When we finally decided that we were going to take the plunge and move full-time into an RV, one of the major logistical pieces that we agonized over, was how we were going to provide a high-quality education to our precocious 10 year old daughter that would set her up for future success for any endeavor she decided to pursue. Abby was a public school prodigy and had always thrived in a traditional classroom environment. She was well-behaved, loved her teachers, and completed her assignments with ease. She had tested into a Talented and Gifted program and was by all indicators a happy, healthy academic success story. And as a former middle school science teacher, I couldn’t imagine a better scenario for our daughter than a “normal” public school experience. But the call of the open road was powerful and a traditional education proved to be a formidable barrier to our dream of RVing across America, so we began researching alternatives.
As we assessed our options, homeschooling was the obvious choice for the freedom and flexibility it affords. Peter and I would take full control of her intellectual growth, focus on the things that we believed were important, dictate her schedule, assess her progress, etc. Seriously, who could possibly have a better pulse on our child’s needs than her parents!?! However, there are some inherent problems associated with infinite freedom and flexibility. The first, is my obvious lack of expertise in any of her fields of study besides science. I hold a M.A.Ed in secondary science education and served as a curriculum specialist in the largest school district in Colorado, and if that experience taught me anything, it is how much expertise is needed to teach a single grade level of a single subject. I knew I could rock her science education, but what about social studies? and math!?! I survived calculus in college eons ago, but it’s been a while since I calculated the cosine of angle C, or graphed a linear function.
In addition to the complete responsibility of her intellectual development, I had concerns about how adding the teacher/student dynamic would impact our mother/daughter relationship, and frankly I feared that one of us might not survive the arrangement. Abby has always been an independent, strong-willed child and I could envision epic battles of will over the relevance of learning about any given topic she found un-necessary. (I swear she was born with the litigation skills of a cunning and relentless trial lawyer!) Compound my concerns about maintaining relationships, adequate academic records and college admissions, and my endless demands as a small business owner, and it was pretty apparent that home-schooling was simply not in the cards for our family (although we know many families who manage to home-school their children brilliantly).
The second, and ultimately more appealing option for us, was an accredited online program that would provide certified teachers who would deliver a quality curriculum, set due dates and grade assignments, and leave me in a supporting role where I could assist, but not direct, Abby in her studies. An added bonus was that her academic records would be maintained by her school, and the college application process would be similar to that of any other student from an accredited school. These features addressed our initial concerns that we had in pulling her out of a traditional public school, but as we began researching online schools, we realized there were a gazillion other factors to consider.
The first is the designation of the school itself: public vs. private. The primary difference between the two is the cost of the program and the mandates dictated by the governing department of education. Most states now offer a free-to-residents online program (often in the form of a charter school). However, because it is funded by the state, it must follow all of the state regulations for attendance, standardized testing, etc. If you opt for a private program, your tuition dollars will buy you some freedom in the form of when and how often you must be logged in, whether or not you need to attend events/assessments in person, and how the curriculum is delivered. In the past five years, we have tried three different programs, both public and private, and have learned what works (and what doesn’t) for our family.
For our first year on the road, we enrolled Abby at the Colorado Connections Academy, a public charter school based in Englewood, CO. Because we were residents, there was no cost for the program which was a big draw for us as we were transitioning our business to a mobile model and were uncertain how that would impact our financial stability. Going into the program, I liked that Abby could connect online with her teacher and peers on a regular basis and collaborate with other kids her age on projects, just like in a normal classroom. However, it quickly became apparent that all of that collaboration came at a price…the need to have high-speed, reliable internet, eight hours a day, five days a week. The administration was accommodating in the fact that they waived the requirement that she had to be logged-in to the program from a computer that was physically located in Colorado, which helped significantly, but the number of hours she needed to “attend” school was still problematic (and far more than actually needed to complete her assignments). For example, if we were in a National Park without service for a few days, and she missed a couple of live-lessons, her grade would inevitably drop a point or two. But more importantly, and what turned out to be the final nail in the coffin for the program, was that she learned far more outside of the program than she did within it.
So, for our second year on the road, we sought out other options. This time, I had a better feel for what we needed. I wanted a program that she could work through at her own pace that didn’t have any designated working hours, so that she could do school when we had service, and enjoy time away when we did not. I also wanted a program that put the responsibility of academic progress with the student and teacher. I learned the previous year that my haunch that Abby and I might not work well together in a student/teacher role was spot-on, so I ignored any program that talked about a parent involvement in the form of a “learning coach”. These parameters pretty much eliminated online public schools as an option, so we began comparing private programs. There were many options, and we eventually settled on Keystone Online (a division of k12.com) which cost approximately $3500/year. We liked the program because it was completely self paced, but still had teacher support available when needed. It also had study groups and other options (but not requirements) for collaboration among students. Abby had a few outstanding teachers and a few duds, but overall it was a positive experience that we continued for both 6th and 7th grade. The one downside, and ultimately the reason we switched to another program, was that unless we had a stellar internet connection, the course materials took FOREVER to load.
We are currently wrapping up our fourth year on the road (and third academic program) and believe that we have found a great fit for Abby to complete her high school studies. After two years and a seeming eternity spent staring at the spinning hour glass waiting for the software to load, we decided to try a text based program that allowed her to work through textbooks at her own pace, but still upload assignments and connect with her teachers virtually. This time, I scoured the internet, reading thousands of reviews from a variety of sources, and Laurel Springs, a California based school, consistently rose to the top of the list. Although the tuition was significantly more, at $4500/year, we decided to give it a shot. In the enrollment process, Abby was asked to take placement exams and ended up testing out of 8th grade math and English. I loved the fact that she would be pushed academically by skipping ahead to where she needed to be with out the social stigma of moving into a classroom with kids a year older. The program has proved to be quite challenging and has kept her working hard, but she has had abundant support from her teachers anytime she has asked for assistance.
We are looking forward to another great year at Laurel Springs but are switching it up a bit for next year. The school offers two tracks, a text-based program and an online program, and the admissions team warned us in advance that the text-based option was a lot more work than the online program. Looking ahead to next year, we are planning to do a blend of the two options so that when we don’t have good internet, Abby can work on her text-based courses, but also has the benefit of a little lighter workload in both math and world literature through the online courses. If we like the online platform, we will likely transition completely over to the online platform the following year.
It’s been a long journey charting a course through alternative school options, but overall a positive experience. And beyond the classroom, the education that Abby has attained through our travels has exceeded our wildest dreams. If we had known four years ago what we know now, we would have put all the angst of choosing an academic program aside and started this life on the road years earlier. Hopefully our experiences will help someone else find their own academic best fit.