As the pace of change in the world around us has accelerated in recent years, so have changes in the way children learn about that world. More and more alternatives to the “traditional” classroom are emerging, and more kids are taking advantage of them.
As many as 3.4 percent of U.S. children are now homeschooled, according to the most recent data from the Department of Education. And the National Center for Educational Statistics reports that, as of 2013, more than 27 percent of college students had taken at least one online course.
There is a program out there that will benefit almost every child – from the homeschooled student who wants to take the same museum field trip that other kids do, to advanced students looking to graduate early, to someone concentrating on daytime work in the entertainment industry or sports.
A Homeschool Environment
It was that final category of learners that spurred educator Linda Neilson to start her own licensed home school – Neilson Academy. “We started the school about 25 years ago because I had some friends whose children were in the entertainment business,” Neilson says. “They needed a homeschool environment so the kids could follow their artistic goals.”
While the Academy serves only around a dozen students, each has a uniquely challenging aspect to their schooling. “Younger and middle school students may come here because they were unhappy, either with teachers or students,” Neilson says. “They may be behind and need to get individual help. High school students may want to finish school early – and here they can graduate as early as 16.”
Neilson Academy’s small student body includes several students who are professional actors, and several others who have struggled with learning disabilities. Two of Neilson’s students have gone up three reading levels in just two years – a process that would be all but impossible without individual attention. Nielson also de-emphasizes homework, a policy opposite those of many public schools.
“The amount of work and homework needed in the public schools makes it challenging to have even outside activities,” she says. “There are projects in every grade, and the parents end up doing them all.”
Students with nontraditional needs can also further their education online. While online college courses continue to grow in popularity, younger students are also taking advantage of the flexibility, freedom and self-determination that comes with taking classes entirely on your own schedule.
One such student is Sonari Chidi, who just graduated from California Connections Academy, a virtual public school serving students from kindergarten through high school. Beyond his coursework at California Connections, Chidi is an actor, with credits including “Modern Family,” several Nickelodeon shows and numerous commercials. In addition, he volunteers with a number of organizations. Chidi’s unpredictable acting and volunteering schedule sent his family looking for a school that fit into his life.
While it’s easy to assume that online school can leave a student isolated, unmotivated and unaccountable, Chidi has found it’s just the opposite. “When I first started in online school and saw the freedom and flexibility it offered, I came to understand the importance of taking ownership of my educational goals,” he says. “I began to realize that the point of online school is to make each student the CEO of their own quest for knowledge, and that the teachers and counselors are partners in that enterprise.”
Teachers are available for help through both phone and e-mail, and teach their classes through live-streamed sessions, complete with interaction via microphones and cameras. Students can chime in with questions and even attend virtual office hours with teachers located around the country. Every class has weekly or bi-weekly interactive live meetings with the course’s teacher and students, meaning the student isn’t on an island – far from it.
And online school isn’t an unorganized cacophony of tests and lessons. California Connections lays out challenging lesson plans just like a public school. “My coursework definitely compares favorably with public high schools. I typically take three AP classes, and then honors courses for the rest of my schedule,” Chidi says. “We have intensive writing assignments, presentations, labs, the usual quizzes and tests and regular discussions.”
Tinkering With Play
Even students at brick-and-mortar schools can enjoy the benefits of nontraditional learning. Many local museums offer homeschool days or special admission rates – and you don’t even have to be a homeschool student to take advantage of interactive play programs. One such program is Tinkergarten, an educational startup founded by Meghan Fitzgerald and her husband, Brian.
Brian has a background in the tech industry, while Meghan is a former teacher. They combined their expertise to start a company that offers a technology-based platform for outdoor classes for kids from 18 months to 8 years old. All their classes supplement a typical education, and take place in parks and outdoor spaces across the U.S. – including in L.A., the South Bay and Woodland Hills.
“Most traditional centers and home-based daycare have less emphasis on nature,” Meghan says. “Tinkergarten classes are based on a curriculum developed to not only connect children to the natural world, but to develop physical, social, emotional and cognitive skills.” While the lessons are led by children, they’re all are guided by trained leaders who have been vetted by the company. Problem-solving, creativity, imagination and teamwork are all emphasized, laying the groundwork for a love of learning.
“When we give children structured tasks, they learn to perform when prompted,” says Meghan. “But when we give children space and time to direct their own inquiry or exploration, children not only make sense of the world around them, but they also learn how to learn.”
At Tinkergarten, parents are more than welcome to join in the fun their kids are having. “If parents are able to join the class,” Meghan says, “they get the chance to slow down and play alongside their child, benefitting from the chance to connect with their child – and they often benefit from the chance to play themselves.”
A Growing Advantage
So how can families tell if a program that interests them will be a good fit? Whether they can shoulder the time commitment and expense, and adapt to the flexibility? Whether their online learner can be self-motivated and find other ways to connect with peers? Whether they’ll find the extracurricular activities they’re looking for through local schools or camps?
Chidi says the best place to start is by just gathering information from the school you or your child might be interested in. “Ask a lot of questions, talk to families with online-schooled children about their experiences, and don’t be afraid to switch if your current school is not meeting your needs,” he says.
Neilson echoes this, particularly with regard to the ever-increasing burden of keeping up with homework. “I feel it is important when investigating that the parents see what kind of child they have, and look around to find an environment that will be the best for them,” she says. “The schools I am familiar with have a warm environment, and not an overload of academics.”
Whatever the formula, the surest sign that nontraditional schooling is growing in popularity is how readily colleges have now come to embrace it. “Many years ago, we had to submit our curriculum so the college could see the courses and books we used,” Neilson says. But today, credits from homeschooled and online students are accepted around the country.
“During my college search, I discovered that attending an online school was viewed as a distinct advantage,” Chidi says. “Many college admissions officers said that the skills and drive that online school fosters are attributes they value highly in the students they choose to admit.” Chidi was accepted to 16 different colleges and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania this fall.
Give It a Try
Lots of local learning spaces have special days just for kids who are homeschooled or taking classes online.
- Aquarium of the Pacific sets aside homeschool days when no traditional school field trips are booked – meaning the education staff is free to guide homeschool families through the aquarium’s engaging learning stations. The next sessions are Sept. 14 and 15. Advance registration is not required, and admission is $6 per person. The aquarium also will host a “Homeschool Holiday” event Dec. 16.
- The California Science Center offers homeschool days throughout the school year for ages 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 11-12 and 13-16. Students can choose either the morning or the afternoon session, and 2016-17 dates and topics will be announced in August at www.californiasciencecenter.org/programs/onsite-programs/homeschool-days. Space is limited, advance registration is required, and classes cost $25 each for members and $30 for nonmembers.
- Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena hosts two “Homeschool Days” in November, giving homeschooling parents an opportunity to sign kids up for the museum’s 45-minute Discovery Programs, which are typically only booked for school groups of 15 or more. On Homeschool Days, the museum waives the minimum for these staff-led programs. The $15 fee includes admission to the museum. When this year’s dates are set, they will be posted online at kidspacemuseum.org/groups/homeschoolers.
- The Natural History Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum each have four designated homeschool days per year. On these days, any homeschooled student from age 3 through 12th grade and his or her educator receive free admission to the museums. Preregistration is not required. Dates for 2015-16 were in November, January, April and June at the NHM and October, January, March and June at the Tar Pits. The 2016-17 dates will be released in August. Subscribe to the NHM mailing list at nhm.org/site/for-teachers/homeschool-days for an overview.
Mike Rothschild is a Pasadena father of two and frequent contributor to L.A. Parent.