ABOVE PHOTO: The Fontroy family (from l to r): Taylor, parents Tyrone and Brenda, Tyler (standing behind) and Sandy. (Photo courtesy Fontroy family)
By Amy V. Simmons
National School Choice Week is being observed this year from January 22 – 28.
According to the official schoolchoiceweek.com website, school choice means “giving parents access to the best K-12 education options for their children. These options include traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online learning, and homeschooling.”
The number of families choosing home educational instruction has increased over the past few decades. The possibilities for homeschooling and online learning have never been greater.
From independent study models — where students study at their own pace — to structured programs, with live classroom instruction, there are a variety of options.
There are also a number of reasons why parents choose to enroll their children in these programs. In many cases, traditional, in-person instruction simply didn’t meet the unique needs of their child.
Brenda Fontroy, a kindergarten teacher at the Lower Merion Penn Wood Elementary School, along with her husband Tyrone, decided to homeschool their family before online education was even a possibility. Using their own research, they came up with a viable lesson plan.
“We had to kind of sit down and teach them ourselves,” she said.
Fontroy’s family — which eventually expanded from three to six over the years — transitioned from traditional homeschooling to a cyber charter program. In spite of the fact that online education programs were initially a bit rudimentary in the beginning, they gradually improved, and the family decided that it was the right choice for them.
Her experience as a teacher in a brick-and-mortar school allowed Brenda to learn what works and what does not in homeschooling, online education and in-person learning for her classroom and family, she said.
When it comes to meeting all of their children’s educational needs, Agora Cyber Charter School has exceeded the Fontroy’s expectations, especially when it comes down to allowing the children to develop strong self-motivation and discipline skills.
Moreover, their children tutor public school students in reading at the Overbrook Park Library as part of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Literacy Enrichment After-School Program (LEAP) on a daily basis, something they are all proud of.
“Reading is one of the hardest things I’ve found that their children struggle with in public school,” Brenda said. “So, when I saw that they wanted to teach the children how to read, that really brightened my life.”
Sandy, who graduated from Agora in June, is now studying construction management at CCP before heading to PSU for Architectural Engineering. Serving as president of the National Honors Society was one of her proudest achievements at Agora. Sandy, who attended the school from grades K-12, also appreciated the flexibility of the asynchronous — or independent study — program she was able to pursue while matriculating there.
“It really helped me to figure out what I wanted to do, so I’m experienced in con-struction management right now,” she said. “I love building and [with] the flexible schedule that I had, I was able to go on projects and help with construction projects as internships and things like that.” At CCP, Sandy is currently taking six classes — three classes in person and three online. When she entered CCP, it was her first experience with in-person instruction.
“It was definitely different something they get used to,” she said. “But my online classes were exactly what I was used to. I was able to keep up with the pace and even move forward. … I was also used to going my own pace. … So being in person, it was different to get used to — hearing the students ask questions, and [that] the professor was sometimes talking longer on subjects that we were doing, so it was interesting getting used to that.”
So far, Sandy has not met anyone in her on-campus classes who had a similar educational background. Her experience, however, intrigues many of them.
“A lot of them are surprised when I told them that I was homeschooled my whole life,” Sandy said. “Some of them say they wish that they were as well. One of the students I was talking to told me that she went through a lot of bullying in her classrooms, and a lot of teachers having to fuss at other students [so often] that sometimes she felt she wasn’t getting the most out of her class experience and getting the education that she really wanted. So, I expressed my feelings that [it] was terrible that happened to her, and I told her how Agora really protected me from that and helped me to grow into the person I am today.”
Taylor is a senior at Agora. She explained how the students interact with each other and their teachers — something that is a main concern of families who are considering a cyber education experience. Agora’s digital interface tools help a lot in that regard, she said.
“I have friends in school, mostly during the chat that we have during class, because our teachers love for us to interact in our classes and to get our thoughts and things [out] in English class, or answer questions in math class, and we all collectively become friends as a group,” Taylor said.
There are also ample opportunities for students to interact with each other in person during Agora Days Out field trips, she added.
That’s a way for us to meet face to face and to connect with our fellow students and friends,” Taylor said. “It’s a monthly thing for teachers, students to connect with one another to meet together face to face, like [at] the Franklin Institute, or the [Academy of Natural Sciences]. [These] educational trips are fun trips for us, or sometimes they are to the zoo, just for us to meet together and have fun.”
Also, Taylor maintains a balance between her school and outside friendships.
“We go on picnics, or we meet out just to have lunch or play board games, and it’s fun,” she said. “We have those friendships and those connections that grow stronger every time we meet up.”
Having the opportunity to help other students excel is an invaluable experience for Tyler, the Fontroy’s youngest child, who is in 11th grade. The students he tutors often ask about his cyber school experience.
