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People ask me all the time why I pulled my kid out of a newly built, beautiful upper-middle class Middle School (walking distance from my house) to go to Connections Academy, an On-line public school. If I was dissatisfied with my local public school, why not enroll my daughter in private school?
First of all, I did it because I’m cheap and online public school costs me nothing. I had always wanted my children to go to a private school because I heard from my rich friends how “tailored” their kids’ education was. I wanted the same for my kids but didn’t have any extra money to pay for something I should be getting for free, as our family is on a tight budget. On-line school is free, and not to be confused with Homeschool (where I would be the teacher). On-line school is staffed with professional Principals, Administrators and Teachers who are paid by the state and teach the same course curriculum as the public school down the street. The lessons are “live” (picture a GoToMeeting or FaceTime on your computer) and my daughter works with her teachers and classmates in real time. Her academic schedule is very flexible.
Secondly, I did it because my kid now does HER work on HER schedule, at HER pace. I know this is hard for some people to imagine, but not every kid does their best neurologically between the hours of 8:15 a.m. and 2:55 p.m. then 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. My kid hates relearning things she already got during the school day (a.k.a. homework) much less doing hours and hours of busy work (often 2-3 hours a day in middle school) after the hours of 3:30 p.m., when in her mind, she could be doing something fun, like playing sports.
Afternoon Sanity Regained
On-line school doesn’t have “homework”. When you are done with the work…you are all done. They call it “Quality Control.” I call it “Afternoon Sanity” since, to be perfectly honest, I could barely help her with the 2-3 hours of homework last year without looking it up on YouTube or Google. Half the time, I wasn’t even sure if we found the right explanations (or the answers the teacher was looking for), and often I think I just confused her even more. Math is her most challenging subject, so she likes to schedule it first thing so she can “get it over with”. Last school year her math class was scheduled for 4th period, right before lunch, when her stomach was growling and the audible hunger pains of everyone else did not help her focus on her toughest subject or test well. Apparently, her former math teachers’ blood sugar was also uncomfortably low, because he used to yell at the class a lot.
With Connections Academy, our day is totally flexible and we are early birds. We start early and end early but the timing is completely up to the individual family. Our typical day starts at 4:45 a.m. I wake her up to go to 24 hour fitness and by 6:30 a.m. we have walked, lunged, jogged and sprinted ourselves into a full sweat. We lift weights (I spot her and she spots me). We box, jump rope and do complex full body plyometric training that she uses to get better at her sport of choice, soccer. I do it to stay out of the “plus size” stores at the mall. It’s a win/win.
Here’s what our day looks like:
At 7:30 a.m. our family sits down for a protein-based, large portioned, banquet of “brain food”. We laugh a lot (endorphins released from the workout) and talk through the day’s schedule and priorities.
At 8:00 a.m. she goes upstairs to a room that is devoted just to her interests and studies. She sits in a cushy black swivel office chair at a pink desk with matching bookshelves for her computer, iPad, printer and hard books. Her “office” is a middle schooler’s dream torn from the catalog pages of Justice or Pottery Barn Teen. In the corner proudly stands a 9-foot hot pink surf board, the walls are covered in her framed artwork, certificate awards and mini shelves, with oodles of golden trophies — hard-earned reminders that if you are willing to go the extra mile, glory can be yours. When her computer is in “sleep mode” a series of photos that she chose rotate as a gentle reminder of the people who love her and believe in her most.
From 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. she learns incredible things about the same core subjects as her friends who go to school down the street. The difference is that she is enrolled in California’s STEM program (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) so there is an emphasis on learning and technology that will lead to a high-paying job when she ultimately finishes her education, whatever degree level that may be. The public school down the street did not offer the STEM program.
I know some people think that I’m short-changing her because she doesn’t have the same number of “hours in” as other kids. But my daughter is taking the same California curriculum as those enrolled in traditional schools, and she is taking special GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) programming in Science and English, which goes above and beyond normal curriculum, for 2 more courses per day. She is challenged and regularly reports, “It’s hard, Mom.” Nevertheless, she currently has a 4.0 GPA and it turns out that more challenging work is rewarding to her. She is no longer irritated with homework like in years past because her 4 core classes, 2 electives and 2 GATE classes are focused and she is able to get them done from 8:00 – 2:00. Her club soccer and 24 Hour Fitness hours count towards her State PE 200-minute weekly minimum requirement.
