Reading, Writing and Refrigerator Raids

The Cartoon Network is blaring in the Sawyer home as Heather and her husband, Ron, clean up the last of the water that leaked from their washing machine the night before. Ten-month-old Ronnie starts crying as he tries to hoist himself onto the couch to get to his mom; he hasn't had his breakfast yet, and he's not happy. Clayton, age five, doesn't seem to have noticed the chaos -- he's been engrossed in an old Flintstones episode.

It's 10 a.m. on a school day in November, and except for the plumbing problem, it's been an average morning. Eventually, Ron leaves for his maintenance job here at the Lakewood apartment complex where he and his family live, while Heather, a stay-at-home mom who also babysits other kids, breastfeeds Ronnie.

Clayton does what he wants until he's ready for school. But instead of walking to Bear Creek Elementary a few blocks away with the other neighborhood kids, he merely heads to the other side of the living room, where his mom turns off Fred and Barney and turns on the Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), a new public charter school that Clayton and about 400 other students attend in the comfort of their own homes.

Heather logs on to covcs.org and, on this day, pulls up Clayton's geography lesson, a series of interactive Web pages that teach about the earth's makeup. A map of the world appears on the computer screen. "Continents are the biggest pieces of land on the earth," Clayton explains. "The biggest body of water is the ocean."

Clayton reaches for an inflatable globe that COVA sent him; it came in one of the twelve boxes of supplies the school provided free of charge so that its students can have a tactile as well as virtual learning experience. "This is Antarctica," he says, pointing to the right place on the globe. "It's cold. Only penguins live there."

The COVA Web site has instructions to assist Heather in teaching Clayton. She reads one of them to him: "Lay your hand on the Pacific Ocean." He does. "Put your finger on the South Pole." He does, and Heather congratulates him. Most of the lessons require Heather's participation, but some, like the educational geography games, allow Clayton to learn on his own. With the world map still on the screen, he engages a game with the click of his mouse. A computerized voice says "North America." Clayton clicks on the correct spot on the map. Another part of the game involves images of animals; when they appear, Clayton is supposed to match them to their home. A picture of a panda bear pops up, and he clicks on China. A buffalo appears, and he clicks on South America. A buzzing sound indicates to Clayton that he made the wrong choice. He's not sure where buffalo are from, so he opts for a hint. The computerized voice says, "North of South America." Clayton clicks on North America. The computer rings.

Although there are no grades at this school, there is constant assessment. After each lesson, Clayton is evaluated on what he just learned either by his mom, who asks him computer-prompted questions, or by a test. If he answers 80 percent of the questions correctly, he can advance to the next lesson. If not, he must redo the lesson or take an alternate one in which the material is presented differently. Although the initial lessons incorporate all styles of learning, the parent can choose a backup that places more emphasis on auditory learning or on visual or hands-on learning.

Heather and her son are taking part in a new breed of schooling: part public school, part home school. A program of the Academy of Charter Schools, a K-12 charter school in Adams County District 12, COVA is open to children across the state, the vast majority of whom live on the Front Range. Heather was attracted to COVA, which "opened" last fall, because it allows Clayton to learn at his own pace; he takes second-grade math lessons, but the rest of his work is at the first-grade level. If he were in a regular public school, he'd be in kindergarten.

And unlike a regular public school, which sometimes can't even provide enough textbooks in its classes, COVA can afford to provide each student with a computer, a printer and Internet access because it doesn't have to spend money for things that brick-and-mortar schools have to, such as utilities, maintenance and mortgage or lease payments. The school has also given Clayton a closet full of books and school supplies: Kandinsky, Picasso and Matisse prints, as well as finger paints, modeling clay, plaster, chalk, sketch pads, construction paper and tissue paper, for his art lessons; Mozart CDs and a tambourine for music lessons; seeds for science experiments; counting cubes and geometric blocks for math; and books on hieroglyphics and classic children's stories.

Clayton has his own reasons for liking the virtual charter school. "It's more fun than real school," he says. "Real school stinks, because you can't go to the bathroom when you want, and you can't have a drink when you want."

