down to do two dozen so you have them for the portfolio.

Realize that learning from life is OK. Take a deep breath. You can do this.

Most of all, don’t freak out. If you’re really interested in this topic, reach out to me. I actually do unschool “consulting” of a sense to help people make it work in Pennsylvania, and I’m always glad to chat about how we do it!

Awesome Pennsylvania homeschool field trips

I’m pretty astounded at all the cool places we’ve been able to go (and plan to go in the future) in Pennsylvania. This list could go on for miles. I’m including just a relative few of the places you might travel in-state and see cool stuff, but I’d be thrilled to hear your suggestions in the comments as well!

Western Pennsylvania

Central Pennsylvania

Eastern Pennsylvania

You can find an even more extensive list of Pennsylvania field trips here; the ones I’ve listed are just some highlights from our experiences.

Even more great resources

First of all, if YOU have books, websites, field trip ideas or other resources on homeschooling in Pennsylvania, please leave me a comment below! I’ll keep updating this guide with as many great resources as possible.

Some assorted other notes:

  • Did you know that, IF you want to use it, your school district must provide you with a copy of all texts and instructional materials your child would use in public school? Most homeschooling parents I know don’t want to use the public school’s curriculum, but if you want it in full or part, it’s a great FREE way to get materials you might not otherwise be able to.
  • School districts are generally required to allow Pennsylvania homeschoolers to participate in extracurricular activities like sports as well. You can read more about extracurriculars and homeschoolers on the Pa. Dept. of Education website here.
  • In Dillsburg, here in central Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Curriculum Exchange is a large store offering new and used curriculum for homeschoolers.
  • There are more local homeschool support groups than I could list here and try to cover the whole state. I highly encourage you to search online for your county’s name and “homeschooling,” and also, check out Facebook. I LOVE my York County homeschoolers Facebook groups!
  • One of my favorite fellow Pennsylvania homeschool bloggers is Judy of Contented at Home. After Ask Pauline, Judy is my top recommendation from today’s post! Specifically, if you want to learn about Pennsylvania, I highly recommend her Ultimate Guide to Famous Pennsylvanians and Ultimate Guide to Famous Pennsylvanians. These are AMAZING learning guides.

iHomeschool Network ultimate guides to homeschooling series This post is part of the iHomeschool Network’s Ultimate Guides series.

Click the image at right to see great tips from some of my fellow bloggers on everything from homeschooling gifted learners to field trips for homeschoolers to establishing a reading culture in your home!

60 thoughts on “The ultimate guide to homeschooling and unschooling in Pennsylvania

  1. Thank you so much! This is exactly what I needed. Shifting from unit studies to unschooling has been amazing, but stressful because we’ve always sent in huge portfolios containing samples, and this year, well…they’re a little sparse. I was planning on using photos, like you said, and my logs are very detailed to a fault. As for standardized tests, I, too, will be using CAT online this year. We used it last year for two of my daughters, and I like that it can be administered at home with no proctor. I am definitely bookmarking this. BTW, Jim Thorpe is beautiful. The mountains are stunning. I always love driving through there.

    • Oh, I’m so glad! I was hoping you’d stop back and take a look!! Our portfolio is going to be a bit different this year too, and it’s funny, but writing this post has helped me be less nervous, too, because I’m reassuring myself of what the law expects!

  2. wowee, this is impressive. I don’t live in PA, but I’m going to share EVERYWHERE so that any homeschoolers that do can benefit from your knowledge and experience. You should be incredibly proud of what a great resource you’ve created!

    • Kerry, wow, thanks!! That means a ton! I hope this can also be a resource or at least an encouragement to people who live in other highly-regulated states, or who aren’t sure how to get familiar with their state’s laws, or whatever. I appreciate you!

  3. This sounds like a wonderfully complete look at PA law. Impressive. I’m just mostly curious why an unschooler would reference the HSLDA, an ideological organization more antithetical to unschooling than any state agency.

    • Frank, I’m not a member of HSLDA, but I have no problem with them. I guess my take is, much like any organization you can voluntarily choose to join, you have to decide whether the benefits (in my case, I personally know people whom HSLDA has helped in court, INCLUDING many unschoolers) outweigh any concerns you have. I haven’t joined mostly because I live in a fairly amiable district and have had no problems, but I don’t feel strongly either way and their free resources are good. I always recommend you vet any organization you choose to join, and decide whether it’s a fit. (For what it’s worth, I don’t find most state agencies operate against unschooling, either; in fact, there are members of the PDE unschooling their children. It’s more at the local level that I see problems, and I see them more from lack of knowledge than intentional hostility.)

