The Perks of an Umbrella School vs. Remaining Independent

At one time or another, many homeschool families examine the possibility of enrolling in an umbrella or cyber school. An umbrella school is a homeschool program operated by public charter schools or directly by regular public schools. We can be counted amongst them.

I eluded to this briefly on a Facebook post in October but have yet to elaborate on our decision until now. I suppose I wanted to give it some time to see how well the administration followed up on their promises. When we lived in California, we tried a charter school for a term but withdrew as we felt we had been misled and the kids spent an inordinate amount of time undertaking one standardized test or another – rarely engaging in the enrichment opportunities we had been promised. Other than this short blip, we had always homeschooled independently.

I am not opposed to public education. I am in fact, a certified teacher. Before beginning a family of my own, I taught full-time. I continue to work in the school system today as a substitute teacher and home tutor. I am an advocate for choice and have always advised those who have asked my opinion to forge their own path.

homeschool teen using ipad with text: The Perks of an Umbrella School @EvaVarga.netOur Homeschool Evolution

A year after we moved back to Oregon, we again began to consider the possibility of enrolling in a charter school. A friend of my daughter (a homeschool teen) informed us she had done so but would be taking all her coursework at the college. “They will cover all my tuition costs,” she explained. “I can do my high school work all online whenever I wish.” 

When we looked into it, we learned that while her statement was true, they wouldn’t be able to continue swimming on our local high school swim team. In Oregon, homeschooled students are permitted to take part in extra-curricular activities including sports with the permission of the principal. While our resident district would allow homeschooled students to participate, they would not permit students enrolled at another school. Being a part of the team was important to my daughter, or so she believed at the time, so we tabled the discussion.

As the 2016-17 school year came to a close, both of my children began to lose interest in swim team. While this is a topic for another post, their decision to close that chapter of their lives lead to new opportunities.

When we began to re-consider, my daughter had already earned 24 college credits which we had paid for out of pocket. It was important for us that she continue to have this opportunity. Our local high school didn’t generally allow students to begin dual enrollment coursework until their junior or senior year. As a high school sophomore, I wanted to assure she would be able to continue the path we had begun independently.

Benefits of a Partnership

There are a variety of advantages cited by homeschoolers choosing to participate in a charter school. Amongst them are the accredited high school diploma, access to enrichment classes, a laptop computer or chrome book, Internet access, software, textbooks, and support by certified teachers – of course these benefits vary by institution.

Often, charter schools offer expeditionary, project-based learning that the district-based school does not. Though publicly funded, their independence allows them to offer specialized courses and approaches that neighborhood schools can not.

The biggest plus for partnering with the school we chose was that my daughter’s tuition costs at the college would be paid (up to 12 credits per term). In essence, she would be able to earn her associate’s degree while also fulfilling high school graduation requirements. Two years of college, paid for. That’s too big a carrot to not give it a try.

I was also assured that their independent pursuits could be translated to credit on their high school transcript. My son’s passion for Minecraft and YouTube, for example, could be morphed into a class on “multimedia technology”. My children’s continued private lessons in Mandarin could be translated into credits on their transcripts.

homeschool teen using pc and ipad with text: The Perks of an Umbrella School @EvaVarga.netThe only obligation on our part was to provide evidence of their work in these project-based experiences, essentially an activity log as well as samples of their work that would be evaluated by a licensed teacher.

Logically, they would also be obligated to take part in state testing. Oregon public schools test students in English language arts and math in grades 3 through 8 and 11, and in science and social sciences in grades 5, 8, and 11. While I am not a fan of standardized tests, I could agree to an occasional test.

Loss of Freedom?

As any homeschool family will tell you, private homeschooling is thriving, with no help from the government. The studies all show homeschoolers are academically above average from the elementary level all the way through college.

Opponents of charter schools that cater to homeschoolers will tell you that homeschoolers returning to government schools puts this freedom at risk. The fear is that as homeschoolers “yoke” together with the public schools through charter school programs and cyber schools, the public schools and the state will once again dictate to us our curriculum, teacher qualifications, and methods.

