Cyber School: Expectations vs. Reality
I think you will find many areas of life enjoy a different reality than original expectation. This is true of parents and students when a family enters the cyber school setting. Parents are now alerted to what the student is being exposed to throughout the day. Students may expect easy learning.
As a parent, I was naïve enough to believe every day was going to be a great one. I forgot to take into consideration what the day would be like if one of us were tired or not in a great mood. And, I was guilty of thinking a Kindergarten student had the attention span of an adult. Learning to navigate the software takes some time to become familiar, too. Let’s take a few minutes to look at some of the expectations I had for education in the cyber setting and the actual reality of the day-to-day business of educating at home.
It was 2004 and the entire concept of schooling at home was still new. As we were unsure what to expect when we started our cyber school journey at PA Virtual Charter School, let me be the first to say, parents (who we refer to as the Learning Coach) have both a time commitment and reward factor in choosing this model of education. The time commitment involves modeling skills to your student and beginning to equip them for life. Our alarms were set. We began at the same time each morning. We committed to the school day with little interruption to school work. Our good days far outweighed the rough ones.
As for rewards, the ability to learn with our daughter and watching the delight on her face when she accomplished the goal was invaluable. As time passed we both discovered our strengths and weaknesses. Giving each other latitude on those occasional rough days. Making memories together as we had more time in our day. Listening to her share with others about what she was learning let me know this was working.
Perhaps a hidden expectation was our days would slightly change but it only took a few days of Kindergarten to know our family schedule had changed. Reality set in for me as grocery shopping and meals had to be planned and were a little less creative. Our home wasn’t spotless. Whereas in the past I could clean as necessary, I now needed to be proactive in scheduling the best time for chores. The laundry now had a habit of being completed on the off hours of the day. The truth was being a Learning Coach is a job. Lunch with friends was out of the question unless I had a substitute taking my place. Bottom line, I wouldn’t change those years for anything.
Parent Involvement in Elementary School
The time commitment for an elementary student who cannot read is roughly five hours a day. Learning Coaches are nearby during the day to help with technology, organization, focusing, attentiveness, participation in the classroom, motivation, and instruction for what is next. We often sit with our students instead of being close by. We help them to feel secure in what they are doing, being their greatest cheerleader. We incorporate fun and laughter into our days as well as learning.
For elementary students who can read and comprehend, our actual involvement in the day slightly lessens, but a wise Learning Coach always sticks close by to keep a listening ear on the school day. The goal is similar: we want our students to have success and learn life’s skills. We assist with the technology, organization, and focusing and participating in the classroom.
One of my daughter’s teachers gave us the concept of “Read – Think – Write – and Check.” This started with math class but became a valuable tool for us. We determined together what she was capable of completing independently and together we checked her work. This thought allowed both of us to see the student responsibilities and make sure no assignments were falling through the cracks.
Parent Involvement in Middle School
During Middle School, parental involvement changes somewhat but is necessary. If your students have a grasp on the expectations, Middle School in the cyber school setting can be a time for the parent to listen and watch from a distance, in another room in the house perhaps. A Learning Coach can expect to oversee the day for two to five hours. This is dependent on the skills the student has in place and if they are proactive.
Middle School students can begin to prove the skills they have learned to both the teacher and the parent. Each Learning Coach can determine how capable their students are of reading, comprehending, focusing, participating, time management, and organization. They understand the need to stay attentive and complete the tasks at hand. Middle School can be an engaging time with your student as you complete your Learning Coach role and watch them grow.
Parent Involvement in High School
Parental Involvement for a High School student is dependent on the skills your student has already developed. At the time our daughter entered High School, she knew the expectations of teachers at PA Virtual and her Learning Coach. However, I was still involved in her daily education, but the difference was she often began initiating the conversation when needed.
On another note, I have heard from many parents that there is a point when a Learning Coach becomes the computer police. Keep in mind, a student’s mind can wander (no matter the age) and a computer is an easy device to find something to wander to. We had rules and consequences to participate throughout each class with no internet surfing or game playing during class time.
Whatever the grade of the student(s) you are considering to enroll in cyber school, be assured their eventual success is somewhat on your shoulders. For our family, each year we determined our goals, we were honest with each other, and we built a relationship that would have been impossible in another educational setting.
