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Too Cool for Virtual School

Are parties and organized sports keeping parents from choosing homeschooling for their children?

After having been a student for 21 years, I can, without hesitation, describe my dream school. It’s a happy place where the curriculum, hours of operation, and pace of learning are determined by and personalized for each student. As for the dress code, it allows, nay encourages, leisure pants.

You might be thinking that I might as well stay home. Come to think of it, the description does sound an awful lot like that of a home school. And, in fact, if my both of my parents hadn’t worked full time jobs during my elementary and high school years, I would have begged to be home schooled. There were times that I would have given anything to not have to sit through math class or wait in the cold predawn dark for a school bus to take me to a first period oral French exam or endure the various forms of peer pressure. Anything. My Roberto Clemete rookie card. My meticulous (and revealing) journals. My driver’s license. Anything… except my collection of sweats and pajama pants.       

Apparently I’m not the only one. Virtual learning programs, which allow students from kindergartners to PhD candidates to complete coursework without having to leave the house, are popping up in almost every community, including Brighton.

“It’s a great fit for a home school family because there’s a lot of choice in what the curriculum looks like,” said Dr. Laura Surrey, who serves as Assistant Superintendent of Instruction for Brighton Area Schools.

Sounds good to me—as both a former student and a parent.

I’m not alone as far as being a pro-homeschooling parent goes, either. My husband and I have always been on the same page about homeschooling. A decade ago, when we were only dreaming about how we’d raise our children, we were certain we’d homeschool them. Having recently earned our diplomas at the same public school, we felt our individualism had been undervalued from kindergarten through 12th grade. We wanted to give our children a chance to shape themselves according to their own interests rather than according to their proficiency in predetermined occasionally worthwhile, often pointless subjects.   

When we shared our plan with family and friends, most of them reacted negatively. We’d be stalling the social growth of our children, they argued. Besides, what qualified us—two directionless 20-somethings—to teach children anything. Touché.

But only to a degree. Yes. It’s probably true that a homeschooled child turned habitual hermit is in danger of becoming socially awkward. And what a shame it would be to miss out on having a peer support system. Much of what I do miss about school involves other people. School dances. Field trips. Basketball practice. Passing notes in study hall.

My niece, Elayna Nagy, who is entering 8th grade, agrees that it’s the social element of school that makes it fun.

"Back to school for me means that I get to meet new people or get closer with the people in earlier years,” she told me recently.

I’m not surprised. And I’m going to go out a limb and guess that most parents who homeschool their children or allow their children to participate in online learning programs take measures to promote social growth. In most states, homeschooled children are allowed to participate in extracurricular activities at public schools. Beyond that, many homeschooling families form cooperatives, thereby giving their children a variety of social experience. Having met a few people who were homeschool throughout the years, I’d say any awkwardness that does arise results from clashing worldviews rather than from a divergence in social maturity.

And, in my opinion, it’s not because homeschooling parents or homeschooled children have a weird approach to learning. Instead, I fear that public schools unwittingly limit a student’s access to knowledge and experience. Instead of having a class full of happy kids who lived up to their potential on graduation day, we often see a class full of kids who did or didn’t live up to the arbitrary expectations of the public school system.

Note that I am not denouncing public school altogether. Now that I have distanced myself from the public school experience, I can see the forest for the trees. It’s not all that bad. And it works wonders for children who prefer to learn in a competitive, test-score driven environment.

Elayna is one of them. In addition to looking forward to socializing with her friends this fall, she’s looking forward to challenging herself in the classroom.

“I also try to get better grades than the year before and improve my scores by learning new subjects," she said.

Dr. Surrey, who helped plan and implement Brighton’s online learning program, stressed that the online learning programs aren’t for everyone.

“It’s not for everyone. It’s really for high flying kids who are very self-directed and motivated,” she said.

In other words, it’s not for the kid in me, who wanted to do little more than sleep and dream. As for my own children, my husband and I plan to stay receptive to them. No matter what, we’ll help them earn a well-rounded education, even if it means supplementing a public school’s cookie cutter curriculum at home.

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