But not everyone approves of this educational hybrid. Many in the home-school community are philosophically opposed to providing education in the home if it is in any way linked to the public school system, which charter schools are. The Home School Legal Defense Association, a national Christian nonprofit organization open to all home-schoolers, has railed against virtual charter schools, saying they taint the very independence for which home-schoolers have fought so hard; the Alliance for the Separation of School and State believes that the religious freedoms many home-schoolers hold dear are compromised by quasi-home-based education programs; the nonprofit Christian Home Educators of Colorado wants parents to understand that educating their kids at home with virtual programs such as COVA isn't really home schooling. And individual home-schoolers have been cautioning people about virtual charter schools at home-schooling conventions and on the Web. Some parents have even posted warnings about online schools in Internet chat rooms, where many of them go to form virtual communities with other home-schooling parents.

Earlier this year, in a message to a home-schooling e-mail group she belongs to, Heather mentioned that she was considering COVA; she received a nasty reply from another mom, with the subject heading "Don't do this, don't anyone do this." The woman went on to explain her belief that virtual charter schools don't allow parents to teach religious lessons and that certain bureaucratic restrictions associated with public schools can make virtual schooling cumbersome.

"That made me feel really bad," Heather says of the e-mail. "I don't tell other people how to school their children, so don't tell me how to school mine."

Home schooling today is often perceived as strange, but in the nineteenth century, more children were home-schooled in this country than weren't. That changed in 1852, when Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance law. One state after another followed suit until public school became the norm. In Colorado, children seven years and older are required to attend some sort of school.

In her fourth book on the topic, Homeschoolers' Success Stories, author, columnist and home-schooler Linda Dobson writes, "It's only because we are now looking back over a 150-year history of government-supported, compulsorily attended schooling...that home schooling is perceived as something new."

The modern home-schooling movement started in the 1960s as a left-wing reaction to what many saw as conformity in the public schools. Education reformers wrote books and articles praising the freedom that in-home education could offer, and throughout the next two decades, liberal parents began pulling their children out of public schools. The movement gained momentum in the 1980s with the formation of Home Education Magazine, which was first published in 1983, and the Home School Legal Defense Association, which was created the same year in response to frustration from parents who had to fight local school districts for permission to home-school their children. The HSLDA filed its first case in Washington State, where parents were being denied the right to home-school their kids; while that case was pending, the legislature passed a new law allowing parents to home-school.

Around that time, however, home schooling began to be associated more with Christian conservatives than secular liberals as "changes in the tax regulations for Christian schools forced the smaller among them to close down by the hundred," Dobson explains in her book. "Suddenly, the parents of the students attending these schools were faced with a choice between government school attendance and home schooling. For many, this really wasn't a choice at all, and these Christian families became part of a large second wave of home schooling, joining earlier home-schoolers and boosting the numbers to record highs."

For the next several years, there were legal battles or legislative struggles in one state after another to establish home-school laws, and Colorado was no exception. Prior to 1988, home-schoolers in this state operated under a system of rules and regulations established by the Colorado Board of Education. The rules stated that parents had to apply to their local school districts for approval to home-school their kids.

"Some districts arbitrarily turned parents down," explains Treon Goossen, founder and director of Concerned Parents of Colorado, a coalition of home-schoolers that formed in 1987. "There was an appeals process before the state board of education for parents who had been turned down, but it was tedious and unfair."

So in 1986, before her organization was founded, Goossen and fellow home-schooling parent Rory Schneeberger decided to do something about it. "We drafted a proposal for the state legislature, but it failed in 1987 because no one would take responsibility for answering questions about home schooling," she recalls. "Then, in the fall of 1987, Senator Al Meiklejohn called me and Rory and said he wanted to carry the bill, and it passed in 1988."

But not without a fight. Every educational organization in the state spoke out against it, including the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives, Goossen says. "They see our kids as dollar signs, so they didn't like the idea of losing public-school money to home schooling. It's also a control issue -- they cannot control the education of children if they're not in public school."

