Alternative schooling

Bonnie Pollan watches over children in a K3 to Kindergarten class at Victory Christian School. 

Where have all the school-age children gone?

Online, it appears.

But kids aren’t browsing through social media or killing brain cells while creating the latest, dankest meme; they’re learning.

More and more families are abandoning the traditional educational structure in the United States in favor of alternative schooling options, many of which can be achieved from the comfort of home, while traveling or at the local church.

Alyssa Olivia Field, an 11-year-old whose family has permanent residence in Dothan, often does her schoolwork online in her temporary quarters — an Airbnb in Los Angeles — around acting auditions and memorizing scripts.

“We do school and we have enough time just because it’s easier to do the school when it doesn’t take as much time and you can go at your own pace,” she said. “When I finish the school, I work on the scripts that I have to do and do the auditions when I have them. And after the audition, I come back and finish schoolwork.”

Shortly after leaving Enterprise, where the then-9-year-old attended Holy Hill Elementary School, Alyssa realized her dreams to be on the big screen, which were further solidified after competing in an acting competition in Los Angeles.

Since then, her mother and father take turns jetting off to the City of Angels for a half-year so Alyssa can pursue her dreams. She’s already been featured on a highly rated TV show called “The Kids Are Alright,” which was cut from programming shortly thereafter. She is auditioning for film, TV and voice-over roles.

“I would say the online schooling has giving us the flexibility to do those things,” Alyssa’s mother, Monique Field, said. “We would never be able to come out here. We’re not California residents. She can’t go to school here.”

Help from the state

Her parents enrolled her in the Alabama Connections Academy, a virtual public school, so she could continue her education.

“It’s amazing if you are able to have the flexibility of having your kid with you,” Monique said. “I feel like we’re actually more in touch with what she’s doing at school.”

It is required that students be in good academic standing to have a work permit, such as Alyssa has, and Monique Field said she’s never fallen behind.

“They’ll schedule a time to sit down with her and help her understand what she’s not getting, and they’re available all the time,” the mother said. “They will do whatever it takes to help your child understand it.”

Monique Field has become an advocate for the alternative schooling option that has monthly field trips, follows individualized educational plans, and makes accommodations for students requiring speech or occupational therapy.

Local options

Even public school systems are offering the trendy alternative to the traditional brick and mortar.

At Dothan City Schools, some teachers have students on their roster who do not show up to class — and likely won’t for the duration of the school year — although they are part of the numbers reported to the state for annual enrollment figures.

Those students are part of the DCS’s virtual school, where class happens exclusively online through a learning-management system with Odysseyware, software that is supported by the Alabama Department of Education. Students’ projects and progress are monitored by certified teachers.

Debra Wright, curriculum coordinator with DCS, says she believes the option is growing in popularity because of the need for flexibility.

“Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances that surround their need for a virtual school program, and it just fits,” she said.

The virtual school has made marginal gains in enrollment since it began in 2016. Last school year, the program had 30 students at the beginning of the year. This year, that number is 37, with mostly fulltime students.

Wright said the program is rigorous and students have a “vast choice” of classes along with opportunities for co-op, dual enrollment and career technical courses at the Dothan Technology Center.

Students have “base schools” based on their grade level and designated zones where they have access to their teachers and counselors — to ensure they are on track for graduation — and can join extracurricular activities and sports teams.

Currently, the option is only available to Dothan City Schools’ zoned students in grades nine through 12 who are in good academic standing, although a committee of school officials can make exceptions for middle school students.

The program is an ongoing independent study and open to students who apply, so long as they have a GPA of at least a 2.0 in previous course work. Enrolled students must complete the same state assessments as their peers.

Marlen Boreta, a 10th-grader enrolled in DCS Virtual School, gets up most mornings unsure exactly how her day will go without the strict regimen of traditional school.

“It might be hard at times, but for me personally, I can teach myself,” Boreta said. “I’ve been doing pretty good with that. I don’t necessarily need anyone’s help with that. I can just go at my own pace.”

