Homeschool Options: À La Carte vs. Boxed Program
What are my options when starting Catholic homeschooling? Do I need to sign up with a school or can I create my own homeschool? Do I want a boxed program or do I want to go a la carte?
I’ve participated in many online Catholic homeschooling forums over the years and had the opportunity to engage with persons at all stages of the homeschooling journey, from rookies to seasoned homeschoolers. I’ve also learned that you can often tell where someone is at on their homeschooling journey by the types of questions they ask. One telltale sign of a homeschooling newbie, for example, is when they come out of the gate with this question:
“So, what program does everybody use?”
Institutional Schools and Programmatic Approach
Institutional schools use a programmatic approach to education—children are educated by going through “the program,” where individual courses are all part of an overarching curriculum that governs students’ entire educational experience. Students follow the same core curriculum and coursework is based in large part on age and grade level.
If your only experience is with institutional schools, you are likely to view education through this programmatic lens. When such people first transition to homeschooling, they tend to take this paradigm with them. Often, they don’t think, “What new educational opportunities does homeschooling make possible?” At least not right away. Rather, they tend to think, “We are leaving one program. What new program will replace it?” Gradually, as they become acclimated to homeschooling life, they start to realize that they do not necessarily need a program at all. Sometimes, an à la carte approach is more desirable.
Now, a programmatic approach to education is not all bad! There are many excellent Catholic homeschooling organizations that offer what we’ll call here a “boxed program.” In this article, I’ll compare and contrast using a boxed program with an à la carte approach. If you’re new to homeschooling, this may help you sort out what style is best for you and your homeschool.
The Boxed Program
A “boxed program” means you purchase a single curriculum from a home study school that is all-inclusive. The program will cover all core subjects and include the textbooks required for each subject. It will also include all lesson plans and answer keys for you to grade your students’ work. There may also be a parent book to help you come up with content-related activity ideas.
Today it is common for such programs to include digital components, such as access to streaming videos or other online supplementary materials. Sometimes it will include a grading service, where your students can submit certain types of work (such as essays) and have them graded by someone who works for the school.
A major benefit of the boxed program approach is that a good part of the planning is done for you. You don’t have to scour the internet looking for texts or cobbling together lesson plans. You don’t have to design a scope & sequence or meticulously plan out your semester. All that is done for you.
The boxed programs of home study schools are meant to do all the leg work so you can focus your energy on teaching their lessons. If research, planning, and decision making give you anxiety then a boxed program might be a good fit for you when first getting started in homeschooling. Boxed programs can also come in handy when you find yourself having to transition to homeschooling suddenly and don’t have a lot of time to prepare in advance.
The downsides of a boxed program are that you lose flexibility and freedom. You need to use the resources and methods of the home study school. You have to follow their scope and sequence and apply their standards. There is a degree of conformity you must be willing to tolerate. They can also be expensive.
The À La Carte Approach
Adopting an à la carte approach to homeschooling means there is no “program” for you to follow. Instead, you pick and choose from a variety of sources. You may sign up for one or two courses from an online curriculum provider such as Homeschool Connections, hire a private tutor for another course, and have your children do independent book work for their other lessons. It is an inherently eclectic approach that draws resources from a variety of sources.
For example, I know parents who buy the Story of Civilization complete set, supplement it with reading materials purchased from RC History and sign up older children with online classes with Homeschool Connections to create a homemade program for the entire family
The primary benefits of the à la carte approach are customization and flexibility. You can choose exactly what materials are best suited for your unique children, and you can use those materials as intensively or leniently as you wish. As there is no “program,” you are not bound by what resources you use or do not use. The mix and match approach allows optimal level of elasticity in your homeschool. It is also generally cheaper than a boxed program. I’ve spent as little as $100 for an entire semester worth of resources using the à la carte approach.
The downside of an à la carte approach is that there is considerable amount of planning. You have to find everything, do all your own research, evaluate texts, plot your scope and sequence, prepare your lessons—and that’s all before day one of homeschooling even starts.
I personally believe that this leg work is an integral part of the homeschooling experience; if you enjoy research, organization, and making plans, you’ll probably love this part as well! It is hard work, but if you want a curriculum that works to your individual child’s needs, or if you want to explore out-of-the-box coursework, this approach may be for you.
Which Approach is Right for You?
There’s obviously no one correct answer. It depends upon your circumstances, your homeschooling goals, and your children.
And, hey, you don’t have to commit to either approach! You can used a boxed program and supplement it with à la carte resources. Some parents will purchase a boxed program, utilize the parts they like, sell off the materials they don’t need, and incorporate other outside elements into their plan. For example, you may sign up with home study school that you love but they don’t offer computer programming courses. In that case, you could supplement with an online course or local co-op.
If you’re new to homeschooling, it is important to realize your options and not feel bound by the programmatic approach you are accustomed to from institutional schools. Perhaps, after weighing the options, you still feel a boxed program is best for you. That’s perfectly good! What is essential is that you adopt an approach that suits your children’s needs and that you know you can change up your approach as you become more comfortable as your children’s primary educator. That’s what homeschooling is all about.
If you’d like to explore this topic more deeply, please join us in our Catholic Homeschool Connections Community to get a conversation going with other homeschooling parents.