by Joy Pullmann
Advocates sell charter schools as a way to improve education, but evidence is mounting that charters eat into private school enrollment. This may damage opportunities for kids, as research consistently shows religious schools, which constitute most private institutions, educate children better than charter and traditional public schools.
This spring, the Census Bureau reported U.S. private school enrollment at a 55-year low, and attributed the slide largely to charter schools—experimental public schools free from some regulations. They sprouted in 1992. Other studies have concluded similarly: A 2006 study found that for every three students a charter school gains, private schools will lose one. Families that pick private and charter schools are similar, said study co-author Ron Zimmer: They typically have two parents and better-educated fathers. This suggests charters and private schools compete more against each other than against traditional public schools, he said.
“You hear [private schools] saying good times are not coming back,” said Michael Horn, education director at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Horn believes competition will “take out the low end in the market of independent schools over the next several years.” Suburban, city, and large private schools have been hardest hit by charter school competition, and especially inner-city Catholic schools, the Census Bureau found.
In 2011, Seacoast Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., turned its K-5 classes into Seacoast Charter Academy, dropping its weekly chapel service. A number of Catholic schools have become charter schools, removing crucifixes from walls and ending daily recitations of the Lord’s Prayer.
This shift may reduce the quality of school options families have, as students enrolled in religious schools are academically a year ahead of their charter and traditional public school peers, according to a 2012 analysis of 90 studies.
As some private schools have shed overtly religious elements in their attempt to keep students, others have begun to mimic charters by diving into technology and online learning.
Online teacher Dannie McKee has taught hundreds of children she has never seen. She gushes about her principal, whom she has also never met. “If she walked up to me I might not recognize her,” McKee said, from her RV inside a Mississippi state park. “I would know her voice.”
About three years ago, twice-retired McKee found her job upon interacting with her current boss over Facebook. She accepted the job teaching economics and computer skills for Sevenstar, one of the largest online Christian schools, during another RV trip home from El Paso, and teaches on and off frequent road trips with her husband, equipped with a cell phone, laptop, iPad, and mobile router.
McKee’s students are equally mobile. They hail from the United States, China, Ecuador, Germany, Haiti, South Korea, and the Mercy Ships traveling hospital. Sevenstar signs students up individually and through private schools looking to offer extra classes—especially Advanced Placement, remediation, and foreign languages.
Many traditional schools incorporate computer instruction, in what’s called “blended learning.” Each week, online students at Oaks Christian Academy join a chat room “students cannot miss, wherever they are in the world,” said Vicki Conway, the online school’s director. On Oaks’ campus north of Los Angeles, all students must take at least two classes online to graduate. Businesses expect employees to teleconference and work independently, and “universities are about 10 years ahead of K-12 education in implementing online learning,” Conway noted.
Students play Pictionary, hold student assemblies, videoconference with teachers, and watch daily chapel services online. Classes blend reading, homework, quizzes and tests, video lectures, and Q&A with teachers. “There is no replacement for the plays and the football games,” Conway tells students. “If you can afford our tuition, you should definitely be with a teacher in a small class. But … if you can’t be here, then it’s a good way to go to school.”
Full-time online students must have what Conway calls “a compelling reason.” Some care for disabled siblings. For others, a job took the family to Barbados or the United Arab Emirates. Some are junior Olympic athletes or have acting careers, like Supernatural star Colin Ford.
Conway only accepts self-directed students who can handle extra freedom: “You can’t force a student to work online. Nothing is passive. You must click, and decide what you will study next, choose how to organize your day, [and] say, ‘I didn’t learn that very well, I’m going to go back and study that again.’”
For this reason, most online learning programs target and enroll high-school students. Fewer enroll middle-schoolers, and just a few aim for elementary children. But some schools “flip the classroom,” as teachers record lectures for students to watch at home, then use class time for guided homework.
