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Ask Jeanne: Online Virtual School?

Ask Jeanne: Online SchoolsThe first few weeks of school this year haven’t gone well for Cheryl, and she wrote to me for help deciding whether to homeschool her 7th and 11th graders who are in negative school situations. I wanted to answer a specific part of her question in greater detail:

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I have never homeschooled and I need advice. I thought of doing the online homeschool called <name of virtual public school withheld>. Please help!

Considering an online school is common for people in your situation, Cheryl, because it seems like an all-in-one package deal that would smoothly and comprehensively take the place of school.

Online Public Schools

It’s important to realize that many online programs like the one you mention are not online homeschools; they are online public schools. To put it bluntly, they are not homeschooling. They are public school at home.

This may seem like semantics, but the distinction is important.

I’m not an expert on education in your state, but I can see that this online academy’s own website refers to it as a “K-12 online public school.

This matters because if an online program is public school at home, you have to follow public school rules rather than homeschool laws. Mandatory testing and assignments may be quite stressful. This may not give you the curriculum, flexibility, customized learning, or reasonable workload that your kids need.

If you are trying to get away from problems that are caused by school curriculum or constraints that are in place because of public school requirements, an online public school may not help.

If you are trying to get away from problems that are caused by school curriculum or constraints that are in place because of public school requirements, an online public school may not help.

You need to talk to independent homeschoolers in your state (not just the people who are using the program or administrators enrolling students in the program) to find out how using the online public school compares to actual homeschooling in your state. Some online public schools are more flexible than others.

Pros and Cons

I’ll be honest, in general, I’m not a particular fan of online schools for the situation you described in your original email to me. Online public schools frequently do require the kind and amount of seat time that will make a 7th-grade boy squirm and lose focus, which was something you mentioned in your original question. I wrote “beware virtual school packages” in my article about how homeschooling can help kids who have attention challenges.

An online public school may still provoke your daughter’s workload stress. Parents of homeschooled kids can guide their children’s education based on mental health and emotional well-being as well as on academic achievement, but kids in public school, online or not, may face the continued pressure to keep up and make the grade.

There are many instances of negative reviews for online public school programs from homeschoolers because they may replicate so many of the problems of public school, but now the parent is on the front lines dealing with the kids and the curriculum delivery.

When you homeschool independently, not through an online public school, you have freedom, within your state’s homeschool laws, to completely customize the learning experience:

  • You can go faster or slower.
  • You can homeschool much more efficiently, in just a few hours a day.
  • You can homeschool much more effectively, through the lens of your child’s interests rather than through someone else’s agenda.
  • You can have a 7th-grade boy learn from projects and mentors and experiments and field trips instead of spending most of his time sitting in a chair reading a real or virtual textbook. He can help choose his own math program and work on it at times that fit him best.

Many people choose online public schools because they are free to the parent, funded by taxpayers through state departments of education. “Free” sounds good, but using taxpayer funds is why they come with all the strings attached. The rules are meant to make sure that the taxpayer-funded education follows the same standards and rigor that are in public education.

Personally, I think that’s a flaw, not a feature, but I’m the kind of homeschool mom who has facilitated lots of messy projects and is comfortable helping my kids with college prep. I would rather have my kids enjoy learning than follow a curriculum.

That said, there are some pros to online public schools, and they may outweigh the cons for you:

  • Online public schools do solve school problems for some families, especially if the problem is related to the child’s physical presence at the school–bullying, long bus rides, low expectations, a chronic teacher shortage, or something else that is tied to the bricks and mortar school.
  • They are helpful if kids have extreme interests or hobbies that are time-consuming, and they need to check off standardized school work while spending hours doing competitive gymnastics or something similar.
  • They may work well for kids who are highly motivated to get out of negative school situations while also being a good match for sit-down-and-study learning from textbooks and online resources.
  • Returning to a bricks and mortar school may be easier because the credits from an online public school may transfer.

There are also kids who flourish on the straightforward structure of an online public school. They like skipping the school commute, and they like working primarily online. Their parents like that the curriculum is provided and the expectations are clear.

