Jefferson County Schools will not move forward this fall with a virtual learning program designed to combat the growing number of parents homeschooling their children.
Instead, school board members have asked administrators to continue studying reasons behind the growing trend, by conducting interviews with families participating in a recent survey.
Meeting last week, the board reviewed a survey conducted by incoming Director of Schools Shane Johnston that drew 22 responses from home school parents. The survey sought to pinpoint reasons parents keep their kids out of public schools, and their interest in a virtual learning program that would primarily involve at-home studies.
Three-fourths of those responding indicated “dissatisfaction with public schools” was their reason for homeschooling, while 15 percent said “medical needs” and the other 10 percent cited “religious” reasons.
Asked if they would be interested in enrolling their children in a virtual/blended learning environment, however, 52 percent said “yes.”
The responses were not enough to move school board members to take $248,000 out of fund balance to begin the program, proposed for 75 students - one third each from the elementary, middle and high school levels.
The proposal is part of a strategy by administrators to regain some of the students who have left, and admittedly boost state revenues coming to the county for educating them.
“Initially, our thought is to gain homeschool students back into the school district and offer them a public school experience with a virtual and blended learning environment,” Acting Director of Schools Sherry Finchum told the board.
As it was proposed, students enrolled in a virtual learning program would have to come in to a school on certain occasions, but would primarily work from home.
Finchum added during the discussion that “dissatisfaction” with schools could cover a broad range of reasons. She also said she believed concerns about the safety of schools in general - in light of school shootings across the U.S. - was another factor driving the homeschool trend.
Concerns expressed by school board members at last Monday’s meeting focused on the initial cost involved, and a general lack of understanding of what’s driving parents to move to homeschooling.
“It’s a lot of money for someone who has chosen not to be a part of this school system,” said board member Dusty Cox, pointing out that the system wouldn’t get state funds for a student unless they came back a second year.
Board member Randall Bradley questioned why reserve funds should be spent for 470 potential students, when there are needs to improve the learning environment of over 7,000 who are already enrolled. He said he had nothing against the program, but thought it was not their top priority.
Anne Marie Potts said she thought reasons behind the homeschool trend need to be addressed before virtual learning is funded. “What is it that we’re not doing that they don’t want to be here?” she asked.
“I think it’s going to be a learning experience for us,” she continued, adding “I don’t think we’re quite ready in this year’s budget to move forward.”
Finchum told the board it could narrow the scope of the program as a pilot program, focusing on attracting 25 high school students. That would require an expenditure of about $125,000, she said - half of the original proposal. However, no action was taken on that idea.
In the end, board members decided they want to learn more about why parents are choosing homeschool over public education. Instead of funding the virtual learning program, they asked Finchum and administrators to talk further with the 22 families that responded to Johnston’s survey, and bring that information back to a future meeting.