Reading, Writing and Refrigerator Raids

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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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