More and more families are looking outside traditional public schools for alternative ways to educate their children. Experts say about one in four students attend some type of school of choice, which encompasses a range of options from private, magnet and charter schools to programs administered at home.
Some parents in Horry and Georgetown counties are taking advantage of home-directed options, whether they homeschool their children or enroll them in virtual school programs. They say both avenues better fit their lifestyles and offer plenty of benefits, including a customized and safe learning environment, the ability to accomplish more academically and additional time for family and other activities.
Teaching kids in a home setting is not a new idea, said Jim Carper, professor of educational foundations at the University of South Carolina. He said the practice was standard back in Colonial times, waned by the 1800s and was almost nonexistent by the 1970s, but those numbers have changed.
Nationwide, home-schooled students total about 2 million, with around 15,000 to 20,000 of them in South Carolina. However, Carper said it can be difficult to track home-school numbers because they come from a variety of sources, including school districts and home-schooling associations. Virtual schools have presented a new option in the last few years, and a total of 8,142 students already attend the six virtual charter schools that operate within the S.C. Charter School District.
Carly Willeford has home-schooled her family since the oldest of her six children now 20 was in kindergarten. She said she first heard of the concept before her children were born when she and her husband were living in California. She said they socialized with many home-school families, and the practice was a much more accepted educational alternative there at the time.
I remember thinking these kids are so impressive, and we looked at it as a wonderful opportunity, said Willeford of Little River, whose youngest children are 6-year-old twins. People do it for so many different reasons, but it was just a calling for me.
Willeford and her husband are in the medical field, and she said they both love education, which is the absolute key to success. She said home schooling has allowed her children to be home more and to concentrate on learning without the social drama that distracts some children in brick-and-mortar settings. She said she is not anti-public schools, and that Horry County Schools and area colleges have been supportive in her familys efforts to educate her children in the way they have chosen.
Her two oldest children are in Peru on a year-long medical mission trip, an activity in which the entire family has participated, and the girls will attend Coastal Carolina University when they return. Her son, 16, has been able to supplement his home-schooling with some courses at Horry-Georgetown Technical College especially some science and lab work that would be challenging to achieve at home and her 14-year-old daughter made the cross-country team at North Myrtle Beach High School this year, thanks to a new ruling that opens high school sports to home-schoolers.
We take it one year at a time, Willeford said. Were all working together, and all these different options are helping all of the kids.
Petra Sander of Little River began home schooling after the oldest of her two sons now almost 14 and 12 completed first grade at a private school. She said her boys were advanced learners and home schooling was the best way to go, based on the way they learn.
[Schools] dont have the resources to challenge a child, Sander said. Public schools do a great job with children who need help but not for those who are on a higher level. I dont blame the teachers they have to spend a lot of time working toward those year-end tests but they couldnt meet the needs of my child.
While some critics say home-schoolers lack socialization, Sander said the fact they have more control over their time frees her children for other activities. Her sons play tennis and league soccer, as well as work on community projects, and they are able to take educational trips as a family without scheduling problems. They also are part of a home-schooling association, which provides co-op classes for members, get-togethers and field trips that Sander said they took more advantage of when the boys were young.
Although home-schooling has served them well thus far, Sander said her oldest wants to attend a brick-and-mortar high school as a freshman next year. She said he wants to be a pilot and is interested in an airplane certification program at the Academy for the Arts, Science and Technology, but if that doesnt work out, he will attend Coastal Leadership Academy, a new charter high school slated to open in 2013.
Parents who have turned to virtual schools report many of the same benefits as home-schoolers, such as fewer distractions and more flexibility.
Weve kind of always wanted to home-school eventually, anyway and this seemed like the right time for her, said Krissy Wilder of Conway, whose 11-year-old daughter started virtual school this year through S.C. Connections Academy. The virtual public charter school that served about 4,200 K-12 students statewide last year, with 314 in Horry and Georgetown counties combined.
Wilder said her daughter is very independent, which makes online a good choice for her, and she doesnt have to deal with some of the social aspects of middle school that sometimes can be trying. Assignments can be accessed any time, providing the family flexibility when needed, and she also has live lessons where she can chat and ask questions. Wilders husband, a childrens pastor, serves as her learning coach. She said her daughter has a social life, including youth group events, and there also are several children at their church who are home-schooled or are Connections students.
Janet Wheeler of Murrells Inlet cant say enough good things about the experiences her children are having with their online education. Her two daughters, both honors students, attend Provost Academy South Carolina, a virtual public charter school for grades 9-12 that serves 1,000 students in the state, with 94 in Horry County and 37 in Georgetown County. Her son, 11, also has opted for online and takes his sixth-grade courses through Connections.
Unfortunately today, there arent a lot of positive influences in school, and its wonderful I have the opportunity to be home with them, Wheeler said. [With online, there is] no wasted time, the teachers are very accessible, and they really care about what youre doing, how youre doing, and theres more personal attention than at a brick-and-mortar school.
Wheeler said travel time, seat time in class and homework left very little time for family, outside activities or sleep. Now, her daughters can have jobs in addition to school, and son David has time to work on his Eagle Scout Badge, play golf and participate in other extracurricular activities.
Wheelers daughter Alexis, 17, decided to attend Provost for her senior year in August and said her online education gives her just what she needs in a safe and secure environment with no favoritism and no distractions or fears. She said there are social aspects if you want to participate, but virtual school is perfect for the mature, young adult who is ready to better themselves and wants to have a future.
I like self-paced and self-controlled, and I can work and start saving money to go on to college, said Brittany Wheeler, 14, who started with Provost in February. I find online school very beneficial, and I like that I can go to school with my brother and sister.
In addition to time and flexibility, Wheeler said her children have reaped a health benefit, too.
Both of my girls have lost a heck of a lot of weight. They eat better, they sleep better and they do their school work, she said. We tried to seek other options, and we knew there had to be something else out there. My only regret is we didnt do this sooner.
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.