The list of choices available to families concerning childhood education has grown beyond the traditional options of public, private or parochial schools. Over the last 25 years, charter schools, online schools and homeschooling have joined the list.
More families are opting for these alternative forms of education over traditional classroom settings. Their reasons for doing so may vary. Some may do so for philosophical reasons. Others do so because they question the quality of education that schools are providing. Still others do so because they fear for their child’s health or safety. Some, sadly, do so because their child is the target of bullying.
Charting Their Own Course
Charter or “community” schools are an alternative form of government-run school. States and localities fund charter schools on a per-pupil basis, which is why they are tuition-free to families. After receiving approval from the Ohio Department of Education, charter schools are free from many government regulations and may adopt their own curriculum and operating processes. Their performance is monitored by the ODE and — if they fail to meet standards — they can be closed by the state.
Dr. Erich Merkle, who oversees the Akron Public Schools’ Pupil Adjustment Program, suggests that parents check report cards thoroughly before selecting a charter school. Interestingly, he is referring to a potential school’s report card — not their child’s grades. The ODE maintains report cards on how Ohio schools — including many chartered ones — are meeting performance standards such as test scores and student achievement. These cards are available on the department’s Ohio School Report Cards website.
Another consideration is whether a school is accredited by a recognized authority such as the ODE or National Blue Ribbon Schools. On-site visits, curriculums, student demographics, and faculty composition — such as the number of available state-licensed teachers — also should be weighed by families.
“As a parent, you really want to spend some time just looking at the data and finding out answers to those types of questions,” Merkle says.
Because they are publicly funded, charter schools can provide many of the same services and materials to their students that traditional schools do, such as field trips, public transportation, textbooks and course materials.
A ‘Virtual’ Reality
A variation of the charter school, online schools teach students through virtual classes that they can access from a home computer or any suitable location with an internet connection. Teachers work remotely and have a structured curriculum for their online students to follow.
Serving students in grades K-12, the Ohio Virtual Academy (OHVA) is a tuition-free, full-time public charter school authorized by the Ohio Council of Community Schools.
OHVA Superintendent Dr. Kristin Stewart says some students join OHVA because they are grappling with emotional and social issues such as anxiety and bullying, while others have special needs. Others want to be challenged academically with some enrolling in Ohio’s College Credit Plus Program.
“We also have students that come to us for the ability to soar,” Stewart says. “We have kids that are working ahead of grade level and students that are gifted.”
She cautions that not every student is a good fit for OHVA’s rigorous curriculum. Students should realize that it is not as simple as working on a computer for a few hours. A lot of their time — at least six hours a day — involves working with their parents and interacting with their teachers and classmates online.
Parents also must realize that they are making a commitment to monitor their child’s progress as their learning coach.
“Folks don’t always realize that there is a lot of work to this,” Stewart says. “I think people sometimes say, ‘Oh, there’s lots of flexibility!’ — and there is flexibility, but there’s still accountability, as well.”
That accountability is what drew Beth Levigne, of Medina, to OHVA. A teacher herself, Levigne decided to take a break in her career to homeschool her daughter, Kaitlyn. While she was able to keep pace with Kaitlyn’s homeschooling needs during half-day kindergarten, Levigne feared that the demands and expense of planning her child’s curriculum for first grade and beyond would eventually overwhelm her. Starting in the fall of 2002, she enrolled her daughter in OHVA.
Today, Kaitlyn is not only an OHVA graduate, but she also is a senior majoring in theater at Cleveland State University. Her three brothers — Matthew, 20, Aaron, 18, and Stephen, 16 — are also OHVA alumni. After seven years as her daughter’s learning coach, Levigne eventually joined OHVA as a fifth grade teacher and now works as a fourth grade intervention specialist.
“Every family is different and families need to decide what works best for them,” Levigne adds.
No Place Like Home
Kim Lucak, of Tallmadge, and her daughters, Emily, 12, and Stephanie, 10, have found that homeschooling works for their family. Homeschooling is a parent-driven option that many families are pursuing. This educational approach requires a parent or guardian to petition their local school district to be the teacher of record for their child. Individuals pursuing this option must show that they have a high school diploma or GED, or will work with a college degree-holding individual to provide a child with 900 hours of instruction. Petitioners must provide their districts with yearly curriculum outlines and agree to assessments of their child’s academic skills.
Families may purchase a predesigned program or send their children to a variety of classes at government-run schools, independent schools, community colleges, or cooperative learning programs. Students still can participate in their local schools’ extracurricular activities and programs, including sports.
Lucak says that she made the decision to homeschool before Emily started kindergarten. She wants her daughters to be morally grounded and receive an education that includes their family’s religious beliefs. Knowing who is with her children and where they are located are among the benefits of home-schooling, especially in light of recent tragedies, Lucak adds.
Merkle says parents must understand that they are taking on a monumental amount of responsibility when homeschooling a child. Parents must not only provide a curriculum, but textbooks and course materials.
Lucak admits that homeschooling can be a lot of work — but she adds that, for her, it is a labor of love with many rewards.
Merkle notes that there is a vibrant, dynamic homeschooling community in Northeast Ohio to which its members can turn for support. Support groups are available to offer homeschoolers advice and many have their own Facebook and Yahoo pages.
Lucak herself is the founder of a homeschool support group. Another source of support for Lucak and her family is their homeschool co-op, in which families meet and work cooperatively to achieve common goals. Co-ops can be organized around academics, activities, social time and various projects. Libraries, museums and parks systems are also resources that homeschoolers can tap. For example, in August, Lucak and her daughters participated in a sailing course on Lake Erie offered by the Cleveland Metroparks.
“You get to see your children grow and thrive,” she continues, “It’s worth the trip if people have the patience and ambition to spend one-on-one time with their children.”
Lucak’s advice to anyone considering homeschooling is to begin by talking to current homeschoolers to get as many perspectives as possible. She also recommends reviews of available and potential curriculums. Parents probably know their child’s learning style better than anyone, but should be open to change if their teaching approach isn’t working. She also warns that the same approach may not work from child to child.
One challenge that Lucak has encountered as an instructor is teaching subjects that she or her child find difficult, such as math. Fortunately, Lucak’s husband, Bill, helps her with that subject, but some parents may be reluctant to teach topics because their own knowledge of a subject may be shaky. Firms such as Northcoast Education Services (NCES) in Solon and College Colleagues in Middleburg Heights can help both parent and child.
NCES tutors work with parents to design a program for each school year. They also are available to help parents with curriculum support, skills assessments, text selection, and time management. College Colleagues provides one-on-one help for students in mathematics, science, reading, writing, homework help, motivation and study skills.
Christine Vodicka, executive director of College Colleagues, says that the center provides supplemental curriculum assistance to families that are homeschooling.
Due to ongoing technological innovations and societal changes, the education options open to families will likely continue to increase. Throughout all of these changes, Merkle notes that public schools always have their doors open to families and stand ready, willing and able to educate all students.
“We also know that sometimes public school doesn’t work out for everyone and we just want parents to make the right choice for their child,” he adds.