Becoming aware of articles like these encouraged me in how I was spending my time as a Learning Coach:
Our family experienced the best of both worlds. I never considered homeschooling as I didn’t want the responsibility of choosing curriculum and wondering if I was teaching the best concepts at the best time. I wasn’t sure the local school with the long bus ride would be valuable as our daughter didn’t travel well in the morning. I didn’t want to have her feeling ill as she entered a school building every morning. So we schooled at home, but I had the support of a team who considered both of us players. I was supported every year and as teachers changed, I knew they wanted us to win in the realm of education.
In reality, at first, it was difficult to ask for support. But over time, we found we needed the staff. How to learn a difficult math concept? Ask for help from a teacher who has the experience. Computer not working? Call Technology, those staff members are often able to fix from afar and welcomed the opportunity to help us. Our nurses in Pupil Health were ready with answers to what exams the state expected each year from the student: physical, dental, or screening.
As a cyber school parent, there are many avenues in place for support. Because cyber charter schools are public schools in Pennsylvania, they follow the PA Department of Education guidelines. With email addresses and phone numbers available, I knew at any time I could communicate with a teacher, administrator, guidance counselor, school nurse, the technology department, or any other staff member. Each one was responsive to my concerns, which allowed trusting relationships to develop.
A great deal of the conversations, which in the past occurred by telephone, are now easily spelled out on our school website. I continue to find the staff ready and willing to walk families through any difficulties experienced.
In reality, there is a significant amount of screen time for students in the cyber school setting as compared to what was experienced in a brick and mortar setting. Teachers offset this time by assigning work away from the computer during the school day. It was not our experience to sit in front of the computer all day.
Any time we had the opportunity to work on a lesson away from the screen, we took advantage of using another space in the room or another room to complete it. In the springtime, we used warm days to do our reading outside. In the younger years, we took turns doing ‘screen reading.’
In our home, when the school day was completed, we did our best to stay away from ‘more’ screen time and determined what we did with the remaining portion of our day would be learning and playing in other ways. We limited television time in Elementary and Middle School. We gave our daughter a cell phone when she was in a situation of needing to communicate. Reading and hands-on projects were both given high priority in the same way they would have been if we had attended in our local district.
One of the areas I enjoy hearing our daughter speak of in her college years is how her time in the cyber setting equipped her for this next stage. Cyber school fully prepared her to work alongside professors and classmates, and often offer assistance when needed.
Many families have doubts about the socialization of their students when they are at home during the day. The definition of socialization is the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society. Values, beliefs, customs, cultures, habits, and attitudes all fall into the ‘how to’ of socialization. Family comes first in developing socialization in children. Peers, education, faith, and community organizations are vital but secondary. As children mature, mass media and eventually a career add to the socialization process.
Due to our own involvement in other organizations, we knew of the need for our daughter to socialize with others outside of the home for healthy development as she grew to adulthood. From the family to the next-door neighbor, to organizations and society in general, there are always places and people to be connected to.
For many years our home was the ‘go-to’ for the neighborhood kids. It was then she began to realize that not everyone was like us, but we could welcome everyone. We began to recognize the different talents in others and their likes and dislikes. As a family and individuals, we all grabbed various opportunities to serve others in our community.
When someone asks what socialization was really like in our home, I always respond that parents of cyber schooled students need to be proactive in choosing and implementing the activities, which will enhance the student in their friendship choices and passions. Playdates, library programs, non-profit organizations, sports teams, recreation centers, travel, and opportunities for music, drama, or dance, are scheduled and executed.
We loved that our cyber school journey gave us the ability to be socialized in different aspects of life. The seasons of time and the interest level in any given activity gave us the skills necessary for behavior acceptable to society, thus accomplishing socialization.
In the end, we all try and choose what is best for our families. If you are considering a change in your child’s education by enrollment in a cyber school, I hope my points today have directed you to a realistic viewpoint. As I stated earlier, we enjoyed the best of both worlds. Even though expectations turned quickly into reality, we stayed with it, graduated in the virtual model, and enjoyed the journey.
If you're interested in learning more about PA Virtual, we invite you to attend an online open house. During the open house, you will experience our virtual classroom in real time, learn more about your role as a parent, meet current PA Virtual parents and staff, and more. RSVP here.
About the Author: Cindy Dingeldein is a former PA Virtual parent and currently works at the school as a Parent Ambassador Regional Coordinator. Her daughter, Lexi Dingeldein, attended PA Virtual for all of grade school and graduated in 2017.