Wes Beach on Forging Paths: Beyond Traditional Schooling

Wes Beach is Teen Advisor to the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum, founder of Beach High School: Freedom for Self-Direction, and author of many articles and two books about how to get into college or find work worth doing without following conventional education: Opportunities After High School and Forging Paths. This is the first part of a three-part interview Pat Farenga did with Wes.

Pat: You worked in schools for over 30 years. How did that experience lead you to work in homeschooling?

Wes: My first foray into alternative education was at a high school in Southern California, which was highly experimental. It was a really interesting school where teachers had all kinds of flexibility in terms of how to schedule their classes and the kids came into school and wrote a different schedule each day for what they were going to do. I happened to have a conversation with one student at that school in the winter of 1969 about how she was unhappy with school. So I told her to go back and find other people who had the same feelings, which she did. We got together 13 people. We wrote a program. We brow beat the administration until they finally approved it at a parent's meeting— reluctantly, I have to say.

We were so overjoyed with that, that we went on a camping trip during spring break and liked that so much that we took off in the summer for a five week, 3000-mile camping trip through Idaho and Oregon and Northern California. These kids became like part of my family and then the next year the privileges that they had were to not go to their classes if they thought they could learn the material without going to classes and to devise their own and to have a hang-out place in the center of the science building. So there were always kids in the science building doing their own thing. Sometimes non-academic things, but that was fine as long as they got their work done. The administration was never particularly happy with it, but I thought it was extraordinarily successful. I went on a campaign a couple of years ago to try to track them down; I found most of them and the great majority of them had graduate degrees. They've been very successful. Eight of them were professors or in education.

My first reason for doing it was because some of the kids in my gifted program complained about the fact that the school policy said: "You can challenge any course in the curriculum." So they thought that Driver's Ed was silly and trivial and easy. So a bunch of kids went to the Driver Ed instructor and said: "We want to challenge the course."

And he said: "Well, you have to take a whole series of quizzes and then I'll give you the final and then I'll give you a grade in the course." And they thought that was just not fair as the school policy said you can challenge a course by taking an exam. And he was insisting in a whole series of tests and then a final exam. So I asked the Principal if they could go over to another school in the district and take Driver's Ed because they didn't allow our simple challenge and he said no.

So I went down to the county office and I got the paperwork and filled the private school affidavit and set myself up as a private high school. Then I made up a letterhead I sent to the department of motor vehicles. They sent me back a whole lot of stuff, then I walked into my classroom and I said: "Hey guys, we're all set up for Driver's Ed." So I gave them the booklet to read and when they said they were ready and they'd mastered it I gave them the test and as soon as they passed the test I gave them a driver's permit. And one thing led to another and I was able to do some things for those kids with my school, because private schools aren't bound by the huge set of laws that bind the public schools. So for a while I was simultaneously enrolling kids in my private school and they were enrolled in the public school as well.

But things really got tough when I started to take people away from high school. Then I was accused of conflict of interest in spite of the fact that state law says that public agencies can charge people with conflict of interest only if they have set up a conflict of interest policy. Well, the district had not set up a policy but they charged me with conflict of interest anyway. And in the end it became a situation where I went down to the school with my attorney to talk to district and school administrators to defend myself. And I finally decided: "This is ridiculous. I don't want to teach under these circumstances." So I left and I've been working ever since 1993, through my private high school, Beach Academy.

Pat: When you started the program you didn't work with homeschoolers exclusively. In fact, you didn't start with homeschoolers at all, right?

Wes: No, but one of the best things I did was, a few years after I started working on my own, I read in the newspaper about some of the groups of people who were picketing the county office of education in San Louis Obispo county, which is south of here, because the district office was harassing homeschoolers. So I thought: "Well, hey, any group that goes out and pickets the department of education looks good in my eyes." So I found out this was the Homeschooling Association of California. I discovered the president is in San Jose, so I went over and talked to her, and the next thing I knew I was writing articles for a magazine for the Homeschooling Association of California, which goes by HSC, and then shortly after that I was invited to join the board. So I was on the board for a couple of years and I'm currently there. Teen Advisor is my official title. This gave me an opportunity to speak to groups all over California. And once I started doing that, stuff got picked up here and there and now I had a chance to talk in a few other places across the country. So that has been a really, really, really good thing for me. Because everybody who gets in touch now has either found me on someone's website or they found my website or it's word-of-mouth. And I often get people who say—I’m surprised at the time lag sometimes—"Well, I heard you talk in Redding 7 years ago and now I'm ready for you to work with my kids."

Pat: I'm really glad that they're finding you. In terms of homeschoolers and other non-traditional learners applying to college, you note, in your latest edition of Opportunities after High School, that colleges and universities are getting more comfortable admitting such applicants. Do you think that’s a trend?

Wes: Well, I have to say I have read that cynicism doesn't do anybody any good. And to some extent I agree, but at the same time I'd have to admit that I've become rather cynical about the public schools. My sense—actually, for the last 3 or 4 years before I left So-Cal High School—the idea came to me that the school's fundamental thing is about power. Since schools are about coercion, if you lose your power over kids you've lost the game. And so I started predicting, when one of my kids would go down to the office and get the permission they needed to do something out of the ordinary, the answer would always be whatever left the school with the most power over the kid. And that always worked as a predictive kind of thing. And, I think that extends to some extent to the universities, also, and I understand that some schools, some universities, some colleges, have become very welcoming to homeschoolers. But the University of California has not, with the exception of the campus at Riverside. Riverside has a wonderful policy where you can meet their admissions requirements in a wide variety of ways. The rest of the system acts as if homeschooling doesn't exist.

