November 7, 2003

The Virtual Charter School Experience of One Idaho Family
by Vicki Herdt

I have been a home schooling mom for over two years, now. I have a third grade student and a kindergartner this year. Home schooling has offered my family flexibility in schedule, curriculum, and placement unparalleled in any public or private school I've investigated. Last year a new kid appeared on the scene---Idaho Virtual Academy(IDVA). I have heard all the arguments for and against virtual schools, so I am writing to offer you my personal experience last fall with IDVA.

I attended a very interesting and attractive orientation/information seminar for IDVA last August. I saw impressive demonstrations of the online curriculum, lots of attractive books and manipulative, access to experienced educators, and the ultimate bait: a free computer! All of these wonderful items are offered free of charge to families of IDVA students. Who could resist? I walked away from the meeting full of enthusiasm for free everything and an excellent education for my child.

IDVA experienced the growing pains typical of a charter school in its first year. There were problems acquiring the materials necessary to follow the curriculum, but the school worked very hard to accommodate families and ship things as quickly as possible. Our first problem occurred when the promised fourth grade math didn't materialize---my child was given second grade material across the board. It took a month to get the level of math he was given: it was still probably a bit below his level, but we gave up that battle and let him do fourth grade math.

I really started having difficulties when the materials started arriving. We received hard copies of the PDF files required to meet curriculum demands(we still hadn't received all of the computer by the beginning of November). There were over 1,200 pages of language arts (no, that's not a typo), over 900 pages of second grade math (not including the actual textbook), almost 300 pages of history, 111 pages for science, and almost 300 pages for music. These were just the worksheets! I had heart failure. My child is a kinesthetic learner and not very fond of busy work or worksheets---especially not over 15 a day!

My next difficulty came regarding the number of hours allowed for assorted subjects. We were originally told as long as the hours were for subjects in the school curriculum, we could log the actual hours spent on the different subjects. My child was taking private chess lessons, piano, swimming, and practicing all of these subjects daily. After logging in these subjects under math (logic, analysis, critical thinking skills), music, and p.e., we were suddenly told that at public schools children were only allowed two hours a week total for all these subjects, so that's all my child was allowed to log (we spend at least 5 hours a week on music alone!). Eventually we were allowed two hours a week for each subject, but still far less than we really logged in.

Which leads me to the next problem: public schools are drowning in a sea of bureaucracy. IDVA is no different. We were suddenly informed that instead of one official test per school year, we would be taking at least four. We had to log hours every day if possible so the school's funding was validated. We needed to test our child's progress through the online tests every day in every subject taught (teaching alone was not enough---we spent at least an hour a day on the internet trying to slog through the tests!). We were supposed to submit a calendar at the beginning of the school year for every day we would school and every day of vacation or family time, or we would be placed on a default schedule. I actually spent as much time wrestling with the computer part of IDVA as I spent on one-to-one time with my student. A real time sink!

In December, the school's curriculum provider decided to rework all of the online curriculum. We were suddenly not nearly as far along as the computer originally told us we were. My child finally blew a sprocket at trying to double up on all the work to reach the 80% completion the school was asking for. Then the IDVA teacher started wanting to speak with my child alone. . .without me. . .Why, I wonder?

IDVA certainly was not a successful foray into public education for my family. I have heard many people, especially those who have pulled their child from brick and mortar schools, have been quite pleased with their experiences at IDVA. I think it fills a real need for families looking for public school accountability, particularly during their first year of having a school at home. Visual learners would be better served by the IDVA curriculum than would children with other learning preferences. And I have to admit, the manipulative and books provided by IDVA are very nice.

In the long run, however, home schooling provides my family with so much more scope for customization in learning that IDVA felt more like a straight jacket than a blessing for us. My first child began enjoying school again after we quit "public school" and has made truly phenomenal progress with just our little home school curriculum. I will never doubt again that my child is receiving an even better education than any institution could ever offer him, right here at home.

Vicki Herdt resides in Boise, Idaho and is a homeschool mother of three.

Used by permission of Christian Homeschoolers Of Idaho State