“I share the experiences we have,” he said. “I show them that it’s not much different, and that we still get all the same things that [they] do, but it’s just a more overall positive experience.”
Following the end of the early pandemic lockdowns, cyber education has garnered much attention. While many parents and students say they learned a lot from the experience, much of that attention has been negative. The virtual learning that was necessary at the time has been blamed for ongoing mental health issues and other developmental problems.
Nevertheless, for students like the Fontroys, who have been studying at home all of their lives, it has always been a good experience.
“I’ve never felt that it has been negative,” Tyler said. “It’s always been positive for me. I guess it’s more what you make it. You can always have those experiences doing different things. It’s just [about] what personally works for you. Agora works for me.”
During the lockdown, Sandy helped friends who attend traditional schools adjust to virtual learning. Going straight into cyber education without any preparation for it was a shock for them.
“They were asking me for help, like, ‘How do you do this? How do you [interact] on the computer?’” she said. “And so I showed them, and I said, ‘Hey, this is my schedule’ that I would write out. I sent them text messages. … we would have study sessions together, and I would teach them [that] the biggest thing when it comes to online school is that they have to discipline themselves.”
Students’ attitudes and perspectives were also important factors in how they dealt with the situation, Taylor believed.
“Not many people could control the situation or their parents, but it’s how they reacted to it,” she said.
In spite of the fact that she acknowledged that many students used to the socialization routine of traditional schools found the isolation challenging, it was something that could be overcome with some planning, Taylor believes.
“I know that many people who went to public school are more active and more energetic and I know that feeling isolated from everyone else could potentially bring down their own education, but it really doesn’t have to be if you could make the situation better for yourself. …to make a plan, make a to do list, you know, make a weekly schedule where you can meet up with your friends and how you can get your schoolwork done,” she said.
Rich Jensen, Agora’s CEO, sympathizes with traditional school districts that were forced into virtual learning without any prior experience during the early pandemic lockdowns. In order to help them sort this out, he and his colleagues offered their services and advice.
Results varied, Jensen said.
“I know that there were some districts that did a good job,” he said. [However], there were a lot of districts that just did not put in the effort the time or really have an idea of how to go about doing it.”
However, in contrast to these other schools, Agora has been operating for 17 years and has acquired few insights along the way, learning what works and what doesn’t work, Jensen said.
Through the lockdown experience, Jensen believes that virtual education was made more appealing to traditional schools.
“I think there are several districts that realize virtual education has a rightful place, and there are more districts who are actually truly investing in online models for their particular districts, and I think competition is good,” he said.
Jensen spoke to the growing concerns surrounding mental health and students, particularly as it pertains to virtual students, an issue that has been growing over the years, he said. Agora has created a whole process for addressing these situations. Their work in this area made them the first trauma-informed cyber school, he said.
Agora’s family coaches are at the forefront when it comes to these matters, he said.
“We have a unique position at Agora called the family coach,” Jensen said. “This position is the main liaison between the home and the school. They sometimes are the ones that are on the very cutting edge of identifying students in need of assistance, and they’re right out there trying to find out the ways that we can support our families and to address a lot of their mental health needs.”
The cyber school experience is not for every family, Jensen said.
“There’s not necessarily an assessment, but it’ll become very obvious in, I think, the very opening weeks on if this is a good fit,” he said. “That’s why having that family coach build that relationship with the family [is key]. Our school counselors are building relationships with their students. Our teachers are very much engaged in getting to know their students.”
Agora is a public charter school, Jensen said. “Our funding is all through the Pennsylvania funding formula for tuition reimbursement, which means that the way we receive funding is from the local districts,” he explained. “So when a student leaves their home district and comes to Agora, a percentage — roughly 70 to 75% — of that funding follows the student to us. And so, there is no direct cost that a parent has to put out [in order for their child] to attend Agora.”
In addition to offering special, one on one interaction, something else that makes Agora so successful is its focus on literacy, a key factor in post-secondary success, Jensen said. By offering a high school program called the Destinations Career Academy, Agora also takes into account the needs of students interested in alternative postsecondary options to college. In particular, Agora offers three career paths: information technology, business, and health services, with internships, job shadowing, and the chance to earn industry credentials in some cases.
Despite Jensen’s feelings of pride and inspiration for Agora’s students and staff, he said education is ultimately about serving children.
“I’m “hashtag #agora proud” through and through,” he said. “I am so grateful for all the work our faculty and staff do in serving kids, and that’s what it’s all about — serving kids. At the end of the day, if they (students) are in a brick and mortar charter, if they’re in a traditional district school, if they choose to even go into some kind of private or parochial [school] or if they come to Agora Cyber Charter School, it’s all about serving kids, and that’s how I’m driven every single day.”
For more information about the school, visit: www.agora.org.