Oaks math teacher Wendi Klaiber has been teaching for 23 years, but began exploring blended learning two years ago: “I had no idea what a wiki was. Web 2.0? No idea.” Then she joined an online book club and started following techie teacher blogs: “At first there was a resistance, but people are starting to ask a lot more questions now.”
Klaiber flips her classroom when she feels the material warrants it. For example, she used to spend class time after tests reviewing wrong answers. Now she videos herself working through wrong answers and emails the link to her students: “That way I maximize my classroom time.” She also holds virtual office hours, where students work through problems with her remotely, while screen sharing: “Some students can take notes and go refresh them, but for the auditory students videos are a great way to relearn the things they didn’t get in class the first time,” Klaiber said.
Oaks started its online program from scratch, and Conway cautions schools not to underestimate the technology and personnel costs. Sevenstar licenses software and content, and each course costs about $300,000 to develop, said marketing director John Rotheray. Besides only selecting students who will thrive online, Conway also recommends explicit instruction in “character traits” and skills such as persistence, meeting deadlines, and how to upload assignments.
Online education’s “big promise” is allowing the best teachers to reach more students, Horn says, although most schools currently use online education as an add-on. This possibility worries some, Conway noted: “What happens to a teacher’s position if students are [instead] taking classes from the best Christian calculus teacher in the U.S.?”
Six years ago, when she was asked to teach online after 10 years in the classroom, “I came a little bit kicking and screaming,” Conway said—but she soon “fell in love with how close you can become with the students.” So did McKee, who keeps in touch with former students, just as when she taught in public schools. Now, though, she can pray with students and send them encouraging Bible verses: “You form these bonds.”
—Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News
Homeschooling ist verboten
by Kaitlyn Speer
Domenic Johansson and his parents Christer (a Swede) and Annie (a native of India) were on a plane to leave Sweden in 2009 when Swedish authorities suddenly grabbed the 7-year-old boy from his parents and took him away. The custody battle that followed made headlines across the world, but ended with Swedish courts terminating the Johanssons’ parental rights on the grounds that they had not given Domenic proper physical care (he had two cavities in his baby teeth and hadn’t been immunized) and proper emotional care: They were homeschooling him.
Domenic is now living in a foster home, and Michael Donnelly of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) acknowledges that the Johanssons “have no appeals left … virtually no hope … very little we can do.” Theirs is an extreme case, but homeschoolers in Germany face similar pressure. Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich outlawed homeschooling in Germany in 1938, and it is still illegal there. The Romeike family fled Germany in 2008 and is seeking asylum in the United States against the wishes of the Obama administration (see “Schools of thought,” April 19).
Some 400 homeschooling families remain in Germany, with almost all operating underground or fighting in court. Joerg Grosseluemern of Netzwerk Bildungsfreiheit (a German homeschool organization and support group) says in most cases homeschooling families receive fines equivalent to $260 to $2,600: “We observe in Europe and even worldwide the tendency to take the responsibility of education as a whole—not only school education—away from the parents to the government.” The government can jail parents who don’t pay.
As some western European governments curtail freedom, families in some formerly Communist countries have new hope. HSLDA estimates that Russia now has 70,000 homeschoolers, and Pavel Parfentiev, who chairs the Russian NGO “For Family Rights,” calls Russia a “champion in homeschooling freedom in continental Europe.” He notes more work to do: “In practice, there are two problems—the legally recognized right to home educate is not always known and followed by the local authorities at the school level—so the families sometimes face sort of troubles and persecution. The other problem is that in practice, homeschoolers in Russia are bound to the school where they should pass the tests at least yearly.”
In Romania, it is legal to enroll children in a school outside Romania and teach according to a foreign method, if that method is a legal one in that foreign country. Some 200 Romanian homeschooling families follow that process, Romanian Homeschooling Association president Gabriel Curcubet told me: “The single problem with enrolling children in schools outside Romania is that children must learn in English and parents need to know English in order to teach their children. The majority of Romanian families are not speaking English at all, some other are not speaking well enough to teach their children. We would like to legalize homeschooling to help the Romanian families to homeschool their children legally and in Romanian language.”
