The pandemic has forced these families to try new education formats. Now they want to stick to it.
Tasha Hotch has always been a neighborhood mom and a strong supporter of public schools.
“Sometimes I would volunteer in the classroom… or in the office, or on photo day,” Hotch said. “The students know who you are, you are another adult they trust, and I just loved it.”
The longtime Mountain View resident even ran for the Anchorage School District School Board in 2017 and 2018.
But, as his own son Patrick progressed through school in the district, Hotch noticed he was struggling – being drawn into special classes and having failure grades.
By the time he got into his freshman year, Hotch was worried that Patrick wouldn’t graduate if something didn’t change soon. She asked to place her son in an alternative program, but the school refused.
“The response was sort of ‘You’re premature in taking this course of action,’” Hotch said. “And that was really frustrating for me. And I was like, ‘Well, we’re not going to do this next year.’ “
But then the pandemic happened, during Patrick’s freshman spring break, and all of his classes moved online.
Suddenly the whole district was put on an alternative program. It’s been a bumpy transition, but Hotch said Patrick is starting to thrive. Instead of not being on track to graduate at all, he’s on track to graduate a year early.
Now a rising junior, Patrick plans to stay out of the mainstream school system and take an even more individualized approach with home schooling over the next school year, which begins next week.
Like the Hotches, many families nationwide experienced a whole new format of schooling when the pandemic ended in-person learning. The number of students enrolled in home schooling programs across the country has doubled according to a March 2020 survey from the US Census Bureau.
And Alaska saw the largest increase in homeschooling enrollments, from 9.6% of households to 27.5% during the data collection period.
For some families, home schooling was a short-term solution to the unpredictability of in-person learning and the lack of awareness of virtual education. Some of them hated it and can’t wait to get back to class.
But for others, like the Hotches, being pushed into a more flexible education option has led to unexpected success. And they want to continue.
“Cafeteria-style education is truly the future,” said Jessica Parker, director of the Family Partnership Charter School, a home schooling program for ASDs. “Parents like to be in control and choose what they think is best for their child. “
Parker said his program doubled in size last year, reaching a capacity of 1,500 students. She had to turn away 800 families.
This year, Parker said about 20% of families have decided not to continue with Family Partnership for a number of reasons. But they were easily replaced by other people eager to enter.
“When we opened our doors this morning, there were parents standing in line to come in and hand in their application,” Parker said.
Parker expects the program to reach capacity again within the first week of enrollment.
ASD Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock said families are also looking to learn more about available school options for the upcoming school year.
“What’s interesting about the pandemic is that it literally puts every student and every family in some form of blended or online learning format,” Stock said. “Suddenly it was a necessity, and now they realize it. Now they ask.
The district is sending messages to families about its various offerings, many of which were already there but people were unaware of, Stock said. ASD calls it ASD Flex.
Enrollment is constantly fluctuating, so the district won’t know exactly where families have landed until the first day of school draws near, Stock said.
The district expects about 75% of students who have left for other programs will return for in-person learning this fall. The number of registrations is already increasing. As of the end of last week, the district was forecasting an enrollment of about 44,000 students for the fall, up from nearly 40,000 at the end of last school year.
Stock said the district expects a large majority of families with ASD – around 80% – to choose the in-person learning option this fall. But a growing number are interested in the customization that meets their needs.
“I think people are going to see that schooling is smoother than they thought,” Stock said. “People really recognize that they have options… it’s not that they weren’t there, it’s just that a lot of families never thought about it or knew about it.”
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Stock said families might not choose strictly home schooling or everything in person, but maybe something in between. More students could take online classes and only go to school buildings for activities on a schedule that allows them to work or attend to family obligations.
And for some, home schooling just got easier.
Jennie Schroll turned to home schooling at the start of the pandemic and plans to continue. She said she needed a stable schedule.
“The district kept turning around and going back and forth not knowing what it was going to do (at the start of the pandemic),” Schroll said. “I just couldn’t handle the inconsistency.”
But Schroll discovered other benefits as well – not having to commute or rush her three children out of the house every day has saved her family a lot of time.
“If there’s an accident on the freeway and the traffic is blocked… and if we’re going to be late and all of that (is gone),” Schroll said. “I never thought homeschooling would end up being less stressful.”
For all of its advantages, homeschooling requires a lot of work and coordination.
Schroll started a business and works from home now, and Grandma and Grandpa look after her 3-year-old in the morning.
Hotch also has a job that allows for remote working and she has extended family in the neighborhood who can help support her son.
But for these families and others like them, their educational experience takes a different path into the future.