You may or may not be aware (or care) that I have homeschooled since my oldest was 5. As she was approaching high school, she was wanting to explore other options. She shadowed at our local Catholic school where a lot of her friends were enrolled and ultimately decided to try a performing arts charter school about an hour away and she’s been happy there.
Last year, Luke and Kate were also ready to try something different. They wanted to know that they could handle the workload in a conventional school. We have never used textbooks or worksheets and the demands of a public school schedule are just different. In spite of having plenty of friends at our local public school, neither of them were anxious to go there. Private school is not an option for us at this point, so cyber school was the obvious answer.
There are at least 12 cyber charter schools available in our state and no matter who you ask, there are positives and negatives to every one.
Since Hannah’s school is under the umbrella of PaCyber and Kate is thinking about going there, I thought that was an obvious choice. I chose a different school for Luke which I’ll explain below but let’s talk about PaCyber first.
I attended an open house at one of their sites where they offer tutoring and enrichment classes and had a chance to watch a presentation and ask some questions.
They offer both virtual classes and self-paced or a combination which was what Kate did. She logged in to math class twice a week for an hour and a half with a teacher and science three times a week for an hour. She chose to complete English, Art, and Social Studies at her own pace. Gym also was self-paced. She just recorded her activity on a log and submitted it at the end of the semester.
The first 2 weeks were challenging getting used to the technology. Her virtual class teachers were great but assigned a lot of short projects for homework which acquainted the students to the technology. This was helpful but also could be frustrating and redundant. For example, they both assigned an “about me” Powerpoint presentation with different criteria. It was fine but since the point was to familiarize the students with the software, I thought this could be coordinated more efficiently. For about 2 weeks, I found myself running from Kate to Luke trying to help them with these technology projects on top of their course work. It was frustrating but they shouldn’t have the same frustrations next year.
Kate had a brief orientation where she received her computer, got an ID photo and learned a little about the school. They did not test her until the school year started and she completed that online. They used that information to determine whether she could benefit from extra support in math or reading. That extra help was available but not mandatory.
One thing PaCyber is doing (and maybe others are doing as well) is offering enrichment and art classes at various sites around the region. They call it “Clicks and Bricks”. They also offer tutoring and homework help. For parents who have to be away while their child needs supervision, this is a nice option. Kate took a beginner guitar class once a week and really enjoyed it.
Each student is assigned to an instructional supervisor who orders the appropriate classes and is the main contact person for the family. Basically, he was a guidance counselor. I was so impressed by his enthusiasm and genuine love for education and passion for teaching. He is a math teacher by training and offered tutoring for his students. Almost every time he called to check on Kate’s progress we ended up discussing education in general. I can’t say enough about his help.
Since math isn’t one of Kate’s strengths, I chose a virtual classroom for math and science. I knew she was behind her peers in that subject. In spite of her unfamiliarity with most of the content I’m happy to report that she did great in math and is definitely on par with her peers now. Her teacher came highly recommended by her I.S. and he suggested that she would benefit from his style and expertise and he was absolutely right. She ended up with a solid 93% for the year. The accountability and forced practice and challenge was key to her progress. She did just as well in science. I haven’t received her report card for the other 2 classes. She had As in the first term and Bs in the second, I’m not sure how the actual numbers will shake out. For some reason as soon as the first sememester ends, those courses disappear online-even the scores.
We learned that Kate responds much better to the regular accountability provided in the virtual class setting so she’ll have all virtual classes next year. As appealing as it is to be able to finish early, it just wasn’t realistic for Kate and in retrospect, we probably should have switched mid-year. But it was a valuable lesson and I think she’ll enjoy the freedom that a schedule provides next year, if that makes sense.
