“I would consider the atmosphere in public schools to homeschools as being outright hostile.”
This is how Brad, a homeschool parent, described his interactions with his public school system to me in an interview in late June. He told me how the public school won’t let his son take an AP test with them, despite his offer to pay for the test and the fact that he is taxpayer in the school district. Karen, another homeschool parent, said that she wishes her son could play sports or participate in extracurricular activities at the public school, but she, “[doesn’t] even want to make the phone call.” According to some of the things she’s heard from her homeschooling circles, she decided not to bother trying to communicate with them.
While these stories represent only two experiences, the narrative that emerges from speaking to homeschool families about their interactions with school districts is not positive. The majority of school districts in the state do not allow homeschool students to take classes or participate in extracurricular activities, which is their legal right to do so. Thirteen districts, however, have opened their doors to homeschool students. I spoke with the superintendents from two of them, Mount Airy City Schools and Transylvania County Schools, about their motivations and experience partnering with homeschool students.
“We want our current population to stay with us and we want other folks to choose us”
Mount Airy school district is a small district with a new superintendent, Dr. Kim Morrison. One of Morrison’s goals as superintendent is to establish partnerships with the homeschool population in Mount Airy. Her motivation for doing so is part funding and part community engagement.
As a small district of only four schools, Dr. Morrison said they live and die by their ADM, or average daily membership. This number determines the amount of funding the district receives from the state. While her district does not have a large population of homeschoolers, Dr. Morrison stated that losing just 20 students, whether to homeschools, private schools, or charter schools, means the loss of funding for a teacher. Thus for Dr. Morrison, it is urgent that they do everything they can to both enroll students and keep them.
Dr. Morrison’s effort to partner with homeschools is only just beginning. She set a goal that all four schools would reach out to at least five homeschool families this year and either build a relationship or enroll their students part-time in the school. To do so, she sent a letter to all homeschools registered in her district inviting them to upcoming events and public forums in the fall to meet the new superintendent. She is planning meetings with staff to show them the homeschool numbers and explain the importance of outreach to families. She recently met with administrators to explain the urgency of keeping students in their schools and expanding partnerships to homeschool families.
In Mount Airy, homeschool students have a wide array of classes from which to choose. From a dual-language immersion program in kindergarten and first grade to a Chinese program in high school, homeschool students are welcome to enroll and learn new languages. Homeschool students can take classes or join clubs that are part of the STEAM program — an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics. In high school, homeschool students can take advantage of 11 Advanced Placement classes offered. Additionally, extracurriculars such as band are also open to homeschool students. They have one homeschool student who is only enrolled in band, which means that the district doesn’t receive any funding for him, but Dr. Morrison believes this strengthens their relationship with the homeschool community.
The effort to partner with homeschool families, Dr. Morrison says, “goes along with our whole who we are — how we define ourselves.” She describes their central mission: “We want to create students who don’t just learn content but use that content to connect with others.”
“We believe all these kids are our kids in the community”
Transylvania County Schools has had a policy of dual enrollment for homeschool students for the last 10 years. I recently spoke with Superintendent Dr. Jeff McDaris on why he believes this policy is a win-win for the school district and the homeschool population.
The decision to open their schools to homeschool students was made in part in reaction to declining enrollment in the county. Transylvania is a rural county that has seen significant job loss over the last 10 years since the closure of a major manufacturing plant in the area. Job loss coupled with the higher price of land in the mountains has resulted in few young families moving there. Dr. McDaris’ predecessor saw the growth in homeschooling in the area and realized they could boost the declining enrollment by offering dual enrollment to homeschool students.
So far, Dr. McDaris said the policy has been a win-win. To take classes at any public school in Transylvania County, a student must enroll part-time, meaning that TCS can count these students in their ADM and receive funding for them. Additionally, Dr. McDaris said that over the years, they’ve had homeschool students who enroll part-time, have a good experience in the school, and eventually enroll full-time, especially on the high school level.
Homeschool students will take courses that interest them, such as courses in Career Technical Education or high-level chemistry. If students take physical education as one of their classes, they are also eligible to participate in athletics and band. In general, all part-time students can participate in extracurriculars as long as they are enrolled for half the day. In high school, this means they must take two classes at the school. In middle school, it can get a little trickier to define how many classes are necessary to be enrolled part-time.
For the most part, Dr. McDaris said, the policy has been positive for all involved. Occasionally they have had to change the rules. For example, they prefer students who participate in athletics or band after school to take afternoon classes. One year, a few students who were in after-school activities took two classes in the morning and then would just hang out in the school until the afternoon. Despite these minor issues, Dr. McDaris told me they try to work with every student to make it a positive experience for everyone.
Underlying both Transylvania and Mount Airy school districts’ decision to open their schools to homeschool students is the belief that public schools exist to serve all children in the community, not just those who attend them. As Dr. McDaris stated, “We believe all these kids are our kids in the community.”
To learn more about how districts are using online classes to partner with homeschool families, read Kristin Blair’s article.