Palomar aims to take the pressure off homeschool parents

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on September 27, 2013

From The News Desk

Homeschooling, once an option reserved mostly for religious zealots, has arrived for members of the general public. There's the beloved Khan Academy, which offers open course videos for teaching your children math and science. There's the rise of the cyber public school, where children "go to school" from home. There's Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), for advanced learners who want to see what higher-ed has to offer. And there's the flipped classroom, where kids watch videos for lessons and go to class to do homework. The Internet and YouTube have enabled any child to finish K-12 without ever leaving the comfort of their couch.

But despite all the resources available, parents who want to homeschool their kids must still do a lot of work, sorting through the recesses of the interwebs to put together lesson plans for every subject every day: worksheets, quizzes, video lessons, reading assignments.

That's what Sheri Wells, mother of two girls, realized when she moved her family to Palomar, San Diego, a quiet mountain town 45 minutes away from the nearest school. She couldn't believe the amount of time it took her to collect school material, so she decided to do something about it.

She spent the last two years aggregating videos, slideshows, tests, and other assets that met national common core standards for every grade K-12. September 3rd, she opened Palomar K12 up to the public, for any parents' perusal.

And she did it for free. There's other programs out there -- like pricy religious homeschool programs, or cyber schools tied to public school districts. There's fragmented lessons on Khan Academy, geared towards specific subjects like math. But it's much harder to find a free, comprehensive educational platform that's open to the public. Let alone one that includes materials for every subject in every grade, broken down into day by day lessons.

I spent a lot of time grilling Wells, trying to understand the method to the madness. How did she find the assets? Just googling, and picking random strangers' explanations of long division? She didn't have to get anything accredited? Is this how all parents homeschool their kids?

Turns out the answers are yes, yes, and yes. There's very little regulation of home school. In 11 states, parents who home school their kids don't even have to let the state know. In places with a little more regulation, like California, it's a simple matter of alerting the state to the fact that you're homeschooling. Only five states -- all in the North East -- require outside curriculum approval of what you're teaching. I guess for the other states the government is just like, "May the force be with you, and if it's not your child is screwed."

In contrast, teachers in schools have to get certified to teach, and then be under the curriculum guidance of a principal, who is following standards laid out by the district and set by the state. It boggles the mind that parents who want to homeschool their kids just can, without doing much else.

But since that's case, Palomar is helpful for those parents who do choose to homeschool. They can focus on teaching their students the lessons and assisting them with assignments, instead of spending spare time finding those lessons and assignments online. Wells says Palomar isn't meant to be a school -- it's meant to be a platform. Parents are the school, and Palomar is the content funnel for them to connect to.

Wells spent two painstaking years putting together all the lessons for every day and every grade herself. She estimates there's 16,000 lessons. She built the platform on Wordpress, and it's simple and looks amateurish. In terms of razzle dazzle user interface, you're getting what you pay for -- in this case nothing.

As for content, Wells isn't a teacher. She's a life long computer engineer. Would I feel comfortable teaching my (non-existent) children with lessons pulled from random corners of the Internet? Probably not. But according to Wells, this is how plenty of homeschool parents are already instructing their kids. Her platform is just a free, easy aggregation of content that they can use as a starting point each day. Plus, every lesson is tied to a Common Core standard, making it easier to adhere to national guidelines.

Till now, Wells has self-funded Palomar K12. She's considering raising money to grow the site, market it, and hire employees. But for the moment, she's happy just having a go-to-database of resources to teach her children every morning.

[Image via Thinkstock]