Elsewhere in the world, the homeschooling movement is growing and governments are grappling with it. Godfrey Kyazze, a curriculum coordinator with his wife Olga at New Hope Uganda, said homeschooling is becoming more popular in his country: “The law in the land requires every school-going child to be in ‘school’ and that’s it. However there is a steadily growing movement of home educators and we are trying to mobilize ourselves into a legal entity.”
Kyazze notes Africans are debating how well parents are equipped for homeschooling: “If we are looking at education as teaching children calculus, physics, and things of the like, yes, it will take some training of those families to do so or some extra help. But if we look at education as giving life to children or passing on what you know to the next generation, then every family is doing it for good and for worse already.”
—Kaitlyn Speer is a World Journalism Institute graduate
Classical and practical?
by Michael Reneau
In 2008, during his last year at Gutenberg College, a small Oregon institution that emphasizes classical Christian education, James Simas spent hours swinging pendulums in laboratories. His task: Study Galileo’s theories on pendulums and build your own experiments to prove or disprove them.
A few months and a bachelor’s degree later, though, Simas found himself swinging hammers while repairing rusted roofs of Oregon farm buildings, and then chopping wood. With no promising career prospects in sight, he had “a crisis of self-definition for a while. I had to work through, ‘Who am I?’”
In 2009, though, a temporary customer service job at Symantec, a computer software company with a nearby call center, turned into a full-time position in Symantac customer service and technical support. Simas now works with software engineers and other technical support specialists to help solve tech problems for Symantec’s commercial customers. His gray cubicle is not a book-lined study, but he plans to stay: “My ability to pick things up quickly is what allowed me to excel here.”
Well-known universities like Baylor and Biola also offer honors programs that have students reading classic texts of the Western canon and spending hours discussing them and their ideas with groups of classmates—but students like Anthony Kemp also gain some specialized skills and experiences. Kemp read great books at Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute but also studied screenwriting and landed an internship at a film production company. After graduation in 2010 he was able to gain an internship and then a job at Pixar, where he has worked on the films Cars 2 and the recently released Monsters University.
Danielle Hitchen, another Biola and Torrey graduate, moved to Washington, D.C., after graduating in 2010. She landed a public relations job thanks to a personal connection. But 14-hour days spent with phone in hand pitching stories to journalists wore her down: She hardly ate a home-cooked meal, couldn’t attend church regularly, and “felt like I had to dumb down my ability to think about things.” She quit her job but spent months applying to more than 20 jobs before the National Review Institute—founded by William Buckley—hired her last year.
Aspiring filmmaker Sydney Alford applied to 60 Hollywood jobs when she finished at Biola in 2008, and learned that “nobody cares where you went to school.” A friend got her a job at a small company where she worked as a producer’s assistant for two-and-a-half years to gain experience in film logistics, which included everything from keeping filming crews on schedule to managing parking. Two years ago Alford became one of 12 trainees at the Directors Guild of America, the top union for directors and their staffs in Hollywood. She has worked on TV shows like NBC’s The Office and ABC’s The Neighbors, among others, and will be a member of the Guild in a few more months—something that usually takes several years.
Administrators say many students—about one-fourth of Gutenberg’s, half of Great Texts Program majors at Baylor, and 70 percent of students at St. John’s College, a non-Christian classical education school in Annapolis, Md.—pursue graduate degrees. Maggie Heim graduated from St. John’s in 2008 and then worked for a year at Fannie Mae, the federally backed mortgage security company that regularly brings in classically educated students to work in data analysis. Heim then went to Northwestern’s law school and just began work as a public defender in Mount Vernon, Ill.
Classical education advocates say students walk away from those programs as better learners, which prepares them for a rapidly changing economy. St. John’s Alumni Relations Director Leo Pickens says 10 percent of graduates go on to practice law and 20 percent go into business. About 19 percent work in education, 15 percent become journalists, media professionals, or artists, and 9 percent work in medicine.
—Michael Reneau is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate