Ed-Tech Policy

More Home Schooling Parents Turn To Online Courses for Help

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 20, 1999 9 min read
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Rhonda and Erick Ward both work full time, but they’ve still found a way to home school their son--over the Internet.

For $2,250 a year, Devon, 13, is being taught by an online private school called Willoway CyberSchool.

“We couldn’t put the curriculum together and sit down and teach him. We didn’t have the time,” said Ms. Ward, who works outside the family’s Little Rock, Ark., home as the director of operations for a publishing company. Her husband, a software-design analyst, telecommutes from home.

The Wards are among a growing number of parents who are relying on online courses to make home schooling easier or, in some cases, possible. While most home schooling parents use such courses to supplement their children’s learning, some depend on them for a full curriculum.

“This is one of the new ways to do your home schooling, where parents aren’t the sole teachers,” said Janet B. Hale, a former public elementary school teacher who founded Willoway, which is based in Reinholds, Pa., in 1994. This year her school has 24 students, all of whom take a full curriculum. “That’s how I envisioned it--opening up the doors [to home schooling] for people who never considered it before,” Ms. Hale said.

Home schoolers also are taking advantage of online courses offered by public schools.

This fall, 800 of the 2,000 students who are taking courses from Florida High School, a statewide online school operated by school districts in Orange and Alachua counties, are home-schooled. About one in five of the home-schooled students are taking five or six online courses.

Florida High School was intended primarily to expand course offerings for students at public schools and improve their technology literacy. But it was expected also to provide home schoolers with the opportunity to receive instruction by certified teachers that covers state standards, said Sharon Johnston, the school’s curriculum specialist.

“Parents [who home school] are excited there is a place for them to get qualified instruction,” Ms. Johnston added.

Too Much?

While most observers of the trend agree that one or two online courses can be a great benefit to home schoolers, some decry a reliance on them for a full curriculum.

Michael P. Farris

Such an arrangement contradicts what should be the purpose of home schooling, said Michael P. Farris, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., who also teaches an online high school course in U.S. constitutional law.

“The essence of home schooling is about the interaction between parent and child,” he said. “Online courses should be supplementary and used only in the secondary grades.”

Tom Layton, the founder of CyberSchool, an online program run by the Eugene, Ore., school district, also warns against a heavy dose of such classes.

“We don’t think a kid taking eight hours a day [of online courses], sitting at a computer, is a good idea,” he said.

Mr. Layton said his school’s courses were designed to broaden the curriculum for students at small or rural public schools, not to make home schooling easier. “We think [young people] ought to go to the prom and be on the football field. We take home schoolers, but we’re not trying to market to them.”

Safety Concerns

But many home schooling parents who rely heavily on online courses believe public schools aren’t right for their children. One reason is their perception that schools are unsafe.

“I’ve seen at least 50 enrollments come across my desk [from parents] whose main concern was safety in the schools,” said Suzzanna M. Scott, the director of technology for the online-learning program of Laurel Springs School, a private school in Ojai, Calif., that offers online courses 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 home-schooled.

The perception of violence in public schools--fueled by such incidents as the shootings last April at Colorado’s Columbine High School--is one reason he’s schooled at home, said David Edmonds, a 13-year-old from Tallahassee, Fla., who takes four online courses from Florida High School.

“I was going to go to high school,” he said. “But with those school shootings at Columbine and in Georgia, my mom really freaked out, and she’s keeping me in home school.”

Other home schooling parents worry that public schools are not a good place for students with special needs.

Katey Hemming began home schooling her son Case, now 12, last year after she concluded that the typical classroom was too much of a struggle for him. Case has Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder whose symptoms include erratic behavior, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“It wasn’t that we were mad at the public schools and taking our toys and going home,” said Ms. Hemming, a single mother in Clinton, Iowa. “Traditional school is difficult because of the amount of medications and amount of social support he needed.”

At home, Case’s tics or sometimes-inappropriate remarks aren’t disruptive to his mother or to the online teachers, as they had been to teachers in a classroom full of students. Ms. Hemming also said she was relieved her son no longer must be “doped up” to go to school.

Ms. Hemming taught Case 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, and so far has been pleased with the results.

“It takes a lot of pressure off me as a parent,” Ms. Hemming said.

Similarly, Bruce and Jo Hart, both of whom work full time, signed up their 17-year-old daughter, Kelly, for E-school! International because her emotional problems and attention deficit disorder made it difficult for her to attend a public school.

