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Spotsylvania County’s Experiment in Homeschooling

Spotsylvania County’s Experiment in Homeschooling

exterior of school board meeting room

This fall, I was surprised to receive a postcard from our local school system inviting me to attend an information system about a pilot test of a homeschooling program for students in grades kindergarten through second grade. Naturally, I had to find out what this was about.

There was a small meeting with myself and two other mothers and two administrators from the school system. They gave an overview of the program. Our county is licensing a program created by K-12, one of the leading online education providers. Students participating in the pilot test will complete the K-12 curriculum at home. If questions or problems arise, a representative from the school system will be available to help but the primary responsibility for completing the curriculum is on the parent.

Interestingly, the pilot program is only open to students who have never attended the public school system. It is essentially only open to students who have been exclusively homeschooled.

There are some in the homeschooling community who view suspiciously any attempts to offer homeschooling through the public school system. Some are concerned that if these homeschool products are offered, the state will have an excuse to force everyone who is currently homeschooling to use the public-school-approved offering and eliminate a parent’s right to choose the curriculum they want to use. I did not get the feeling from the information session I attended that this was the motivation behind Spotsylvania County’s current pilot program.

But it does beg the question, why is the county doing this? From what I could gather, there are a couple of reasons:

  1. Money. Students enrolled through the public school homeschooling program are counted in the census used to distribute federal and state education funds whereas other homeschooled students are not.
  2. Quality-control. The representatives indicated that a not insignificant number of homeschooled students will eventually transfer in to the public school system, particularly around the junior high level. There have been varying results with this transfer, with some students showing academic difficulty. Having a public-school-approved homeschool program makes it easier to smooth this transition and ensure that students who want to transfer in are adequately prepared.
  3. Improved service to the community at large. The school system seems to see developing a competence in online education as an important objective that may help to lure more families to our county. The Washington area has a relatively high number of military and diplomatic families who move frequently and may use homeschooling as a way to ensure continuity of education for their children.
  4. Improved service to the public school community. The public school system already uses various types of computer-based independent-study programs for students who have been suspended or are in alternative education programs. Students in high school are required to complete at least one of their courses in an online format so that they are prepared for college where at least some courses might only be offered in an online format. Improving online and distance learning initiatives would benefit all students.

While I have never used the K-12 program currently being pilot-tested, I used a similar program one year for my first year of homeschooling with my youngest daughter. In general, you receive a large box of materials at the beginning of the year with books and school supplies. It is best if you (the homeschool teacher), log on and read through the lessons a week in advance and prepare any special projects or experiments if needed. You then log on each school day with your child and work through the assignments. You have to record approximately how many hours you spend each day on school and the school will be monitoring your progress. In the program I used, you had to email in certain tests or assignments for independent grading by the school.

I faced several challenges with this method. First, there wasn’t a whole lot of support for me as a first-time teacher to learn how to prepare a lesson in advance. In the program I used, some of the materials I needed were delayed or missing which complicated matters further. It takes time to learn how to be a teacher, homeschool or otherwise. The expectations and pacing were also quite intense. Teaching 4 or 5 subjects in one day to a kindergartner is something that I can handle now with 3 years of homeschooling experience but it was excruciating my first year and we were always behind. My main complaint, however, was that sometimes the curriculum wasn’t all that interesting and I was unable to change it to something similar but more interesting. For example, some of the books assigned for language arts in the program I used were not the best examples of children’s literature. I often felt “Why am I wasting time reading this when there are exceptional children’s books out there that we could use instead?”

When the representatives from our county were going through the demo for the K-12 program, these same concerns surfaced with me again. They noted, for example, that if you had a field trip activity related to the topic being studied, you could note it as an extracurricular activity you did and count it in your hours but you couldn’t substitute it for the assigned curriculum. For many current homeschoolers, this inflexibility is a major downside.

It was also curious to see that the public school system has more to work out before homeschooled students could be physically present at school. When the parents present asked if children in the at-home option could participate in school field trips or assemblies, the answer was no. The school representatives indicated that teachers bond strongly with their classes and could not be responsible for additional students at special events.

But what are the upsides of this program? There are three major benefits to homeschoolers:

  1. Free curriculum. Finances are a concern for many homeschool families. If you sign up for the county’s program, you will get high-quality instructional materials completely for free. If you have serious economic hardship, you might even receive a computer and internet access as well.
  2. Access to disability services. I have met quite a number of families who homeschool because their child has some sort of learning or other disability that cannot be serviced in a typical public school classroom. For these families, homeschooling is the only realistic choice but it often comes at a serious price. Currently, if you choose to homeschool, the public school does not have to provide your child with services like speech therapy or other types of educational-related therapies. If you participate in the public-school homeschool program, Spotsylvania County will allow you to access those additional therapies free of charge.
  3. No end-of-year testing or evaluation requirements. Currently, all homeschoolers have to take a standardized test or have a professional evaluation at the end of the year. If you participate in the public school homeschool program, you don’t have to do any of this. Completing the online course is enough. Students don’t have to take the state Standards of Learning exams either that other public school children take.

While I decided not to participate in the pilot test, overall, I think it is wonderful that our county is taking an interest in homeschooling and I hope that this pilot test could be a step toward broader, more inclusive homeschooling policies in our county, to include such controversial issue as sports participation and partial enrollment. I enjoyed meeting the public school representatives and was encouraged to see that they did not seem to view homeschooling as an inferior education option. One representative even indicated that she would have loved to have had the option to homeschool her child (now grown) who had a learning disability through a program such as this one.

I will be curious to see how the pilot test turns out. What is your reaction to this experiment? Are you seeing similar initiatives in your community? Please share in the comments.

P.S. For data and statistics fans, I learned from the school representatives that the Virginia Department of Education lists homeschool enrollment by county on their website. From this, I learned that homeschoolers represent about 2-3% of all school age children in Virginia. I also learned that Spotsylvania County is in the top 10 counties by size of homeschool population. Curiously, the largest population of homeschoolers are in Fairfax County, the most populous, but generally the least conservative.

Pie chart - 2011-2012 Virginia public school and homeschool enrollments

Pie chart - 2011-2012 Top 10 Virginia Counties by Homeschool Population

*I am not affiliated with the Spotsylvania County Public School System or K-12.