This could be true, but I am confidant that we can also change the system. The best way to do that is by being involved and proactively seeking strategies and solutions that are in the best interest of our children.

We all want what is best for our children. Education is not a one-size fits all solution. Being involved and willing to give voice to my expectations, hopes, and vision can only help to provoke change.

Our Letter of Withdrawal

My frustrations with the charter or umbrella school have only increased.  I can honestly say that I gave it my best shot.  In late November, I even signed the contract for the second quarter.  I tried to be more vocal in my displeasure .. speaking up for myself and the kids when I felt we were unjustly made to feel incompetent.  I just didn’t like the person I was becoming .. forcing my kids to do the mundane tasks that were required. I could feel the stress physically weighing me down.

The straw that broke the camels back, if you will, occurred during our biweekly curriculum meeting.  Sweetie had submitted her work and was in violin class.  Buddy sat with the facilitator and me at the table.   As the facilitator began to go over his work, it was clear that he was becoming increasingly agitated.  He doesn’t like to be put on the spot and she wasn’t backing down.

Our facilitator had stated when we began our collaboration that we would be able to continue to use the math curriculum of our choice, Singapore Math, for we had had success with it.  Her only condition was that the kids must also complete at least one worksheet or lesson from the adopted materials she provided us, enVision Math.  Though the kids had both demonstrated skills that surpassed their grade level, Buddy was assigned the first grade enVision Math book while Sweetie was assigned grade three.  Each week, I allowed the kids to select a lesson from enVision to submit to the facilitator.  I encouraged them to select a worksheet that corresponded with the material we were covering in Singapore Math but this wasn’t always possible.

This particular week, Buddy selected a worksheet that compared two terms – capacity and volume.  The lesson was very simple and I believe there were only 3 visual or pictorial problems and 1 multiple choice problem.  The pictorial problems showed images of two jars of different sizes side by side.  The child was instructed to circle the jar that had the largest capacity.  The multiple choice problem asked, “Which word is used to describe how much something can hold?  a) space  b) capacity  c) area

Buddy completed this worksheet very quickly – with no help from me – and correctly answered each question. The facilitator looked it over and decided to focus upon the multiple choice question.  She asked him, “Can you tell me, what is area?”  He did not know the answer and stated as much.  She tried drawing a picture of a rectangle and stated, “Let’s say this is someone’s backyard.  If it measures 4′ x 8′, what is the area of the yard?”  Again, he did not know.  I thereby explained that while he was capable of doing multiplication (she knew this), he hadn’t yet been introduced to the concepts of perimeter or area.  Utilizing Singapore Math (grade 3), this lesson would be forthcoming in just a couple of weeks actually, and I then pointed it out to her in his book.  Her reply to me was, “Well, if he were using enVision Math, he would have covered it.”

At this point, Buddy was distraught and began to act out inappropriately.  I wasn’t able to address her statement but it stuck with me and I mulled it over for some time.  When I returned home, I dug through the enVision Math books she had checked out to us but was unable to find the lessons to which she referred me.  I thereby sent this email:

Can you please tell me where I can find the lessons regarding ‘area’ in the First Grade Envision Workbook. I can not seem to find it. I’ve looked carefully at the pages for Geometry and Measurement both. I’ve also flipped through to no avail.

Her reply to me stated that she didn’t know for certain.  “If we were using ‘such and such’ as I had used years ago in Los Angeles, I could immediately tell you the page number.  I am less familiar with enVision math but will have my assistant get back to you.”

The following day, I received a reply from her assistant.  She did not point out the pages where I could find these lessons.  Instead, she attached the California Standards for Teaching which clearly indicated that area was not expected to be taught in first grade.  It was now evident that area is not in fact a first grade concept yet she insisted that if I were doing things her way, it would have been taught.  “He should know this,” she had said.  She insisted that I was failing him by not already introducing this concept to him.  I was appalled.

I thereby submitted our letter of withdrawal earlier this week. The following is an excerpt from that letter:

We have come to realize that our style of learning is different and that our schedule does not permit us the flexibility to continue with an umbrella program.  Hence, Tuesday, February 14th will be the last day of enrollment in the XXX School District Homeschool program for both my children.