Some opponents had legitimate concerns about the socialization of home-schooled kids, but others merely made incendiary charges. "We had a lot of opposition from the Senate Education Committee," Goossen says. "We were called child abusers. People said we wanted our kids home to act as babysitters for younger kids so us moms could go out and party. They said our kids would be on welfare and that we were committing educational abuse. We got hate calls at our homes. It was ugly. All we wanted was to home-school our kids. You'd think we were committing the unpardonable sin."

Between 300 and 400 parents packed the legislative hearing rooms where the bill was being debated and ended up convincing lawmakers that they weren't ogres seeking a way to evade the system. "It was the bill of the year," remembers Goossen, whose organization continues to monitor legislation affecting home-schoolers.

The new law turned Colorado home-schoolers into their own entities. No longer did they have to get permission from their local school district; instead, they merely had to file a notice of intent with any district in the state. Parents used to have a list of only ten curricula from which to choose, but the new law allowed them to use any curriculum, including those of their own design. In addition, children no longer had to take the same standardized tests as their public-school counterparts, such as the Colorado Student Assessment Program. (They do, however, have to take a national standardized achievement test of their parents' choosing every other year to measure their progress.) And students could graduate from their home school with a high school diploma.

By 1996, all states had home-schooling laws, and, according to Goossen, Colorado's is one of the best. "There are some states where you still have to report to the superintendent. New York is tough. And then there are the states like Oklahoma, where you don't have to tell anyone you're a home-schooler; if you just never show up in public school, they don't have a clue. In Texas, home schools are set up as individual private schools, so there's no accountability to the state," Goossen continues. "The idea of absolute freedom is enticing, but I'm not sure that would be so good. In states where there are no regulations, there's usually more activity in the social services area. So we have people from New York who come here and kiss the ground, and people from Texas and Oklahoma who don't like it. I like what we have here, because there are minimum regulations, but there's just enough to know we're accountable."

Now that home schooling is allowed in some form in every state, support groups have popped up everywhere, including in Colorado, where Goossen estimates there are several hundred. Nationwide, there are Internet-based support groups open to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, pagans and Quakers, among others; there are also Native American and Afrocentric home-school associations.

And home schooling isn't a mostly Christian movement anymore; a third wave of mostly secular home-schoolers has come about in the last few years; old-schoolers refer to them as "mainstreamers." A survey conducted by Goossen's organization a few years ago showed that at least 40 percent of Colorado home-schoolers are secular or practice a non-Christian religion, and she guesses that the percentage is even higher now.

According to Dobson's book, the number of home-schooled children in this country has been growing by 15 to 20 percent a year for the last fifteen years; she estimates that there are currently at least 2 million home-schoolers in the United States, representing 2 percent of all school-aged kids.

Colorado isn't far behind the national trend. In the fall of 1998, there were 8,827 home-schooled kids here; that number jumped to 9,719 by the fall of 1999.

Many home-schoolers attribute the surge to the "Columbine effect." Goossen says she's heard from numerous parents who chose to pull their kids out of public school because of the April 20, 1999, rampage at Columbine High School. And in fact, there was a 5.5 percent increase between 1998 and 1999 in the number of home-school students in the Jefferson County School District alone.

Although Columbine was an extreme, Goossen says it's often the social environment, rather than the curricula offered in traditional public schools, that convinces many mainstreamers to home-school their children. "There will be an exodus from public schools," she says, "as more people learn that virtual schools are available."

One of the main reasons that home schooling has become such an attractive option to parents is because it is so easy to do now. But because it's been rough getting to this point, home-schoolers are suspicious of anything they see as a threat to their freedoms. For many, virtual charter schools embody that threat. A lot of them fear that if legislators -- and the groups that lobby them -- don't see the distinction between public education that is provided in the home and home schooling, they'll try to pass laws that place restrictions on home-schoolers.

Robert Ziegler, a spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association, says it's not the medium that bothers his organization, but the government. "What it comes down to is that a charter school is still a public school, even though it has some aspects of home schooling," he says. "To put people under a public-school format in the home is a real threat to the autonomy of home schooling. In so many cases, you have people in a home-schooling environment who then enter into this, and then you have that public administration moving in and having oversight."

Chris Klicka, senior counsel for HSLDA, lodged more pointed criticisms in an October 2001 article he wrote for Practical Homeschooling Magazine. Home-schoolers' liberties will be jeopardized if they "begin crawling back to the government to drink from the public trough," he argued in the piece, titled "Virtual Charter Schools: The Battle for the Soul of the Home School Movement." "This is the same government that once heavily restricted or prohibited home schooling altogether. If we take the government's money or services through virtual schools, we will become dependent on government money. As the controls are added, we will not be able to break free.

"As home schoolers 'yoke' together with the public schools through virtual charter school programs and cyber schools, the public schools and the state will once again dictate to us our curriculum, teacher qualifications and methods," he continued. "This is not idle conjecture. It is already happening."

Klicka went on to provide examples of states where restrictions have been added to the ways in which home-schoolers can educate their children. In Alaska, thousands of parents have been turning to virtual programs, such as Interior Distance Education of Alaska (I.D.E.A.), offered by the Galena City School District. Unlike COVA, I.D.E.A. is not a charter school; it's specifically for home-schoolers. Through the state-funded program, parents can choose courses offered by the district, get support from teachers and be reimbursed for most educational materials they choose.

In recent months, however, the state has placed more restrictions on curricula. Klicka cites a letter that Carol Simpson, coordinator of the Alaska Department of Education's home-school program, wrote to a Christian woman who was scheduled to sell some educational books she'd written at five I.D.E.A. meetings throughout the state; Simpson told the author that while she understands that her books are not Christian and "that any religious expression in them is incidental," she could not sell them. "We have been warned several times by a high official in the DOE that we need to be extra careful about the issue of buying 'religious' curricula," Simpson wrote.

Seven years ago, the legislative assembly in Alberta, Canada, passed a law giving home-schooling families $500 per child to help pay for instructional materials. But the following year, the legislators passed additional laws placing restrictions on home-schoolers who took the money. Their reasoning, Klicka tells Westword, was that if home-schoolers were going to benefit from taxpayer dollars, they needed to be accountable. Before the voucher law passed, home-schoolers in Alberta only had to notify their local school district if they weren't going to enroll their kids in public schools. But afterward, kids whose parents accepted the $500 had to start taking the same tests as their public-school counterparts; the home-school curricula parents chose had to meet certain standards; and parents had to begin submitting progress reports to their school districts.

Three years ago in Georgia, after home-schoolers there were granted access to public school classes and programs, legislators introduced a bill that would have required home-schooling parents to have a bachelor's degree, but opposition from the HSLDA helped defeat it.

And in Colorado, Klicka says, home-schoolers are in danger in other ways. In September, for instance, the superintendent of the Sargent School District in the San Luis Valley came up with an incentive program to increase attendance and revenue in the small district. The superintendent, along with the local board of education, offered home-school parents $600 for each child who visited the public schools; 36 home-school students liked the public schools so much that they decided to enroll. "That proves our point," Klicka says. "Government money is a bait to track people back into the public-school system, which is where we wanted to leave in the first place."

That's not all that Klicka is worried about. The restrictions that come with public oversight can be taxing for parents, he explains. Although virtual school students are educated in the home, they still have to log the equivalent of a set number of days or hours each year, complete assignments by certain dates and adhere to a specific curriculum. If home-schoolers who opt for virtual schools don't realize that going in, he says, they can be in for a big surprise. "You give up the freedom to educate your kids the way you want," he says. "You suddenly need to meet public-school deadlines. You don't have a home school anymore in a pure sense.

"With home schooling, there's the flexibility to go faster or slower in certain subjects or to switch curriculum mid-stream if it's not working for the child. Home school is patterned after the tutorial method, in which a teacher is working with a couple of students or one student to personally design the program so that it works best for the child," Klicka continues. "When that becomes dictated by a bureaucratic system with arbitrary deadlines, the advantages of the tutorial method will disappear, and it's really going to hamper home-schoolers."

Despite warnings from groups like HSLDA, however, virtual schools of all kinds are thriving. Because the Internet is constantly growing and changing, it's hard to know exactly how many there are across the country, but according to the Distance Learning Resource Network, a program of the U.S. Department of Education, there are at least 76 pre-college-level virtual schools. Some are operated by state education departments, some by local public-school districts, some by charter schools and others by private schools or coalitions made up of many school districts. Several colleges and universities also offer Web-based courses for K-12 students.

Florida was the first state to directly fund a statewide virtual school: the Florida High School, formed in 1997 by the Orange and Alachua County school districts. The Kentucky Virtual High School, which started in 1999 as a program of that state's education department, was the first statewide online high school in the country to have been established as part of a state agency. And then there are schools, like the Virtual High School in Massachusetts, that are open to students all over the world; the five-year-old school enrolls approximately 3,000 students from 32 states and eight other countries, including Bolivia and Singapore.

The oldest virtual school in Colorado is the Monte Vista Online Academy, which started in 1995 as a pilot program; when the pilot ended in 1998, it became a full-fledged school, and the legislature passed a law allowing other districts to offer online programs. The Monte Vista school, which is open only to kids in that district, currently enrolls 150 students.

The state's four other Web-based schools all opened in the last year, according to Eric Feder, educational telecommunications director for the Colorado Department of Education. The Jefferson County School District operates Jeffco Net Academy, which has 25 full-time students and five part-time students; the Lester B. Arnold Virtual High School, the online component of an alternative school in Adams County District 14, which has 73 students; VILAS (Vilas Interactive Long Distance Alternative School), in the southeast Colorado town of the same name, which also has 73 students; and COVA, the only virtual charter school in Colorado, which has approximately 400 students.

When COVA program director Kin Griffith was head of the Academy of Charter Schools two years ago, he wanted to create an online component of the school, but he didn't like any of the curricula that were available. And then he found K12, which incorporated a curriculum similar to the Core Knowledge-based program offered in the Academy of Charter Schools.

A for-profit company founded by conservative author, commentator and former U.S. education secretary William J. Bennett in 1999, K12 leases out its curriculum, which focuses on the basic subjects of language arts, math, science, history, music and art, to online schools such as COVA. In addition to Colorado, virtual charter schools in Alaska, California and Pennsylvania use the curriculum, and the company hopes to expand to more states.

Right now, courses are offered for children in kindergarten through second grade, but K12 will add lessons for grades three through five next fall and will continue adding three grades a year until a twelfth-grade curriculum is available. Home-schoolers can also purchase the curriculum directly from K12 rather than going through a charter school.

Funding for COVA works the same as funding for all charter schools, which are simply public schools with more autonomy. Charter schools get 95 percent of the per-pupil operating revenue from the state rather than the 100 percent that regular public schools receive; the amount that each charter school gets depends on the size of the school district to which it belongs. COVA gets approximately $5,000 per student from the state, and that money is used to reimburse K12 as well as to pay fourteen staff members to run the virtual school. The state money hasn't been enough to cover all of COVA's costs, however. Colorado only gives schools 50 percent of the per-pupil operating cost for half-day kindergartners. But COVA still has to provide its kindergartners, who account for more than a third of the virtual school's population, with computers, printers and other materials. Right now, K12 is covering what the state doesn't, and that has totaled approximately $400,000.

Although COVA parents are largely in charge of their kids' learning, ten of the organization's staffers are licensed teachers who are always on hand to help them. The teachers also work out of their homes and typically communicate with parents by phone or e-mail. "They have scheduled meetings with the parents, and they review the progress of the child," Griffith says. "They're the accountability piece that comes with public school. The students have to master a concept before they go on to the next one, and the teacher gives parents strategies to help kids master the material."

Like many home-schoolers, COVA parents take their children on regular field trips so that the kids have a chance to socialize with one another. But those parents don't have all the freedom that true home-schoolers enjoy. The same regulations that exist in regular public schools apply to students in virtual charter schools: COVA kids have to attend 180 days of school each year, even though they have more flexibility in the vacation days they take and the time of day -- or night -- that they spend on their lessons. They also have to get the same immunizations that everyone has to get before enrolling in public school, and they're required to supply their medical records to the virtual school.