  4. My son is only four, so we are a few years away from worrying about paperwork, but this post is exactly what I was looking for! Great info- thanks so much!

  5. Pingback: How to Get Started with Homeschooling in the US | Trivas Foundation
  6. Pingback: How to Get Started with Homeschooling in the USA | Trivas Foundation
  7. This is good stuff. I do have a question, if you are part of a co-op, how many hours/days are legal for someone, other than you, allotted to teach your child?

    • Debbie, there’s nothing in the law about who must provide the instruction. You must be the supervisor of the home education program – and that means it’s up to you to be in compliance – but you can have someone else teach your child 100% of the time if you like! The private tutor law deals with what happens when one person who is a certified teacher gives all of the education, but as a “traditional” homeschooler not using private tutoring, you can use co-ops, things like online classes, and for high-schoolers dual enrollment with higher learning institutions, all with no problem. When I was homeschooled, my parents “team-taught” me with a friend of mine, also homeschooled, and her parents then had us on alternating days.

  8. This helps me so much. I may personally email you if you’re still willing to chat in a year or two. My daughter is only going on three but I am very interested in homeschool/unschool but NOBODY agrees with this decision. :-(

    • Brooke, ABSOLUTELY let’s stay in touch. It’s hard when you don’t feel like you have any support system in place, and I’m always glad to talk. Thanks for saying hi!

  9. HI Joan! I just had to say I love your blog! I am a Pennsylvanian mom of 3 small children and i am about to start homeschooling my oldest for kindergarten this fall. I am so excited to have found your site and I’m sure I will be using your amazing list of educational field trip places in Pennsylvania!

  10. Joan, It is with gratitude and relief that I have found you! (Although I will say that the download link on the page to look at samples did not work for me) I have a 7 year old who I have been homeschooling/unschooling and getting my mind wrapped around all the paperwork and pa laws is making me nervous! I can’t find any other homeschooling like minded moms in my district, but your site has brought me such peace of mind that it can be “legally” done and I do not need to compromise what I feel is right for my child. Any advice you can give me for preparing to submit my affidavit next year and keeping my books for that first portfolio would be greatly appreciated. I would love to see another example of another “first grader”. (I fear I am over-thinking this)
    Sincere thanks for providing this valuable information for other PA moms like me.

  11. Joan, i absolutely love this post!! As a fellow PA homeschooler it’s taken me a lot of courage to let go and embrace life learning in our home. I might not always have a product to put in the portfolio, but it has been so worth it. Love Judy’s blog too!! So many helpful resources for the PA peeps!!

    • Kirsten, thanks! We PA families gotta stick together. I love knowing that even in a state with laws like ours, it’s totally “doable” to homeschool in a way that is authentic to your family, you know?!

  12. So glad to have found your site. I’ve heard many horror stories about home schooling in Pennsylvania, so I felt the need to start researching early. I look forward to checking out your site & the resources you shared.

    • Meghan, I’m so glad you found us! It can be done – and I hear horror stories too, but I love reassuring people that it isn’t impossible at all! Good luck on your homeschooling journey.

  13. Thank you so much for this site. I just decided to switch my kids from cyber school to homeschool. I was so nervous, but this information makes me feel much better. My only concern now is finding a great evaluator. Im not sure what to ask them to know if they are a good fit.

    • Wendy, nice to hear from you! The biggest things we’ve talked to evaluators about are what types of documentation they prefer to see. We had one tell us they wanted 10 samples of work PER SUBJECT, divided by subject; that wasn’t a good fit for us and we moved on! The other big winner for us was an evaluator who would do an evaluation either in distance format (Skype/email) or at our home. Sarah does not do well in new places sometimes, especially if she’s nervous, so we didn’t want to add that to the list of worries!

  14. I am a sophomore in high school and want to be homeschooled. I am trying to convince my parents into letting me do it, but they don’t think it is a good idea. I am tired of sitting in school and learning about all kinds of stuff that doesn’t interest me and things that have no real world application. I really want an education system that is more tailored to my interests. Not to mention getting to sleep in. I was curious if you had any ideas to help me convince my parents to let me be homeschooled.

    • Alex, sorry it took me so long to get back to you! This is a really tough conversation to have. I think my biggest advice would be to find out what your parents’ biggest concerns or objections are, and specifically make a list of the resources and ideas you have that would overcome them. Maybe they’re concerned about you getting into college; maybe it’s a matter of the time they have available to help; maybe they’re worried about whether you’ll see friends, etc. All of those are things you can and should talk about together.