Previously, Boreta said, going to school served as an obstacle in her life.

“I chose to do this because I was always stressed about having to go to school and this was more of a self, mental thing where I was really stressed, and I was having anxiety,” she said. “Another reason is I wanted to help out my mom with my baby sister. Unlike last year, it was stressful and chaotic for all of us. With this, everyone’s life has just been better.”

She just started the program in August, but said it has already improved her life.

“It allows me to do my schoolwork alongside my normal life,” she said. “It helps me make my own schedule with homework, home life, chores, that sort of thing.”

Monitoring effort

Unlike Alabama Connections Academy, Boreta cannot skip out on days to make them up later, but is beholden to the weekday schedule. Her attendance is tracked through the software she uses by the amount of time she is logged on every day. Boreta said the requirement is four hours.

Victory Family Church in Dothan, a nondenominational church, is taking advantage of the accessibility of online and Christian curriculum to combine the best of home-schooling culture in an organized environment.

Victory Christian School, on Headland Avenue, is unlike other private schools in the area in structure; it is only open four days a week from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“We take on the philosophy that Fridays are for field trip days or days off, and we do not send homework,” the Rev. Kim Duren said. “All work and study drills are done in school so when they do go home, and mom and dad get off work, they can join in at the supper table or do whatever their family does in the afternoons.”

Duren, who homeschooled her five children over 20 years, realized that in today’s world, homeschooling is not a viable option for many people.

“We’re losing a generation to busyness, to stress and the absence of the word of God,” Duren said. “Not everyone can homeschool, and in home school, you really have to be a teacher and be present to be effective.”

She and her husband, Jason, created the church school with the notion that parents have input into what their child is learning and the environment they are in, comforts not always afforded in standard public schools.

“It really bothered us that there was another option to get a home-school culture without spending extravagant amounts of money to send your child to a private school. We just think there is an alternative,” Duren said.

The school teaches ACELLUS, an online, accredited curriculum that is used by many public schools in the nation, alongside Christian studies.

The school, which opened this past fall, serves students in K3 through 12th grade and currently enrolls 30 students at a cost of $275 a month.

It does not serve under an accreditation authority, which gives the school freedom in the way it provides education, while abiding Alabama guidelines.

For example, two to three grade levels could be grouped together in the same room.

“We don’t divide classrooms into grades, because we believe that having them in the same room, the younger ones are challenged by older students. We can do that, because we keep it a safe environment. There’s no room for bad influence from older generations,” she said.

Positive difference

The Durens strongly believe that what they are doing sets their academy apart in a positive way.

“We’ve had reports of improved behavior and students coming closer to God. All of our students are straight-A students, and a lot of them are perfect attendance,” Duren said, adding that several of her senior-level students are on track to graduate.

A longtime home-schooling advocate, Leah Dragovich, has three children enrolled in the school.

The family decided to remove the children from traditional schools because of an amalgamation of events.

“We tried traditional Christian school, but switched to home schooling because we didn’t want the worry of absences, early peer pressure like drugs or sex, just things like that were premature for their age level at the time,” she said. “It allowed us to spend more time together as a family. It’s allowed them to excel academically and watch them grow spiritually and worship the Lord.”

With homeschooling, she said her children were ahead of their grade levels, but decided to enroll them at Victory because of their father’s deteriorating health and she wanted them to get more exposure to the world around them.

All of her children, ages 17 and 16, are on schedule to graduate in May.

Declining numbers

In Alabama, the number of students enrolled in public schools has decreased by almost 60,000 students in the last 25 years.

It’s unclear how enrollment in private and homeschools have changed, as Alabama law does not require private schools or home schools to report enrollment figures.

The National Center for Education Statistics conducts a survey every four years to determine the numbers of students enrolled at home and in independent schools.

The last survey conducted in the 2015-16 school year found that 27,230 students were home-schooled in Alabama.

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