In addition, the students must take the same standardized tests that everyone else does, and those tests must be taken at a location outside of the home and be proctored by a teacher.

That's what troubles home-schooling groups like Christian Home Educators of Colorado. "This organization is open to a large variety of educational alternatives, because every family has unique needs," says Kevin Swanson, executive director of CHEC. "The virtual-academy approach is a fantastic application of our technological advancement, but the one hesitancy we would express is to be careful about government involvement in your educational choices, because it can, indeed, limit your options. We just want people to know that what the government funds, the government controls."

The Christian Home Educators Association of California went a step further and canceled William J. Bennett as the keynote speaker for its annual home-schooling convention last June when members of the organization's board of directors learned that Bennett's company had been approved to offer K12 in a charter school in Pennsylvania -- the first state to okay the curriculum in a public school. Then they banned the K12 exhibit from their convention hall.

A contributor for The School Liberator, an electronic newsletter for members of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, weighed in on the cancellation, saying, "Teaching talent and home-school community spirit are drained when families throw in the towel on independent learning for the lure of free computers and materials. These benefits have a hidden price tag. Parents lose the right to choose educational materials for their children and will be subject to state curriculum requirements on the teaching of sex and drug education and a plethora of other social programs that have little to do with education and everything to do with social engineering... Congratulations to CHEA of California for making a principled stand and canceling Bennett and K12 at their conference."

For now, at least, not too many home-schoolers will be making the leap to virtual public schools; a law passed in Colorado in 1998 forbids students who aren't already in public school from switching to a virtual public school the following year. Legislators feared that an exodus of home- and private-schoolers to virtual public schools would drain the state's education budget. But numerous critics of the law, who find it discriminatory and unconstitutional, are trying to get it overturned this legislative session. Pamela Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden, has been pushing to amend the law, and she's working to find legislators interested in sponsoring a bill to provide equal access to virtual schools.

The HSLDA's Klicka plans to keep an eye on the Colorado law this year -- he already thinks it's unfair for home-school parents to have to pay taxes for public schools that their kids don't attend; if private- and home-school students are allowed to make the switch to virtual charter schools, he says, they'll have to start footing the bill for another public-school program that they don't support. "You're really raising taxes for everyone with this," he explains. "You can say that it's just pulling money from public schools and giving it to charter schools, but research has shown that over half of all virtual-charter-school students [in other states] are coming from private or home schools."

Already, some parents are learning how to bypass the law. According to Benigno, "districts can get around the statute by allowing the student to enroll in [a regular public] school and sit in the classroom through the October 1 count date for pupil funding. Then the student can return home to finish the school year as an online student. Another allowable circumstance is when the home-schooled student spent at least ninety hours in a public school the previous year."

Sibbi Yarger is one parent who's taking advantage of the loophole. Yarger, who's been home-schooling her eleven children for more than ten years, decided on COVA for three of her children who were young enough to enroll last fall; she chose COVA because it's convenient -- she no longer has to spend several hours each week preparing lessons -- and because the curriculum ensures that her kids will know the basics.

One of her sons, a fourth-grader whom she wants to enroll next year when COVA expands through grade five, wasn't eligible, since he was coming from a home school rather than a public school. To make him eligible, Yarger had her son attend the Academy of Charter Schools during the fall pupil count. According to her interpretation of the statutory provision, he is currently on the books as a public-school student and will be able to partake in COVA next fall.

Even though three of her children are now technically public-school students, Yarger, who lives in Woodland Park, still classifies herself as a home-schooler. And although she has always provided her children with a Christian-based education, she doesn't see COVA as a threat. After all, she says, nothing is stopping her from supplementing their public-school courses with Bible lessons. "I am still able to make my own choices, and I still feel I have control of what we're doing," she says. "I haven't experienced anything inappropriate in the learning material, and I'd be really surprised if the curriculum pushes heavy evolution. It will probably be mentioned, though, and I think it should be."

