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Published in Print: January 1, 2000, as Plug And Learn

Plug And Learn

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Experts say parents need to participate in their children's online education.

Dawna Foucht of Fall City, Washington, wanted to homeschool each of her four children, but she found it increasingly difficult as they grew older and their educational needs became more varied. In the middle of last year, she broke down and put her 10-year-old in public school.

Then she learned about the Internet Academy, an online "school" run by the Federal Way, Washington, district, which offers free K-12 courses over the Internet. Foucht pulled her son back out of school and enrolled him and her 12-year-old daughter in four and five Internet Academy courses, respectively. Now, while her older children work on the online courses, she is free to teach her younger children herself. "I still feel like I'm homeschooling," she says, "but I feel like I have a little more help, rather than trying to do it all alone."

"This is one of the new ways to do your homeschooling, where parents aren't the sole teachers," says Janet Hale, a former public elementary school teacher who founded the private Willoway Cyberschool in 1994. Based in Reinholds, Pennsylvania, her school currently has 24 students, all of whom take a full curriculum over the Internet for a fee of $2,250 per year. "That's how I envisioned it-opening up the doors [to homeschooling] for people who never considered it before," Hale says.

Suddenly, online schools are popping up all over the Internet, making it possible for parents to provide standardized, accredited education to their children in the comfort of their own homes. The trend is changing the traditional profile of the homeschooling parent.

"It wasn't that we were mad at the public schools and taking our toys and going home," says Katey Hemming, a single mother in Clinton, Iowa, of her decision to begin homeschooling her son Case, now 12, last year. Case has obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's Syndrome, a neurological disorder whose symptoms include erratic behavior. "Traditional school is difficult because of the amount of medications and amount of social support he needed," Hemming explains. She taught her son last year, but because she's a student herself at a local community college, she didn't have enough time to adequately prepare lessons. Over the summer, she enrolled Case in the E-school! International Inc. online program, operated by a nonprofit outfit in Iowa City, Iowa, and so far she's been pleased with the results. "It takes a lot of pressure off me as a parent," Hemming says.

Online courses are also making homeschoolers of parents who worry about their children getting caught in the crossfire of school violence. "I've seen at least 50 enrollments come across my desk [from parents] whose main concern was safety in the schools," says Suzzanna Scott, director of technology for the online-learning program of Laurel Springs School, a private school in Ojai, California, that offers Internet-based coursework for grades 5 to 12. The enrollment for Laurel Springs' online courses has skyrocketed from 16 students in 1996 to 840 students this year, all of whom are homeschooled.

"Parents [who homeschool] are excited there is a place for them to get qualified instruction," says Sharon Johnston, curriculum specialist at Florida High School, a statewide online school operated by the school districts in Florida's Orange and Alachua counties. Although educators designed the cyber school to expand course offerings for students at public schools and improve their technology literacy, they aren't surprised to see a large number of homeschoolers enrolled. This past fall, 800 of the 2,000 students who were taking courses at Florida High were homeschooled. About one in five of the homeschooled students was taking five or six online courses.

So what's a typical day like for a cyber school student? Thirteen-year-old David Edmonds takes biology, English, keyboarding and business, and Latin at Florida High School. He spends about four hours a day on the computer for his four online courses. English and Latin usually involve some reading away from the computer as well as writing assignments that he submits to a teacher over the Internet. For keyboarding and business, he uses computer programs. His biology teachers, meanwhile, usually give him Web sites to research for assignments. If he has a question, he e-mails his teacher or has his mother call her on the telephone. In addition, David studies algebra, geography, and health offline, with the help of his mother and textbooks.

Though most homeschooling parents use online courses as a supplement, some depend on them for a full curriculum. Rhonda and Erick Ward, for example, both work full time and would not be able to homeschool their son, Devon, 13, without Internet courses. "We couldn't put the curriculum together and sit down and teach him. We didn't have the time," says Rhonda Ward. She is the director of operations for a publishing company, and her husband is a software analyst who telecommutes from the family's home in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Homeschooling advocates don't always approve of arrangements where the parent isn't involved in the learning. It contradicts what should be the purpose of homeschooling, says Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Virginia. "The essence of homeschooling is about the interaction between parent and child," says Farris, who also teaches an online high school course in United States constitutional law. "Online courses should be supplementary and used only in the secondary grades."

Tom Layton, founder of CyberSchool, an online program run by the Eugene, Oregon, school district, also warns against a heavy dose of Internet classes. "We don't think a kid taking eight hours a day [of online courses], sitting at a computer, is a good idea," he says. CyberSchool's courses were designed to broaden the curriculum for students at small or rural public schools, he says, not to make homeschooling easier. "We think [young people] ought to go to the prom and be on the football field. We take homeschoolers, but we're not trying to market to them."

Homeschoolers interviewed for this story note that the Internet courses don't necessarily require them to spend all their time alone in front of a computer. In addition to completing online lessons, Devon Ward spends several hours a week videoconferencing with his teacher and other students. Last year, he and other students complained that they felt lonely studying at home; now, his online school encourages its students to spend Wednesdays outside their homes doing service projects. And, from time to time, Florida homeschooler David Edmonds' online teachers ask him to leave his house for school work. "Coming up, we're going to be going outside and doing tests on dirt," he says.

--Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 11, Issue 4, Pages 12-13

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