Pat: There’s also a knee-jerk prejudice in the education system, that if you're homeschooled you're sheltered and don't know much about academics or the world.

Wes: Yeah, but guess what? My wife teaches in a community college. She teaches English and she teaches some developmental classes, which is the P.C. word for remedial. And she tells me that 75 to 80 percent of the people who've gone all the way through high school and graduated can't place into the college-level English classes. They have to take some developmental classes first. So that seems like a weird charge to lay against homeschoolers when you can lay exactly the same charge against the public school.

Pat: I'm making a connection here to what you said earlier about how the school didn't like that you were giving the kids a non-coercive way of learning and that therefore they felt that you were losing your authority and the school's authority in the matter, and, further, you were undermining or ruining the educational process as a result. But when you give kids this freedom—and the time to allow them to figure things out—they can do all sorts of wonderful things. In fact, this freedom is becoming important to even very college-focused families. I know some who decide to become homeschoolers just so that their kids can be unique in some way when they apply to university, such as learning to play oboe.

Wes: Right. Exactly.  I have had a number of kids who have gone directly to four-year schools and for those kids I write a completely different kind of transcript. It's more traditional. It has grades, credits, GPA. The whole schmeer, but it also includes a huge amount of detail so that college admissions people will take this transcript seriously. So typically it's a list of courses and grades and credits, and that's followed by several pages of course descriptions which describe exactly what this person has done so that college people will take it seriously. And some of those people have had enormously impressive experiences. I wrote in my other book (Forging Paths: Beyond Traditional Schooling) about one kid who went to MIT. She was accepted when she was 14. She had never attended any K through 12 school. She'd done everything entirely independently and she talked her way into a lab at UC San Francisco, which was the medical complex for the University of California and was doing real research when she was 12.

Pat: Is it still relatively easy for homeschoolers to use California community colleges without a high school diploma or have times changed?

Wes: Well, homeschoolers in California can always do what I do. If they set themselves up and file a PSA and set themselves up as an independent school, they can issue a diploma any time they want to on any basis whatsoever. It doesn't have to be based on course work. It can be based on personal strengths, which I think are more important than course work and they can then issue a diploma to anybody at any age who goes to a community college and the reason.

The way I get around the community colleges that initially balk is to send them a letter from my attorney, whom I met on the HSC board, that says this school issues legitimate diplomas and then follow that up with a citation of the education code, which says that community colleges must accept people with high school diplomas. And that settles the issue, always. Now, most community colleges have not raised any objections at all, but in the occasional case where someone does, that's what works. That can work for any independent homeschooler, they don't need me to do that. They can issue their own diplomas. But people who are going through organized programs in the public schools, they need the permission of that school and/or that program to attend community colleges as a concurrent student.

And there are some restrictions in those cases. And the restrictions depend on the school and the college. State law allows anybody of age to be released to community colleges. But often schools, programs, and colleges put restrictions on it, and the age restrictions are typically 16, 15, 14, whatever.

And there are also some colleges that have tiered requirements. If you're 16, then you need this, or if you're younger than that you need even more recommendations before we'll let you in. Some community colleges require testing. But there's almost always a way in. I don't think I've ever encountered a community college in any state where there wasn't some way in.

Pat: If you have someone in school and they're asking, "Look, I'd like to study Japanese, but I'm not 16," or whatever the age is for admission to community college in California. How do you work with them? What do you tell them?

Wes: Well, the bottom line is, colleges frequently won't tell the truth. The local community college here tells half the truth. And they say that high school students can take up to 6 units. But if you get the form that you have to fill out in order for high school students, here we call it concurrent enrollment, what you call dual enrollment in Massachusetts. If you look at the form, there's a little box to check that says, "This student is taking 6 units or less," but there's another box to check that says, "This student is taking more than 6 units." And that requires a signature of a counselor at the college, which the 6 units or less does not. But it just requires getting another signature. But the college, and I haven't looked at the current catalog, but for years the catalog has said high school students may take up to 6 units, period. I mean, they never mentioned the other possibility.

So, one thing I suggest to people is if you want your kid to go to a community college, you've got to exhaustively look at all of the rules and regulations everywhere, and don't necessarily believe what people tell you, because they may not tell you the truth, they may tell you half the truth. But bottom line is, if you've exhausted all of the possibilities, there is still the possibility of special permission. And, if you're the kind of person who's willing to do this, you go up the chain of command until you maybe even get it completely up to the board. My son started at a community college when he was 10. And, for a couple of years, it was on an audit basis, and at that time auditing at community college in California was not legal, but we got the permission of the vice president of the college for academic affairs to give special permission for Brian to do it, and that's how he got started. So, that's the bottom line: ask for special permission if you're convinced that the rules simply don't allow it.

Pat: That's something I always keep emphasizing to people; it is not enough to only know the laws and know the regulations of the institution that you have to interact with, you also need to not be scared to engage them. You know, all too often I think people get cowed or just feel their first line of attack is to hire an attorney, instead of just realizing that the administrators may not have read their own forms and if you show them the box that says it allows more than 6 courses, how can they argue with you? You don't need a lawyer to prove that.

Wes: This is another aspect, I think, of the power of the school. In many instances, I have seen schools take on power that they don't have. And, because they act so powerful, people have believed it. You know, they believe that the school owns their kid.  And one of the things I wind up telling people is, “Look, you have complete control of where and how you kid goes to school. But the high school essentially owns your kid as long he or she is attending there.” But you have options to take him out of there and get him set up somewhere else.  The school doesn't own your kid to that extent.

NEXT: Wes tells stories and provides details about how he helped students create high school transcripts for college or work.