Moving on to Luke’s school, Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School or “PALCS”. As I mentioned, I chose a different school for Luke. I took part in a virtual chat and learned that his school provided different levels within the grade for each subject. One of my concerns was Luke’s confidence in writing, in particular and Language Arts, in general. While Kate’s school accommodates this difference by placing the students in a different grade level, I don’t think either of the kids would have responded well to being placed in a lower grade for any subject. The other difference is that Luke’s classes are all self-paced within boundaries. All subjects have an optional chat or online meeting with the teacher. His math class met 4 times per week, the other classes met once a week. In the beginning he was attending all of the chats and enjoyed it but once he was familiar with the technology and the procedure for taking quizzes and submitting assignments, he only went to chats when he needed them (read-rarely).
Luke experienced the same technology frustrations in the first 2 weeks. What made it particularly frustrating was that his school required both the student and the parent to complete a virtual training course online for 3-4 hours before the official start of school. I did complain that it was redundant and a waste of time. In general, learning the steps of a task is useless until its relevant. Both Luke and Kate eventually learned how to upload, scan, create and submit power point presentations, use other software for assignments and independently handle all the technical aspects of interacting online.
Luke’s assignments would open up a week or 2 in advance which allowed him to work ahead a little. He worked a couple of hours in the evening on the next day’s assignments and worked an hour or two in the mornings completing the day’s assignments. He usually had little or no work to do on Fridays and most of the time would work ahead for the next week. Every 3 weeks he had progress checks and all assignments were due up to that point which provided great accountability. The format of Luke’s school was a great fit for him. He also did very well making honor roll for all 4 marking periods.
I think most homeschooling parents wonder how their children will adjust to the course work in a traditional school if they have to make that transition unexpectedly or otherwise. I call it Mack truck anxiety…”how will my children perform if I’m hit by a Mack truck some day and they’re thrown into a school setting?…have I ruined them?” I was glad to see that they adjusted fine. More importantly, they both know now that they wouldn’t struggle academically if they had to go.
In general, it was a relief to have a break from planning their curriculum. While they both progressed in math, writing and adapted well to the more formal environment of completing lots of assignments, I still think they both plowed through material and didn’t necessarily learn a lot in science or social studies. At least not much that they’ll be likely to retain. But I didn’t either when I went to school. Maybe its just the nature of textbooks. To be fair, though, they probably don’t remember a lot of particulars in those subjects from our home schooling-sad but true. I will say, though, that they all (including my other children here) seem to have a good sense of things. I think because we’ve read a lot as a family, listened to hundreds of audio books and they’ve read a lot on their own, they are very well-rounded. I can’t disagree with a few friends who complained that they didn’t like all the busy work their children had to do for cyber school. I don’t think this is any different from traditional schools-especially in the elementary grades. I characterize it as volume over value.
The enrollment process is identical for both schools and would be similar to enrolling a child in traditional school. I also had to enroll the children with our local school district, which was annoying but painless.
Both schools provide tutoring and extra support either in the form of a chat or office hours with your teacher, another tutor or videos available on various subjects. Kate’s school is compiling a database of video content for tutoring and extra help. Not surprisingly, both schools gear up for standardized tests and have assessments and study aids for that purpose. Luke’s counted toward his grade, Kate’s didn’t. I wasn’t that impressed with the platform that Luke’s school used. Speaking of standardized tests, both had convenient locations for testing and they made it very clear about the procedures for reporting and what to bring. Luke’s provided a continental breakfast if that matters to you.
I also felt that both schools have enthusiastic staff who generally seem to love what they do. I was surprised that a virtual class or chat room was a lot like a regular classroom. There are still disruptions, teacher’s pets, kids who do all the work in a group situation and kids who dodge it. For the most part, both Luke and Kate were able to tune the distractions out.
Both Kate and Luke are looking forward to continuing cyber school. Mark wants to try it next year, too. It will be different for me not being responsible for any planning or upkeep or filing but I’m sure the 3 of them will keep me busy regardless.
I hope this post has answered some of your questions about cyber school. I would be happy to answer any other questions you have. Just leave a comment or click on my contact page and reach me through email.
I’d love to hear about your experience with cyber or charter schools and how you think it compares to homeschool or traditional public school.