What Educational Choice Means to My Son Will

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

My wife and I found ourselves at a crossroads a year ago. Traditional school was not working for my son, Will.

We had made the decision some years earlier to pull my son out of a traditional public school when it was made clear to us that my writing about education was interfering with his education. No problem. We’ll just sign him up for Catholic school.

Unfortunately, Will has a mild form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). In addition, my son does not learn like “normal” kids, or at least the way they were teaching at the school he attended.

We were at our wits’ end as parents. I was spending most of time at night re-teaching my son what he should have been learning during the day. I was ready to try homeschooling, figuring I was doing much of the teaching anyway.

It’s not a criticism of the school. My daughter now attends the same school and she is thriving.

But the teachers and the principal were nervous about Will attending middle school. They were concerned about the transition from class to class, and if he would be organized enough to keep track of his work.

Fortunately I have been writing about educational alternatives for a few years. So instead of enrolling him in a traditional brick-and-mortar school, we decided to try an online charter public school. We figured that if it didn’t work out, we could always transfer him back to the private middle school and take our chances there.

We’re now entering the final week of the semester. My desk is overrun. We have two computers on the desk, one for me and one for my son. It’s been homework central, but the results have been worth it. Will’s grades are up and he seems to be actually learning the material. He even likes attending online school better than a normal brick-and-mortar school.

Taking classes online allowed Will to work at his own pace. When he got stuck on a tricky subject, he could review the lecture or the supplementary material as much as he needed. He could e-mail the teachers and they would respond. He could even attend the extra help session and ask questions.

The best part for me as a parent of an online school student I was able to log in and keep track of Will’s progress. I could see what homework was outstanding and how he was being graded. I could also email the teachers questions and even watch the lectures with him to understand what the teacher was looking for in the assignments.

That’s not to say there weren’t difficulties. It’s different at each online school, but the only absolute deadline for Will’s assignments was the end of the semester. (Towards the end of the semester, the school website had a countdown to the last day homework could be turned in. On Friday, I thought they should have added the voice from Logan’s Run, “Last day.”)

Each class had a “pace chart” that the student (and the parents) was strongly suggested to follow. But boys will be boys, and Will was content at times to let the pace slip away from him, especially when confronted with a hard or tedious assignment. He and I spent much of his Christmas “break” playing catch up in a few of his classes.

My son also learned the hard way there is no such thing as a “snow day.” The school buses might not be able to get through, but the Internet is not subject to the weather.

But as we enter the finals week for the semester, Will was actually a little ahead in most of his coursework. That meant more free time to spend with his friends. It should provide an incentive for him next semester to try to keep on pace.

While attending an online charter school was a success for our boy, it’s certainly not for everyone. It requires parents that can dedicate the time and energy to make sure the child stays on pace. It requires some self-discipline and self-motivation by the child.

While there are social events, and we intend to try to attend some of them next semester, some students may not like the relative isolation from classmates. We’re lucky Will already has close friends outside of school. My daughter, on the other hand, has a social calendar set to her academic calendar. It would not be fair to her to put her in an online charter school without daily interaction with her classmates.

But that’s the point. Online charter schools are a public school option for parents. So is open enrollment public school choice. Another is private school choice, so far limited to Racine and Milwaukee. Choice options are becoming increasingly popular with parents looking for an alternative to the public or private school that is not meeting the needs of their child. They provide real educational options for those students who will not fit in the one-size-fits-all public school educational establishment.

We were fortunate that our district had an online charter school for our son because we had missed the open enrollment period. The open enrollment period this year is February 4th to April 30th for the 2013-2014 school year.

As the legislature meets, they should keep in mind the parents who will have to make the tough decisions about education this fall. Expansion of options like school choice and protecting existing options is an educational agenda we should all support.