Goossen shares this view. "I very much believe in choice for parents. I also believe in maintaining home-school freedoms as they are," she says. "I mean, I'm one of the pioneers, but I don't see a threat to home schooling. There are those who fear that anything that smells like home schooling but is regulated will bleed over into home schooling, but I disagree with that, because we have a statute that protects home-schooling rights, and we're careful to watch for bleed-overs. If a virtual school is the best people think they can do for their family, more power to them."

So far, Yarger hasn't received any direct opposition from other home-schoolers for choosing COVA, but she has read the warnings about virtual charter schools on the Internet. "It's not classical home schooling, but classical home schooling is different for every family," she says. "I can understand a caution from the HSLDA, for example, but I think they've gone a bit overboard. They aren't giving virtual schools a chance.

"I think virtual schools open a door for a lot of people who are not religious and who want a good, solid curriculum," she adds. "And it's a unique opportunity for people who have always wanted to home-school but didn't know where to start."

In December, Heather Sawyer got to understand HSLDA's caution all too well. That month, she got an e-mail message from COVA explaining that, according to state law, all students must complete their coursework by June 14 in order to advance to the next grade.

Clayton had started his coursework late because the school had goofed and accidentally sent him books and supplies for the wrong grade level. By the time Heather got the right materials, it was late October. She looked at the lesson plan on Clayton's COVA Web page and realized that in order for him to meet the June 14 deadline, he'd have to do ten to twelve hours of schoolwork each day. "I couldn't make a five-year-old do that much work," she says.

"COVA never told us anything about that deadline until right before Christmas," she explains. And Heather never thought to ask. "I didn't realize a completion date would ever enter into it. Because I went into this with a home-schooling mentality, I kept forgetting I was still in a public school." And that, she says, is what parents need to be aware of.

COVA acknowledged this in the letter informing parents of the June 14 date. "One of the most appealing benefits of our program is the flexibility to educate students without the daily time and geographical constraints of traditional schools. Flexibility in these areas, among others, enhances the effectiveness of your student's education," the letter states. "However, this flexibility does not extend to program completion deadlines."

The letter went on to explain that if students couldn't complete their coursework by that time, they would either have to repeat the courses they didn't finish or enroll in a tuition-based summer school.

Heather got another e-mail from COVA in December with tips on how to catch up on lessons: "If you get done with a lesson faster than usual, do another on that day; only use part of the Christmas break and work the other part; add lessons on days you normally don't work." Although COVA explained that the tips weren't meant to pressure parents to rush through the coursework, that's the message Heather got. "It dawned on me that if we continued to do this, it would defeat the purpose of why I wanted to home-school. I didn't realize it would be so regimented. I thought it would give me structure, a guide to use," she says. "I did not realize we'd be on a strict schedule to follow it."

Heather asked the teacher assigned to her if some of the supplemental coursework that she had developed for Clayton on her own could count toward school credits, but she was told that it could not.

"We were taking breaks from the curriculum because Clayton was showing an interest in other things, like volcanoes," she says. "We were going to Washington State for two weeks in November. He knew I used to live there, and he knew about Mount St. Helens, so we did a whole unit on volcanoes." For the two weeks prior to their vacation, Heather pulled information from the Internet about volcanoes, showed her son videos about them and incorporated volcano-related instruction into all of his lessons. Clayton even built a model volcano. "That's why a lot of us home-school our children -- because we can do things that interest the child."

Before she enrolled in COVA, she had joined an e-mail group for Pennsylvania parents who were part of a virtual charter school that was using the K12 curriculum. "Those women talked about supplemental stuff counting, so I assumed it would count at COVA, too. That's my fault," Heather says.

COVA program director Griffith understands that many parents are turned off by the restrictions. "We have teachers to report to and a curriculum to follow, and parents don't have much flexibility to deviate from it," he says. "Some parents find that a plus, because they don't have to go out and hunt for their own curriculum, but it's too rigid for some. We're not for everybody."

As it turns out, COVA wasn't for Sawyer. On December 26, she withdrew Clayton from the virtual charter school, deciding to home-school him instead.

"When I first called COVA, the person I talked to said that the school is entirely child-paced. He said, 'You're the parent, you're the teacher, we're just supplying the curriculum.' He must have repeated that three times," she recalls. "It was not as free as they made it seem."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon

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