Distance Learning

Winning Back Homeschoolers

With the defection of local families causing a steep dip in its enrollment, a rural Ohio district goes virtual to stem the tide.

In the late 1990s, Graham Local Schools sprung a leak. Enrollment was being drained in a way that the Ohio school district was at a loss to stop: A surge in families opting out of public education in favor of homeschooling their children resulted in the exodus of about 200 students.

“That was roughly 10 percent of our student population,” recalls Graham’s then superintendent, James Zerkle.

In response, the district, the fifth largest in area in the state—its buses run dual routes of about 190 miles a day across rural Champaign County to transport students to its three campuses—conducted a survey of the exiting families to find out why they had decided to educate their children at home rather than send them to public school.

“The surveys came back showing all the right reasons,” Zerkle says. “They wanted to be involved in their kids’ education. They wanted to instill the right values. They didn’t want their children exposed to bullying and didn’t like some of the positions that public schools had taken. And they all said, ‘Thanks for asking us. At least somebody is asking us.’”

Zerkle moved to try to keep the families in the fold. He tapped Marcia Ward, a science teacher at Graham High School at the time, to head up a new online school. As a result of her stint as the principal of a Christian school in a neighboring county, Ward had experience working with homeschooling families, who would often seek her help on curriculum questions. She hoped to address the concerns of Graham’s homeschooling parents while getting them to return their children to the district.

“We had more than 80 families homeschooling,” Ward says, “not feeling any connection to the district whatsoever, not voting for levies, and basically not interested in being a part of Graham Local Schools. They didn’t appreciate what they perceived, that the public schools were unfriendly to them, were possibly allowing dress, language, courses of instruction—especially in sexual education—that were not conducive to their beliefs.”

Zerkle and Ward sent out letters to every homeschooling family in the district to gauge their interest in an online school option. The initial few years were spent designing the school’s curriculum and operation and drumming up enrollment. Ward taught part-time in the high school in the morning and guided the virtual students in the afternoon. By March 2003, the new K-12 Graham Digital Academy (GDA) had reached an enrollment of 25 students, formally qualifying as a virtual school in the state of Ohio and thereby making itself eligible to receive state funding.

In Ohio, a virtual school is similar to a charter school, given unique latitude to try different strategies. “We still have to comply with the Ohio Department of Education in many areas,” Ward says, “but we also have the opportunity to do some unusual things and offer some unusual classes because we’re online.”

And that’s just what Ward did to attract parents who were wary of what public schools had to offer. She designed the school’s philosophy around the late educational reformist Ted Sizer’s 10 Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools (essentialschools.org), which include “Personalize everything,” “Democracy and equity for every single student,” and “Student as worker, teacher as coach,” and offered an array of online courses from a consortium of about 40 Ohio schools.

“If you wanted something different and you didn’t want to be in the traditional school, for whatever reason,” Ward says, “you now had an option.” Still, engaging students in those early years was not easy.

“In the beginning, we’d get a lot of low-achieving students who didn’t really want to work,” Ward says. “This was a concern, but we’d made up our minds that we were going to stay focused and continue to offer what we felt was a choice, an option, for a different type of learning.”

Ward’s persistence paid off; positive word of mouth about GDA spread quickly. As the school’s student body expanded, so did its curricular offerings. The academy began
offering courses from curricular delivery sites such as Apex Learning (apexlearning.com), Lincoln Interactive (lincolninteractive.com), and Aventa Learning (aventalearning.com).

“In Aventa alone we can offer 20 AP classes. Twenty!” says Ward, who is now the director over all of Graham Local Schools’ digital programming. “We can offer Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Latin. We can offer psychology and sociology. We can offer digital photography. We can offer Java programming and Flash animation. That’s state-of-the-art stuff—and we’re out in the middle of a cornfield!”

As of the start of this school year, GDA had an enrollment of 270 students, a population that has come to reach far beyond homeschoolers, providing an alternative for kids of many different stripes and circumstances. “We take students from the high school who are failing and would’ve quit,” Ward says, “girls who are pregnant, boys who are in prison, kids who are struggling. We have gifted kids who say they are tired of all the social drama, students who have been bullied, who have been made fun of.”

She adds that the district has successfully brought the mass exit of homeschoolers to heel. “We don’t hear a lot about that anymore, because we have made it so easy and so accommodating for folks to homeschool.”

GDA’s 270 students consist of about 70 Graham High School students taking single online courses to supplement their regular curriculum and 50 full-timers working strictly from home. The remaining 150 students are enrolled in the district’s new A.B. Graham Academy, which was created at the request of parents who wanted their students to have access to on-site computer labs. Zerkle retired from his position as district superintendent in June to take over as ABGA’s CEO. The school, which unlike Graham Digital Academy is open to students statewide, is a hybrid of sorts: Students choose whether to work online from home or complete their online curriculum in one of the academy’s six computer labs, housed in the Graham Board of Education offices.

The majority of ABGA students are in middle and high school, although Ward, who serves as the school’s principal, is seeing an increase in the number of homeschooling families with elementary-age students who’ve chosen to enroll their children. “They’re overwhelmed by what we’re offering,” she says.

Leigh Anne Roberts can attest to that. When she and her husband chose to homeschool their six children, they did so to ensure their kids would have a challenging and intensive educational experience that they didn’t feel was obtainable in a traditional public school. Now they’ve had one son graduate from the Graham Digital Academy, and three of their children are now students at A.B. Graham Academy. Roberts says the decision to abandon homeschooling and try virtual schooling was easy for a number of reasons.

“One, I can still pick my curriculum,” she says. “Two, they have teachers. It’s not put on my shoulders to do all the work. And three, they get a diploma, whereas before they’d have to take the GED. It fulfilled a lot of what I needed in a school.”

Roberts describes the digital academies as mixing the best of all worlds. “My kids aren’t slowed down by the brick-and-mortar system. They can go as fast as they want or as slow as they want. We can veer off into additional research on topics that they’re interested in. My youngest son is in the third grade. By [attending] A.B. Graham Academy, he can go on field trips, he can go in for art class. They offer so many things. We would never be able to get our schoolwork done here at home if we went to everything, so we pick and choose.”

As a parent, Roberts believes that what sets the schools apart is not the digital delivery of the curriculum. “There’s a huge awareness of respect toward people, and attitudes toward one another that are instilled in these kids that you don’t get at the public schools anymore. The environment is loving and nurturing; these teachers care about our kids. I think it’s the best-kept secret in Ohio.”  

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of THE Journal.