      Do I promise it’ll work, no – but I’ve successfully helped spearhead some conversations about homeschooling and cyberschooling as options among several friends when their kids approached me about it. If you guys are all talking together about it, that’s your best chance – and it’s good no matter what, because if you do end up staying in the school you’re at, at least maybe you’ll all be on the same page about what its value is (and isn’t).

      I hope you’ll keep me posted on your journey, and if your parents need anyone to talk to, feel free to send them my way – joan@unschoolrules.com!

  15. Joan,
    It was lovely meeting you this evening. You were enthusiastic and engaging! You made sense. I was definitely inspired.

  16. I have my 8th grade son in cyber school currently. He has some learning issues and has an IEP. I am considering homeschooling, but am concerned about the 8th grade testing. I was opting him out of PSSAs this year. Would it be better to let him finish the year in cyber school, so I don’t have to worry about the required testing for this year?

    Also are there any online resources that can be used for him as he has reading/writing issues and online things work much better for him than textbooks & worksheets.

    • Susan, thanks for reaching out! I could see you going either way with the required testing. One note is that if your IEP describes “testing alternatives,” they apply not just to the PSSA but to any other test he might take, like the CAT (the one we used), meaning your son could take it untimed, with help having the questions read to him, etc., all depending on what the IEP specifies. (We, for instance, did the CAT untimed, because that was specified in Sarah’s public school IEP, which we did not terminate until after testing.)

      There are TONS of great online resources out there, too, all depending on the style you’re interested in. Khan Academy offers a huge wealth of free video learning and that’s really my only specific “recommendation”; there are also full online-based curricula, everything from Monarch by Switched On Schoolhouse, which is a Christian online curriculum, to Time4Learning, to specific “course”-based sites like Uzinggo, which we reviewed before and liked but which is not a complete all-subjects curriculum… essentially, the great part is that you’d be able to find a variety of resources across, probably, all different “grade levels” for your son; the hard part is it’s some work to put that together!

  17. Hi Joan!i am currently using agora for our “homeschooling”and it has been a nightmare!My son and I are both miserable and dread each weekday!He is in fourth grade and this is our first time trying “homeschooling”.I have been trying to find a diff school or something!im at my wits end!He hates it and so do I!I am sooo grateful to you for all of this info!I wasn’t aware that you can unschool!Ive so often wished that we could do our own way of learning and now I know it’s possible!Thank you sooo much!This is what I needed at the right time!I was about to send him back to public school,which I didn’t want to do but felt like I had no other option.We live in the Pittsburgh area if you might know of any good evaluators here!I am def going to get on the ball with taking the necessary steps to bring joy back into learning!

  18. Dear Joan,

    As a longtime PA unschooling parent, I really enjoyed this article and will add it to what I recommend newbies to read, alongside old standby, askpauline.com.

    However, I am wondering if you could do another post on turning our portfolios into the love language of college. Lee Binz has a book that’s been very helpful to me so far called Setting the Record Straight that is as relaxed as it is professional. But the hard part is turning all of our wonderful unschool experiences into academic speak..

    This is why I locked right on to “Literary Analysis and Film Adaptation Analysis”. Oh! THAT’S what I should call the entire series of Harry Potter novels/movies we found so engaging! Ironically, English is the subject I’m having the hardest time with because it was my elder son’s strongest subject – such that, I don’t remember him learning so much as already knowing, having somehow absorbed reading, grammar, etc like a sponge along the way. After reviewing our portfolios, I had to sit him down and ask him how he remembered learning. He rattled off some things he recalled but his final answer was amazing – he said “I learned contextually”. Ok, somebody let this kid into college right now based on that statement right there, right? So there’s that plus you’re wonderful example.

    So what do you think about adding a blog post of noteworthy class title examples or a guide on how to translate unschool ports into the love language of colleges?????

    Elaine

    • Elaine, that sounds like a great idea! Right now I’m working on adding that to a presentation I’m doing Feb. 10 as part of the iHomeschool Studio – if you happen to be able to check it out I’d love to have you join us (details at http://goo.gl/PgzlTc). Anyway, I will certainly see about doing a post on how we create “classes” and add them to our transcript after that session!

      Thank you so much for saying hello. I’m sending such good thoughts your way!

  19. First I want to thank you for all of this helpful information!! We are new to Pennsylvania and want to home school. I have lots of questions on where to start , could you help counsel me through this??

    • Samantha, thanks for your kind words! While I don’t have space in my official “consulting” schedule right now, I’m certainly glad to field any questions I can by email, it just might take a week or so for me to respond. Feel free to reach out to me at joan@unschoolrules.com!

