Tips for Parents: Taking Control of Your Child's Education (2014)
Beach, W.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Wes Beach. This is an excerpt from his book, Forging Paths: Beyond Traditional Schooling.

Taking Control

[I taught at “Middleroad” High School for 20 years.] One day . . . , Tierney Wayne, who was in her junior year, came to my classroom to talk about taking the California High School Proficiency Examination (CHSPE), which did not require that she have any school official‘s permission to take, and which, if she passed, would give her a Certificate of Proficiency, a high-school-diploma-equivalent certificate that would allow her to follow her plan to leave high school and enter a community college. Her mother, a single parent who taught in a public elementary school, approved.

With this plan in place, Tierney decided that she didn’t want to continue with one of her six high school classes. This became a big issue; school administrators didn’t want to let her drop the class. A before-school meeting was set up to discuss the issue, with Tierney, her mother, the school principal, Tierney’s counselor, and me scheduled to attend.

The school would lose no funding if Tierney dropped a class. There were many junior students who had been dropped from classes by the school because they had been cutting. No one argued that Tierney needed to learn the material in the class in question, and no one doubted that she would pass the CHSPE. But her request to drop was denied on the grounds that there was a rule––that juniors were required to take six classes. The purpose of the rule was to keep students on track toward graduation––but Tierney, with her mother‘s support, had decided not to graduate, a decision that was hers to make.

Middleroad’s principal wouldn’t allow Tierney to make a decision about dropping a class, but Tierney still took control of the life she would lead after high school. She took the CHSPE, passed it, left high school, compiled a strong record at a community college, transferred to San Jose State University, and earned a degree in molecular biology. She has had a position at the Stanford Genome Center, and is now a research engineer employed by the University of Texas, working in a lab doing “a little sequencing, some real-time PCR, a lot of genotyping.” (PCR, polymerase chain reaction, enables researchers to produce millions of copies of a specific DNA sequence in a short period of time.) She is an author on seven scientific papers. She didn’t need her school counselor or principal to figure out how to pursue her education or live her life.

Who has the Power?

Compulsory education is based on compulsion. Compulsion requires power over students and control of them. Power and control often become the chief concerns.

School officials were in a position of power from which they could control Tierney‘s life in school as long as she was enrolled. They thought they should exercise their control to be sure that everyone, including Tierney, regardless of differences in interests, strengths, talents, and goals, should passively accept what they wanted to deliver. They were incapable of under-standing, or unwilling to acknowledge that they understood, the fact that there are many perfectly legitimate and real reasons why some kids hate school.

Many students find no challenging material to study; they are capable of working at a much higher level than the curriculum allows. Their interests are not addressed; the academic curric-ulum in traditional high schools has little to offer someone who wants to be, or already is, a photographer, dancer, auto mechanic, or makeup artist. They do not like the social environment; they want to talk about topics beyond the latest clothing fad or the next party, football game, or sexual encounter. They find their teachers disinterested and sometimes incompetent. They find the environment oppressive and limiting, determining not only what they study but also when they can go to the bathroom or chew gum. They hate being controlled at every turn. They don‘t like being on leashes held by administrators, counselors, and teachers. They resent it when their talents and goals are not respected. While this kind of rigid structure may work well for some students, this determination should still be made by the student with his or her parents.

Grabbing the Reins

To provide your child with a fitting and fulfilling education, you may need to take control. . . . [Y]ou may need to investigate carefully, dig deep, and persist in seeking information . . . .

One day at Middleroad High School, a student came to talk to me about what her counselor had told her about the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE). It was all wrong. I decided to call other high schools to see if accurate information was readily available elsewhere.

I called ten high schools in an adjacent county, talked with people ranging from secretaries to vice principals, and asked the same two questions in each conversations: Who is eligible to take the CHSPE? Is the certificate earned through the exam acceptable to the University of California? The facts were (and are) that a person was eligible to take the CHSPE if s/he was 16 on the day of the test, if s/he had completed a year of the 10th grade, or if s/he was in the second semester of the 10th grade. The University of California (UC) had for years before I made these calls stated in its basic literature that the Certificate of Proficiency earned through the CHSPE was acceptable in lieu of a regular diploma. It still is.

Not one of the calls I made yielded correct answers to both questions. One vice principal told me that he was proud that no student at his school had ever taken “that thing,” a term that he almost spat into the phone. I was told several times that a student could take the exam when he was a certain age, but this age varied, and I was not told of the other eligibility criteria; a student who had skipped a grade or two would be eligible at an age younger than 16. Several people told me that UC would not accept the certificate.

A few years later I continued this experiment and called five more high schools. The fifth one answered both questions correctly. One out of fifteen is 7 percent, a failing grade on any grading scale.

The best way to obtain accurate information is to get as close to the source as you can. In the case of the CHSPE, the source is their online information bulletin (at, not high school counselors, neighbors, or people on e-lists. The source for information about college admissions is at college admissions offices. Unfortunately, sometimes conflicting, confusing, or erroneous information will come even from people whom you‘d expect to be experts.

Recently a mom called me, disturbed because she and her daughter had been told by a UC [University of California] representative that a high school diploma was required for junior-level transfer applicants at her UC campus. For years the policy at all UC campuses had not required a diploma. I called the university‘s admissions office and was told that a diploma was required. Still not believing it, I e-mailed the dean of admissions. She sent my query to another person, who replied this way:

Submission of a high school record is required of all junior transfer students, assuming that high school work was completed and a diploma, GED or California High School Proficiency Exam was received. A junior transfer student should not retroactively obtain high school graduation equivalency for UC admission. Students should clearly indicate in their application high school attendance and any diploma or certificate received. They should also explain their individual circumstances that might affect what records may or may not be available. Eligibility as a junior transfer is not affected but the information and records are needed to complete a student's educational history.

And so, after being misinformed several times and working through some verbiage, we learned that the long-term policy is still in force and that a high school diploma is not required.

When you need information, look carefully, talk to many people, read widely, check and double check. But don‘t wait to act until you’ve reached complete certainty, or you’ll get permanently stuck.

During [a] time [when my son] Brian . . . audited community college classes, college policy did not allow auditing, but a vice president of the college allowed it anyway. After you’ve gathered as much information as you think you need and find that what you want is not permissible, you can still seek special permission from people in appropriate positions.

. . . [E]stablished schools and traditional programs may fall short of providing your daughter or son with an enjoyable, appropriate, and fulfilling education. Keep in mind that forging a new path may lead to interesting and exciting opportunities that traditional education simply cannot provide. You may need to take control. Don‘t fear the challenge, embrace it.

This is an excerpt from Forging Paths: Beyond Traditional Schooling, by Wes Beach. Copyright © 2012 by Wes Beach. Published by GHF Press. All rights reserved.

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