The first time I had to meet with my son’s teacher, he was in kindergarten. I sat in a tiny kid-sized chair, knees nearly touching my chest, cheeks burning, as she enumerated the issues. “I can hardly get him to participate,” she told me. “He wants to get up and do his own thing. He talks to the other kids while they’re working.” She handed me a worksheet he’d been given to work on; instead of tracing the numbers on it like he was supposed to, he had written, “I LOVE YOU MOM.”
It was the first time I involuntarily teared up in front of a teacher, the first time I was sympathetically offered a tissue, the first time I valiantly wished he could just be the way he was supposed to be — if only to make it easier on himself. The first time my heart broke for my boy. But it wasn’t anywhere near the last.
His ensuing school years were a roller coaster of good periods and bad ones, but mostly, it was the same meeting with different teachers. He was inattentive. He wasn’t putting forth any effort. He was distracting the other students — the “good” students.
He was formally diagnosed with ADHD; we put him on medication, and things were better for a little while. When we needed to change the dosage, however, his body reacted adversely, and he asked us to let him take a break from the meds. How could we say no?
He relied on techniques he’d learned from his cognitive behavioral therapist to cope with his ADHD, but it wasn’t long before his situation at school escalated again. The last straw was our sixth-grade parent teacher conference. It was the same stuff we’d heard over and over throughout the years, but now there was more. The other kids are starting to pick on him, his teachers said. They put him up to doing things because they knew he’d comply. They’d tell him to act like a dog, and he’d act like a dog.
Stomp right on my heart.
In the car on the way home, I crumpled like wet tissue paper. “We can’t let him go through this,” I moaned to my husband through gasping sobs. “Middle school is such a hard time anyway, even for normal kids.” He agreed. We had to do something. But what?
This is when some people would have turned to homeschooling. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people. I had entertained the notion before, but the thought of my son’s entire education resting in my hands made me feel intimidated and overwhelmed — I never felt nearly qualified enough. (Not to mention my patience level hovers near zero much of the time.) I recalled hearing about an online public/homeschool “hybrid” of sorts, so I did a little research. Within a few weeks, my son was officially enrolled in an online school program. There are several; we went with one called K12 which offered a school that follows our state-mandated curriculum. Before he started, there was an orientation process which took several days, where we learned all about what to expect as well as their expectations for our roles.
His school sent us — free of charge, since it’s a public school — a loaner laptop, a printer, and all the books and course materials he needed. Monday through Friday, his school days begin at 9 a.m.: social studies, language arts, an hour for lunch, then science, math, and finally an hour to wrap up any loose ends — sort of like a study hall. There are no music, art, or PE classes like in a brick-and-mortar school, but we can do those kinds of things at home if he chooses or find a class in our community.
He logs in to his classes on his school laptop through a portal called Blackboard, where he can hear his teachers talking and communicate with them and his fellow classmates through chats (there’s also a private chat option if he doesn’t want to ask his teacher questions “publicly”) or using his microphone.
On the screen, he sees the daily lessons, just like a smartboard in regular classes. He can follow along with videos or PowerPoint presentations and interact whenever he needs to. He submits his assignments online. Once in a while, he has to do something by hand, so we either scan it and send it that way or just take a photo of the finished project and email it to his teachers.
When it comes to the social aspect, he isn’t completely sequestered from his peers just because he’s behind a computer screen. There are tons of online clubs offered through the school, and they do things like talent shows and actual physical meetups periodically. A couple of weeks ago, they rented out the entire science center just for online students in our area. Plus he has three siblings, and our neighborhood is full of kids he plays with regularly. We feel good about his socialization, and so does he.
As for me, my designation is “learning coach.” I’m not teaching him myself (thank goodness), but I’m there to assist him with anything he needs — and to keep him on track, redirecting his focus, which is sometimes a monumental task. On the school website, I can log in to see all the materials he’ll require for the upcoming week, all his classes, all his assignments, his grades, and whether he has anything that’s overdue.
Every day, I track his attendance on the site. It’s important to keep up with it because — as with any school — he has to attend a certain number of hours each school year in order to pass. He has regular tests online, but when it’s time for state testing, we drive to a hotel about five minutes from our house and my son takes a proctored exam, meaning that I drop him off and a teacher monitors his testing to make sure he isn’t cheating or getting outside help.
It’s definitely not as effort-free for me as a regular school where my job was basically to put him on the bus in the mornings and help him with his homework and sign permission slips. But it’s not as intensive as I imagine fully homeschooling him would be; I still turn him over to his teachers and function mostly in a support role.
And so far, the difference has been amazing. There’s no need for a specialized learning plan (like a 504) which he had in his traditional school where he needed permission to get up during class if he felt the inclination to move. As long as he can hear his teachers, he’s free to move about his room; in fact, we bought him a little trampoline that he frequently bounces on instead of sitting in his desk chair. The problem of distraction from (and distraction of) other students is greatly minimized since they can’t whisper/poke/joke around with each another, except during the few “hangout minutes” while they’re waiting for everyone to get to class. And if my son needs a change of scenery, it isn’t a problem; his laptop and the online nature of his classes allow us the freedom to conduct school anywhere we happen to be.
Honestly, though, the extra effort and planning is a small price to pay for the change I’ve seen in his attitude. If somebody told me I had to stand on my head for the entire school day, balancing a 10-pound weight on my feet, I’d have done it for my son. Because he — like every other kid who learns a little bit differently — should have the opportunity to be in whatever academic environment will best allow him to flourish. Right now, that environment looks like home.