  20. This was amazing info! I have wondered for many years what was involved in home schooling. This has helped me tremendously! I have a 7th grader now and he has asked to home school since 1st grade. I am a single parent and must work full time to make our ends meet. Is it possible to homeschool and work full time? I myself am in a quandary of life change with following life goals and dreams and where Ive always been “stuck”..i.e single full time worker. So it seems as though life would be totally unbalanced if its not possible to work as much as possible to get by while home schooling. However it is more important to give my child the life he would prefer outside of a public school. Any advise is appreciated! Thanks!

  21. Thank you so much!! Omg that’s crazy that you just enrolled! Congratulations! I am also currently a ft student as well pursuing a psych degree! Best wishes in your pursuit! Thank you I look forward to following up with what you sent and will have time to decide how it falls into place by the deadline for next year. Blessings!

  22. Joan, thank you so much for all of this and thank god it’s one of the first places I found! I want to start unschooling my daughter who just completed fourth grade. I’m nervous about getting the affidavit together. I’ll come back after I’ve gone through all these amazing resources you’ve provided. Thanks again!

    Sarah

  23. i am new to unschooling but not to homeschooling. We use to live in the city but now we live on a homestead in the country and i am trying to put together my portfolio and am looking for ideas of how to take my undocumented learning activities we did this year..ie, maple syrup, husbandry, documentaries, etc. and put them in a way in our portfolio that will satisfy the law to show progress in learning. i can surely use pic and have them write on them what they remembered but does that ideally show progress in learning for example in math. Also trying to fit subjects like math or more specifically addition or subtraction in each unit study say on maple syrup is a challenge to me. i know they are getting it and have scored very well on their proficiency tests just struggling to show progress in core subjects and do i have to show more specifically that they learned chemistry science in making maple syrup and the explanation of the chemistry they learned ie, boiling points and such, or is just having them write a sentence about what they remember on a pic & call it science enough to satisfy the law. I have also talked to maryalice newborn, founder of PHEA.net a freedom evaluators network that i use for my free evaluations. So my understanding from what she has said to me is that the daily 180day list is not required in the portfolio but that it is one way show the evaluator that progress is happening. She said, “Please dont go the day before you eval and ck off a sheet with 180days on it with several different color pens and think that you have to do that for me”. “Unless your child is in a comma they are learning 365days a year and you have fulfilled the law”. Which most of us do, lets be honest…lol…i would greatly appreciate any resources that you may use to show progress and any advise on specifics that help evaluators see progress is being made in core subjects. thanks

    • Monica, nice to “meet” you! You do not need to include a list of specific days by most accounts; a statement saying that 180 days of instruction were completed is fine. Every understanding I have, though, is that you do have to explicitly state it somehow. (In my case, I need a “date” the 180 days are completed for other reasons, so it’s easier just to check something off or keep a tally so I can see when that is!)

      Regarding showing progress, my advice is not to focus so much on the specific “subject area.” The evaluator’s job is to attest to “evidence of sustained progress.” When they see work in a portfolio that is new from what the student knew last year, that is evidence of sustained progress. One evaluator explained it to me that the question she asks herself is “Does this child know and understand more now than he or she did at this time last year?” And of COURSE the answer to that is going to be yes if you’re living in a living, learning lifestyle. So your job is not to prove that by showing three samples of math worksheets, it’s to “prove” it by showing the lifestyle. Does that make sense?

  24. Hi I have been going back and fourth on what is best and. More simple for my 3 kids who all have IEPS there ages are 8,9 and 11 all learning at lower grade levels we did pulic school and then all most 2 years of cyber school and now we want to do something less stressful on them but as I am new to this I am freaking out as I know I have to decide and get things done before the start of the school year and I have no idea were to began and if I can’t get everything done and I’m place they will have to continue another year in cyber school which is not working for us but we are making due so if you can help with any advice I would be so very greatful and the information you provided was very helpful thank you for that but as this is still something we never done before I am freaking out on how to even start so any help would be great thank you in advance

    • Nicole, deep breaths – you can do this! Honestly, the best thing you can do is to file your homeschooling paperwork and just get started. You don’t need anything fancy to start, nor a particular plan; you just need to file an affidavit and some BROAD objectives, which would have to be signed off by someone qualified since there are IEPs in place. But those objectives don’t mean you have to plan the whole year out; you just talk in broad terms about each child improving “appropriate for his/her age and ability” in a topic like arithmetic. Once you have your paperwork in place, my advice is to take some time and just spend it together. Find out what your kids are most interested in. See where they want to go, what they want to see. Read to and with them. Go places. Talk to people. Talk about life. Don’t worry about “school” – even if you don’t intend to go an unschooling route later, you need a break and this will help you frame out what might work for them moving forward. Is one kid a “doer” and another a reader and another a watcher? Do they like being outside? These are the kinds of things that can help you figure out what might work.

