SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — More than 1,600 students are now signed up for the Sioux Falls School District’s Virtual Academy, an online home learning program that allows students to learn at their own pace with a teacher available for help.
But we won’t know until after school starts just how many more students may have chosen to do traditional homeschooling this school year.
Leslie Keierleer has been homeschooling her four children for more than a decade and now helps other parents looking to start educating their kids the same way.
“The curriculum we use, Classical Conversations, is a national program,” Keierleer said. “What we believe in is that parents are the best educators for their children so we work to equip those parents to be able to home school their kids into high school and college as well.”
Like many homeschooling curricula, Classical Conversations involves a weekly gathering with other families.
“We meet once a week in an educational environment where all of the families are doing the same things, so we meet there to review what we’ve done that week, talk about the classical model of education, learn to ask good questions and to be rhetorical in what we know,” Keierleer said.
For years Keierleer has helped answer questions about her style of homeschooling to other interested families, but this year, she’s had a lot more interest.
“Typically in this area I get five to ten new interested families a year; I’m getting about five a week right now and have been for the last five or six weeks, so we have seen a very large increase in the number of people interested,” Keierleer said.
“Going into the new year we decided, this is where we want to stay is in the home,” Sioux Falls mom Andrea Dick said.
After helping her two elementary-age students learn at home last spring, Dick decided to make the full switch to home-schooling this school year.
“We’d been considering homeschooling for a while, so ending up being at home and homeschooling, it just felt right for a family, it worked well, we saw the kids thriving in ways we weren’t seeing when they were in school,” Dick said.
“We have had a larger number of individuals contact us this year about the potential of homeschooling, but obviously we talk to them about the virtual academy option as well,” Sioux Falls School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jamie Nold said.
Even before summer began, the Sioux Falls School District knew there would be an uptick in the number of families interested in learning from home this school year.
“What I hear from the families is there’s maybe pre-existing conditions with a family member, another child in the family or one of the adults in the family with a medical concern,” Dr. Nold said.
Keierleer says she’s heard the same medical and safety concerns from parents calling to learn more about homeschooling, as well as the fear of their child’s school schedule changing again throughout the year.
“They want to have a structured system in place right from the beginning they saw that changing mid year wasn’t good and learning stopped so they want to have consistency throughout the school year,” Keierleer said.
“With traditional learning, they may still need to do some remote learning at times,” Dr. Nold said.
Sioux Falls Assistant Superintendent Jamie Nold agrees students who choose traditional learning in the classroom this year could still see some changes, but he says those enrolled in the virtual academy can learn at their own pace throughout the year.
“In the virtual academy, the teacher is there to be able to help and support but they’re not delivering a daily lesson or a weekly lesson, they’re reaching out helping to tutor the child if need be or answer questions, helping the parents, it’s going to much more like home school except the Sioux Falls School District will be providing the platform,” Dr. Nold said.
Nold says the school district’s version of homeschooling helps make the transition easier for families so they don’t have to do it on their own.
“In traditional homeschooling, they’re taking full responsibility for educating on their own,” he said. “They’re figuring out what platform they’re going to use, purchasing some online platform somewhere, or doing the instruction entirely by themselves.”
Providing families who want to keep their kids at home this school year with a virtual academy option also allows school districts in South Dakota to keep their enrollment numbers up.
“It does affect funding in the schools, the more kids in the schools, the more funding the school district gets,” Keierleer said.
If school districts across the state see a significant number of students deciding to do traditional homeschooling rather than enrolling in classes or virtual learning, they could face major financial impacts.
“We would have felt it immensely if 1,600 students didn’t come back to school, that is a significant impact. We would have a very difficult time maintaining the funding of the teachers we currently have, so if we had not had the virtual academy option we currently have, it would have been very significant,” Nold said.
Nold says the Sioux Falls School District usually has roughly 800 students who sign a waiver to do traditional homeschooling. He expects to see similar numbers this year, but says some former homeschooling families have also chosen to now enroll in the district’s virtual academy.