Online alternatives expand options for home-based learners

When Sara Frank-Hepfer’s son Eli started having problems in a traditional classroom, the small, rural school district he attended recommended a move to an emotional impairment program in a different city. 

It was the only option the district gave the family, and Frank-Hepfer knew it wasn’t the best fit for her son. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism, 8-year-old Eli would have outbursts in class and sometimes act out violently, leading to frequent calls home.

“They don’t have the facilities to deal with his needs,” says Frank-Hepfer, who lives in Laingsburg, Michigan. “He’s super bright, but he gets really angry easily.”

Faced with three options – send Eli to the school for emotionally impaired in Owosso, move or rent an apartment in a larger school district, or try home school – they decided to try home-based virtual learning. 

Eli enrolled in Michigan Connections Academy in February and spends his mornings at home with his dad doing daily lessons via the computer. In the afternoon, he heads to work with his dad until Frank-Hepfer picks him up and takes him to various activities.

The Hepfers are among a growing number of families who find themselves in this precarious situation. Whether it’s due to special needs, behavioral issues, learning delays, health problems, bullying at school, intense athletic training schedules, extensive travel or other extenuating circumstances, many families are turning to online learning for their children’s education.
Virtual offerings for students of all ages have been growing for the past decade. In 2006, Michigan became the first state in the country to make online learning a requirement for high school graduation. It’s evolved from high school students taking special languages or Advanced Placement courses, to home-schoolers taking advantage of free online electives through their local public schools. The majority of students participate in some form of blended learning, using online classes to supplement traditional school. But the expansion of for-profit online charter academies continues to transform the face of today’s home-schooler.

Connections Academy, a division of Connections Education LLC, is one of the largest of these online options, and supports tuition-free public schools under management contracts from charter schools or school districts in several states. Online academies emphasize benefits like participating in classes at any time, in any place and at any pace, with the goal of helping students maximize their potential through a uniquely individualized learning program.

Many families enroll in the free public school option, with parents serving as “learning coaches” and logging attendance. Full-time online learners are subject to Common Core standards, attendance and graduation requirements, as well as standardized testing.

Some online academies operated by public school districts, like Virtual Vantage Academy in Bangor, Michigan, allow traditional home-schoolers to take anything less than a full-time workload and still be considered a home school student. They retain their status as home school students as long as parents provide 51 percent of the students’ total education, including all core subjects: language arts (reading, spelling, English grammar, writing, literature), math, science, history, and federal and state government. 

GenNET, a consortium of districts operated by Genesee Intermediate School District, and the Virtual Learning Academy Consortium through Oakland Schools, allow virtual learners to receive services through their local district and participate in activities while keeping tax dollars local.

Online learning has its challenges

With the Hepfers’ choice to use Connections Academy, Eli learns in the comfort of home, with the curriculum from the academy. He has a homeroom teacher who monitors students’ progress and attendance through virtual group sessions or one-on-one meetings via Skype or phone.

“We’re able to stagger our schedules but neither one of us feels we are equipped to be the teacher,” Frank-Hepfer says. “I value thought diversity and think it’s good for a kid to learn from other people and have different points of view brought to him.”

Connections Academy provides a computer, textbooks, learning guides and subsidized Internet access to families. Teachers recommend students spend four to six hours to complete a day’s schoolwork. But many students log fewer hours, says Cori Thackery of Mason, who taught second grade and Title 1 reading at Connections Academy for four years.

“If you spent your day with the lessons as they were written, you would have a full day of curriculum,” she says. “However most families decide what they want to use. It’s considered a public school so you must have 180 school days, with parents logging attendance. It’s all based on the honor system.”

While she says there are success stories, and virtual classes work for some families, Thackery experienced a lack of parental oversight and involvement in her students’ learning. As a learning coach, parents are expected to monitor their child’s progress. Thackery found that many were too busy with work, other children or were uneducated and unequipped to provide the necessary support. 

“There are some parents doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but for most families that’s not the case,” Thackery said. “They receive a learning guide, essentially a teacher’s guide that says, ‘Say this to your student. Sound out cat.’ Parents are supposed to follow that to a T, but it’s a lot of work, especially if you have more than one kid at home.”

There is an option to do live sessions with the teacher, but students aren’t required to participate.