There are satisfied families and students who are using online public schools. It might work for you.

Not all online public schools function the same way. You need to be clear what the distinctions are from homeschooling in your state, and then decide whether online public school is “different enough” from your kids’ current situation to solve their specific problems, without making things worse. I’m glad this option is available, and I do read reviews and hear from people who like online public school. However, I also hear from many people who left online public schools after a year or two and became independent homeschoolers, because online public school was too restrictive and did not solve the problems that caused them to leave their local school.

Online Homeschools

Just to make things more complicated, in some states, there are also online schools, courses, and programs that aren’t public schools–and there are charter schools that may not use the same kind of standards-based online curriculum we have been talking about here. These will also come with their own sets of pros and cons, as well as their own distinctions in each state. You’ll also hear the terms “virtual school” and “cyber school.” Homeschoolers do sometimes use some of these programs part or full-time, so it’s important to understand which ones are public schools and which are not.

Again, depending on your state’s laws, this might make your kids “officially” homeschooled students, private school students, or charter school students, even though they all might be learning at home. This is why TheHomeSchoolMom doesn’t advise on state-specific issues; there are too many possibilities!

Do your homework by doing online searches for reviews of the online public school you are considering.

Talk to current homeschoolers about what they have heard about online public schools in your state.

Join Facebook groups of homeschoolers in your state and ask questions about the online public school you are considering.

Good luck deciding on whether to homeschool or use an online public school, Cheryl. Your children are fortunate that you’re concerned about their learning and their well-being.


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Jeanne Faulconer

A popular speaker at homeschooling conferences, business groups, and parents’ groups, Jeanne Potts Faulconer has homeschooled her three sons in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia. She is a former college faculty member, former editor and book reviewer for Home Education Magazine, a long-time editor for VaHomeschoolers Voice, and a recent news correspondent for WCVE, an NPR-member station. Jeanne teaches writing and literature for her youngest son’s homeschool co-op, and she is a student of how learning works – at home, in the music room, in small groups, in the college classroom, on the soccer field, and in the car to and from practice. Holding her Master of Arts degree in Communication, Jeanne conducts portfolio evaluations for Virginia homeschoolers for evidence of progress. To read more of Jeanne’s writing, inquire about a homeschool evaluation, or ask her to speak to your group, see her blog, Engaged Homeschooling.

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  1. Cheryl Allan

    Thank you so much for explaining. It is going to take time to see what works for us.

    • Sipokazi

      Same here! We are only withdrawing our kids this month and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the “stuff” that’s out there.

  2. Crystal Quinsee

    I am a mother of 4 aged 16, 9, 4 and 1 – The two elders I have decided to home school as recent as two weeks ago. I am feeling extremely challenged in this, I am SCARED and not sure where or how to start this. My 9 year old is Grade 3 and my 16 year old is Grade 9 – PLEASE HELP ME, URGENTLY ????

  3. This is a really important conversation and I think will become more and more common as technology inundates more aspects of our lives. I’ve been using an online curriculum with my son, and LOVE IT. It is not tied to public school, has courses a la carte, and is generally awesome. For teens, it includes classes in business and personal finance that are incredibly practical and engaging. You can check out my blog or message me for details.

  4. Thomas C. Spires

    Our civic organization historically pursued high
    achieving individuals as follows
    1. 35% community service and leadership
    2. 35% financial needs
    3. 25% GPA
    4. 05% neatness completeness of application
    For Scholarship awards we place 35% on th is quality. While it is true that some home-schooled students do very well academically, on the basis of conversations with home-schooling parnets their students have precious little experience with the level of leadership and community service that we are seeing with our honor society public students who apply. Given that Leadership and Community service represents 35% for scoring, the home-schooler has little chance of being selected and the justification for their being excluded form our program.
    My question is,. Does the home-schooled student have more access to leadership opportunities than we are aware?

  5. Denise raulerson

    I sent a notice of intent form letter to the superintendent of our school system and I receive the certified return receipt requested stub back. do I have to wait 30 days from the time I sent the letter or can I go ahead and get a curriculum and get started homeschooling because I have the receipt return back to me from the superintendent

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