Multiple sighs of relief
I’m no longer annoyed with the bad attitude that I saw from her after school all of last school year. She is no longer taking a ten minute morning break and 40 minute lunch every day, listening to the typical female middle school chatter of who “likes” who, who they decided is going to get torn up on Instagram after school and who’s taste in fashion will put them on Joan Rivers “Fashion Hole” list on E! News (if they had a say).
My daughter’s 5th period class (after lunch) last year was much harder because she was distracted, feeling bad for the girl who was going to get blasted on Instagram later that day. She would tune out of her studies in Science class thinking about her moral dilemma of whether she should warn the poor girl or just pretend she knew nothing. She wondered if she was going to be the next target of the “mean girls” agenda in the future and I saw that it was wasting a lot of minutes in her day.
She no longer dresses for P.E. only to find herself listening to a 20-minute lecture about good sportsmanship or watching a sports movie… yes… they were sitting on the floor criss-cross applesauce watching sports movies in PE last year. When they weren’t watching sports movies, the 15-minute actual workouts seem pointless to her. She barely got her heart rate up only to turn around and get dressed again. She no longer listens to boys with foul mouths, or sees them get caught and have to run laps only to curse the PE teacher even more when she’s out of ear shot. I understand it was difficult for the PE teacher to manage 63 students on the field at one time, but it was also difficult for my daughter to hear the boys talk about her behind her back. When I brought this to the PE teacher’s attention, she told me there was nothing she could do if she doesn’t hear it herself.
Going from coach to first class
Connections Academy knows that not every student and teacher is going to get along. If a student doesn’t “click” with a teacher, they simply move them to another class/teacher. They have a “no questions asked” policy about this request, and the change is facilitated within 2 school days. This leaves me stunned with regret, especially when I think of the times my kid was stuck with a mediocre teacher for an entire year. With On-line school, it feels like I’m at Nordstrom’s.
I hear people say they are concerned that she won’t develop good social skills. I hear that a lot, but it simply hasn’t proven true. She plays Club Soccer with a lovely, yet highly competitive group of girls 3 times a week. She is deeply involved in her Church group which meets twice a week and is often called to do extra work in the community like picking up trash from the beach and feeding those in our neighborhood who cannot afford to feed themselves. She gets more texts a week then my husband and me combined. I hear the critics but I am not worried about her social life or her sense of community whatsoever.
It’s not for everyone
On-line school is not for everyone. If you have to stand over your kid to get things done, it probably won’t work for your family as a viable education option. If yours is the kind of kid who doesn’t appreciate having only 3 elective options (in our case, Spanish, choir or band/orchestra) and would instead like a list of 40 different electives (which include Performing Arts, Computer Gaming Design, Entrepreneurship and a wide range of foreign languages, including Chinese), on-line school just might be the right place for them.
I am so happy for my daughter, but at the same time I am afraid for the teachers (some of them my dear friends) who are still teaching at the school down the street. I don’t have all of the answers. Maybe schools need to run more a businesses (as the On-line schools do), or maybe there are other ways to build more flexibility into their experience. But whatever happens, one thing is for sure. On-line school has been a terrific option for our family, and for many thousands of others. Ultimately traditional teachers’ jobs will be in jeopardy. Not only is it free, but it is free enterprise at its best… something to think about.
Shannon Stier is a wife, mother of twin girls and entrepreneur. She grew up in small town Parker Colorado. She ambitiously climbed the Fortune 50 ladder for over 15 years, and in 2001 became a stay-at-home mom. Appearing on Bravo’s “Work Out – Season 3” as a weight loss client for celebrity trainer Jackie Warner, Shannon lost over 100 pounds in a 12-episode reality show. On the show, she shared how her daughter with special needs was learning how to walk (at age 6) through equestrian therapy, and she continues to be a passionate voice both for kids who are gifted and for those with special needs.