“We taught lessons every day in the four content areas, but you don’t know who is going to come to your lesson,” Thackery said. “If the kid struggles, if they don’t come to the lesson, if I call them and they don’t answer or I email and they don’t reply, my hands are tied.”

Make online learning work for you

Frank-Hepfer actually sees the self-motivation and independent learning aspect of online school as a plus, since it’s a needed life skill in the real world. Eli would often get bored in school and tested into gifted and talented math classes. That wasn’t an option in his former school.

“The academics are good,” Frank-Hepfer says. “For him, he can sit down and get all the schoolwork done before lunch time. We like how there are the tasks you need to get done, but you don’t need to spend all day on it.”

Frank-Hepfer says there could be more in the way of support services and feels it’s easy for virtual learners to become isolated. She tried to seek out some home school groups in her area but felt disconnected to other moms due to working outside the home. Connections Academy hosts various field trips and meet-ups in different locations, but it’s hard to connect since students are all over the state.

Connections Academy is a good solution for now, and Eli enjoys doing his schoolwork at home. But the lack of social engagement with other children is something he says he misses. 

“We want to get him back into an integrated classroom setting,” Fran-Hepfer said. “We want him to be around other kids and learn how to deal with other people.”

The traditional home school community is rather segmented by region and religious affiliation, and many full-time home school parents still prefer to teach age-appropriate curriculum in a way they deem best. But the evolution of online offerings through for-profit charters, public school districts or supplemental providers, like Michigan Virtual School, allow students to select courses a la carte, offering blended environments and exposing them to a wider variety of subjects and experiences, says Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of MVS. 

Established by the Michigan legislature in July 2000, MVS is operated by Michigan Virtual University, a private, not-for-profit Michigan corporation. MVS provides online classes and career development tools to 500 schools across the state, including seven world languages and 20 AP courses. Fitzpatrick says, most students use MVS to retake a class they might have failed, earn credits over the summer or find access to specialized courses.

“A lot has changed since 2006, when Michigan became the first state in the U.S. to require an online learning experience as a condition to graduate,” he says. “In 2000, we served 100 students with online AP courses and we could not find schools to participate. But now, in 2016, we just got done with our 200,000 online course enrollment.”

Public schools offer online courses for home-schoolers

Online learning has created equity and opportunity by giving students from smaller schools access to more advanced or specialized courses, like Mandarin Chinese. MVS enrolls the student on behalf of their local school and they receive credit, but it doesn’t distinguish the course was taken through MVS on their transcript. Students log in for group study sessions and engage with their teacher and other peers from across the state.

Some MVS courses are available for the middle school, but the majority serve grades nine through12. The cost for a semester class is covered if a student is enrolled in public school and, in some cases, for parochial and home school students through partnerships with local districts. 

Districts including Traverse City Area Public Schools and Bangor Public Schools offer online courses free to home school families. Bangor’s programs serve home school families from Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties. Students are able to enroll in a variety of non-core classes online or on school grounds, and socialize with other home school families. 

Bangor’s Virtual Vantage Academy offers cyber classes, home school courses and alternative education programs through Bangor Public Schools. One advantage for students is they can participate in on-site, extra-curricular activities at no cost. These include band, drama club, choir, art, video production and many other school-sponsored clubs and organizations.

Home school parents who prefer autonomy also have the option to pay out-of-pocket for classes through MVS or other providers. Fitzpatrick says it’s a good option for older students who want to prepare for college or take advanced courses their parents may not feel qualified to teach.

“This may be a strategy that allows them to have comfort in the areas they can teach, but maybe they take math classes online through an accredited provider,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t think there’s a single model home school parents are using. We know online resources and materials are becoming more common as part of the delivery process.”

Regardless of the option parents pick, Fitzpatrick believes most are trying to do what is best for their child, their unique learning style or family situation. One benefit of online learning is it can be done anywhere and throughout the year.

“Where we see most parent activity is in the summer months,” he says. “If I’ve got a student struggling with math, they can take a math class in the summer. If you’re going to the cottage, you can have a laptop, be on vacation and take an online course. Some people think about a physical entity when they think about school. When I think about school, I think about learning.”

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.

Marla R. Miller is a veteran journalist, education reporter and professional writer who lives in Norton Shores. Connect with her at or
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