“High school kind of overwhelmed her,” Mr. Hart said. “She would get all dressed up and ready to go, and then get sick, and get this phobia about going to school.”

Mr. Hart said that he wanted to keep Kelly in public school as long as he could. But when he found E-school! International and learned that it was accredited in Georgia, he decided it was time to give home schooling a try.

“I can see her lessons. I can go on [American Online] here at work and see if she’s online talking with her instructors,” he added.

Getting Outside

Home schoolers interviewed for this story who use online courses noted that the courses sometimes involve more than just sitting alone in front of a computer.

Devon Ward, the boy from Little Rock enrolled in Willoway, said he typically receives assignments over the Internet, researches them on World Wide Web sites, and then turns in a document in HTML, the Web coding language, to his teachers showing what he’s learned. But the program also requires several hours a week of videoconference time with the teacher and other students.

In addition, after Devon and some other students complained last year that they felt lonely studying at home, Willoway this year is encouraging home schoolers to spend Wednesdays outside their homes doing a service project.

Devon, who attended public school up until last year, gives the Willoway program high marks.

“I found that I’ve learned more than in the public schools for a long time,” he said. “In public schools, they’re always trying to teach you the same thing over and over again. At Willoway, there’s always something new.”

David Edmonds of Tallahassee, who has been schooled at home his whole life, said the real benefit of Florida High School is the chance to take courses that will help him qualify for a regular Florida diploma. And he loves computers.

He spends about four hours a day in front of the computer for his four online courses--biology, English, keyboarding and business, and Latin. In addition, he studies algebra, geography, and health with the help of his mother and textbooks.

His English and Latin courses typically involve some reading away from the computer, writing, and then submitting assignments to a teacher over the Internet, he said.

For keyboarding and business, he uses computer programs, and for biology he usually is given Web sites to research to complete assignments. If he has a question, he e-mails his teacher or has his mother call her on the telephone.

Sometimes his 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 said.

Funding Issues

One of the biggest online programs started by a public school system is the Internet Academy, which is run by the Federal Way, Wash., schools but paid for with state money and corporate contributions.

The program was launched with a group of 15 elementary students in 1996. Last year, 700 K-12 students enrolled in its courses, which are free for anyone who lives in the state. About 60 percent of Internet Academy students are home-schooled, according to Linda McInturff, the program’s administrator. About half those children sign up for five or six courses.

The school recruits home-schooled students, Ms. McInturff said, in an attempt to “fill in the holes” in their instruction. The 22,000-student district views the program as a service to people seeking alternative kinds of education, she said.

But Federal Way also has a financial incentive to serve home schoolers. The district receives state aid on a per-course basis for up to five courses for each student enrolled in the academy. While the funding for an online student doesn’t add up to what the district receives for a regular full-time student, it’s better than nothing, which is what the district gets for students within its boundaries who are completely home-schooled.

The arrangement could work against Federal Way, however, if the online courses encourage parents to pull their students out of district schools.

In addition, other Washington state districts in a few cases are losing state money to Federal Way because parents within their borders are opting for academy courses.

One such parent is Dawna R. Foucht of Fall City, who lives in the Snoqualmie Valley district. She enrolled her 12-year-old girl in five Internet Academy courses this year and her 10-year-old boy in four courses.

Ms. Foucht said the academy makes it possible for her to home school all four of her children, the youngest of whom is 3; while her older children work on the online courses, she is free to teach her younger children herself.

Ms. Foucht taught all of her children for four years, but she found it increasingly difficult to instruct them adequately as they grew older and their educational needs became more varied.

“Midyear last year, I put my son back in school. It was so difficult to do this wide range [of ages],” Ms. Foucht said.

After she learned about the Internet Academy, she pulled him back out.

“I still feel like I’m home schooling,” she said, “but I feel like I have a little more help, rather than trying to do it all alone.”

Public Schools First

Home schooling parents in Kentucky, meanwhile, will have to pay for online assistance.

Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat, and the state education department announced this month the creation of the Kentucky Virtual High School, which will offer online courses in foreign languages, advanced mathematics, and other specialized courses to anyone in the state, starting in January.

Public school students will be able to take the courses for free, as long as their districts pay the fee, $300 per student per course. Home schooling families will have to foot the bill themselves.

“When we were asked, ‘Will home schoolers have to pay?’ our first inclination was ‘Yes, so we can use the funds for the children in mainstream education first,’ ” said Mary Beth Susman, the chief executive officer of the Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University, a partner in setting up the online high school. “We wanted to be careful about burdens we might be adding” to the public schools.


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