      One thing I’ll encourage you on is to forget about grade levels AT ALL as much as possible. It’s OK to work on second-grade work with a student who would be in fifth grade in public school, and in homeschooling, that’s not “behind” at all. Our daughter, Sarah, works at probably an early-middle-school level in some subjects and a college level in others, and the great thing is that in homeschooling that’s ALL fine! :)

  25. I would love to chat with you briefly as I start to home school my 6year old in Adams county. As a veteran teacher I feel comfortable unschooling (and excited!) With a mix of unit themes and living books philosophy. But everyone else has a curriculum or cyber. Also wondering about Littlestown’s history with homeschooling, if you or anyone else knows. Thank you! Hancockjulia@ymail.com

  26. Thank you for this info! So helpful! While I “homeschooled” each of my 3 children for KG–I wanted to be the one to teach them to read–I am now jumping in with both feet for my 7th grade son. TO say I was overwhelmed was an understatement, but with lots of great info like this article (and talking with other homeschooling families), I am beginning to turn the corner….

  27. I have a very unique situation that I’m thinking you will know the answer to! Our 17 year old daughter got accepted after her junior year to a college in VA. Our local PA high school said that she could complete her graduation requirements ( English and Math) at the college and would essentially graduate her after fall semester. She enrolled in classes and is slated to start college in the fall. Today I got a call from the high school principal that the superintendent doesn’t want to do this and cited the student handbook (there’s nothing in there to support his claim). We plan on fighting this, but I have a feeling we will lose. The superintendent is already not our biggest fan as we opt our kids out of standardized testing (Gasp!) SO, the college can keep her past fall semester without some kind of a diploma. She already meets PA graduation requirements, just not our local high school requirements. My question is (I know..already?) can I withdraw her from high school and then present her with a diploma from us? I know this is crazy, but we are desperate! She received a $52,000 scholarship and is so excited and proud that she could burst! Any help or advice you could give would be greatly appreciated!!

  28. I didn’t read all the comments but one thing I wanted to ask/mention is the PSSA tests for 5th ??

    Last year my son in 5th did not take any test. The school district called us and assumed we didn’t want to take the tests because they know we are crazy homeschoolers. Anyway… they told us to just write a letter. We just wrote a letter that said we were religiously and philosophically opposed to test taking and that our children will not be taking any required tests. They excepted this. But this site and ask Pauline both do not mention this as an.option. I just wanted to put this out there that it could be an option…or if we really do have to take the tests and the districts were wrong then maybe someone could tell me ??

    Thoughts anyone ?

    • Thanks for bringing up this question! In good news, it sounds like you have a very homeschool-friendly school district!

      Let me first say I’m not a lawyer and I can’t give you “official” advice. But I can say that as I read the law and as I have had it explained to me by the PDE and some homeschooling legal experts, standardized test scores are required in the portfolio you submit to your evaluator for a student in third, fifth or eighth grade. Now, since portfolios no longer go to the district (nor test scores), if you have an evaluator that doesn’t ask for them and signs a certificate of progress, it’s possible the district would not know, but that is not in keeping with what is asked in the law of evaluators.

      I also know people who have chosen to try to get around this requirement by using different “grade-level” systems (i.e. starting mandatory reporting with an eight-year-old in “4th grade”, then having said student do two years of fourth grade and then progress to sixth…)

      And speaking to exemptions in particular, PA law does not allow for a “philosophical objection,” only a religious one, for public-school students. (This is why some religious private schools are able to not give standardized tests.) This is specifically related to public-schoolers and the PSSAs, however.

      Again, I can’t give legal advice, but I can say none of this is in keeping with the law as I read it. That said, homeschoolers under Act 169 are absolutely NOT required to take PSSAs. There is a whole list of available standardized tests, and in our case, my daughter took the CAT, family-friend-proctored, at home, in eighth grade, with no issues, in about half a day. Given the flexibility to choose the test, to choose the test level administered, to proctor it at home, and to stay in compliance with the law as I understand it, that was well worth it to me!

      (Also, please know that test scores do not “pass” or “fail” your child for the year. Your evaluator is required to see them, and you are required to show “overall progress” through the year via your portfolio. But if you can do that and the test scores are less than what you’d hoped for, that alone is not the basis for whether your student meets the credentials put in front of evaluators for progress.)

      I am glad your district is agreeable, but I definitely want to go on record as saying that I do not read this as an option that would be defensible under law if a district or evaluator chose to question it!

Leave a Reply