At age 5, Nathan (pictured above) was reading at a third grade level, and testing above the first grade level for math. Grandparents Steve and Kathy White didn’t want him attending school with kids older than him, and so they turned to Ohio Connections Academy (OCA), a tuition-free, public online school that offers K – 12 curriculum. The school proved an excellent choice, as it allowed Nathan, now 10, the chance to work ahead, and to investigate subjects he might not have been able to explore otherwise.
“We were hooked at the information session,” says Kathy White. “We love that he can work at his own pace.”
In fact, Nathan’s exploration into environmental sustainability helped him create a program for his community that encouraged residents and businesses to promote recycling, and which he even presented to the City Council.
Online schools offer the opportunity for intensive study with the help of one-on-one interaction with teachers. But it takes a parent’s support and some serious organization skills for students to succeed.
So you’ve signed up for online education, now what?
First, set up a dedicated workspace for your child. OCA stresses the importance of having a space that’s just for school. Along with eliminating distractions, a dedicated workspace makes clear that school is in session. White says that Nathan will hang a ”School in Session” sign on the door of the spare bedroom, which contains his school computer and desk.
Next, review all the material sent to you and become familiar with how the school’s system works, says Carl Jackson, a high school math teacher with OCA. Most schools offer online training sessions, or in the case of OCA, in-person meetings. You and your child will have a chance to test out things like logging in, reviewing lessons, and submitting questions before the first day of school begins.
Lastly, use the school’s resources. Teachers are an e-mail or text message away. For Bryn Stepp, a teacher with the Virtual Community School of Ohio (VCS), accessibility means one-on-one interaction with students. After conducting reading diagnostics on her students, she schedules 45-minute, one-on-one reading times — a strategy resulting in dramatically improved reading scores on the Ohio Achievement Assessments (OAA). Multiple methods of communication help teachers too. It allows Stepp to see what students are working on, but also what they’re not. If a student hasn’t turned in a math lesson in a while, she can contact the parent and keep everyone on track. Says Stepp, who used to teach in a brick-and-mortar school, “I feel like I get closer to kids and parents than I did in regular school.”
“Don’t stress,” says Amanda Nobbe, whose oldest attends Ohio Virtual Academy. “You won’t get everything done in a day.” She suggests that you give yourself some time to find a rhythm that works for your child, and says that it took her a month or two to feel settled.
Strategies for Success
Consistency and communication are keys to success, says Jackson. “Keep a regular schedule,” he advises. Once you find a schedule that works for you, whether you start early in the morning, or split the day with an extended break, stick with it as much as possible. Jackson also encourages parents to communicate regularly with teachers, especially if your child is struggling with a lesson. There’s nothing worse than falling behind, but fortunately, schools like OCA have built-in checks for both students and parents to keep everyone on task.
What do schools expect from parents? “It’s a high level of involvement right from the get-go,” says Susie Ebie, a Family Support Coordinator with Ohio Virtual Academy (OHVA). Parents provide a lot of support during the first few years, especially for younger grades, she explains. But as kids get older, they’ll become independent. Students use a mix of online live instruction with lessons they study on their own. Parents are encouraged to sit in on lessons so that they can help with homework assignments when necessary. What’s really important, says Ebie, is to focus on learning, not a checklist. When you log in and see the lessons and assignments for the day, it can be easy to develop a “let’s get it done” mind-set that makes you rush through a lesson to get to the next one. “There is a time commitment,” she says. “You can’t do it in a couple of hours – it takes a school day.”
But it’s not all about structure. Flexibility is a very appealing factor. “I love the way it’s set up,” says Monica Taylor, whose daughter Hunter will start fifth grade at OHVA this year. “If she wants to stay on something, she’s not rushed to meet the needs of other students or made to wait when she’s ready to move ahead.” And for Amanda Nobbe, whose 6-year-old daughter also attends OHVA, the flexibility allows her to help teach her child. Nobbe explains that she can preview lessons and do them offline if she feels her daughter has already had too much screen time, or if she feels that her daughter will learn a concept easier with hands-on instruction.
“Pay attention to the learning styles of your child,” says Kathy White of her 10-year-old grandson, who attends Ohio Connections Academy. “We found out Nathan is an early-bird learner.” She adds that they often have school work done before lunch, but use the afternoons for re-visiting some topics and talking and learning about them from different perspectives.
The Social (Non) Dilemma
Online education isn’t an isolated world, and for those students who sometimes learn best from teacher and peer interaction, opportunities are available. According to Jackson, teachers at OCA will sometimes schedule open lessons, during which students can log in to ask questions, and see what other students are asking. And of course, students can e-mail each other through the school’s private e-mail system.
Plenty of parents worry that their kids are missing out on important socialization skills, but between events and clubs organized by the schools and extra-curricular activities sought by families, making friends isn’t much of a problem. Like everything else worth doing, it takes some effort.
“I’ve been involved in church and church activities,” says Jeffrey Jordan, who attends the Virtual Community School (VCS). “I played sports for the YMCA … I took every outside activity I could join (thanks to my mom), including my local library and Digi Kidz (a computer technology class), as well as leadership classes at COSI.”
Taylor’s daughter is active in karate and has plenty of friends both in the dojo and online. “It’s a different type of friendship,” says Taylor. “She gets to be with kids who have a shared interest.”
Schools will organize outings and field trips for families. According to Ebie, OHVA will host social events, as well as academic events like spelling bees and science fairs. Stepp says that she will sometimes coordinate holiday parties online, or offer open time at the end of a session, where students can chat about the lesson, or just learn about their classmates.
And don’t forget that socializing begins at home, with you and your children. “One thing that’s a plus with online, home-based education is the ability to build family relationships and spend time with each other,” says Ebie. “It’s really a wonderful by-product.”