Alberta homeschool programs see increased enrolment for 2020-21 academic year

Alberta homeschool facilitators with school boards say the pandemic has led a lot of families to reconsider traditional schooling, and homeschool programs are experiencing a significant increase in enrolment.

Elizabeth Surridge is a home education facilitator with the Summit West Independent School.

“We’ve more than doubled our numbers,” she said. “That has happened over the summer, mostly August.”

Last year, the program had 75 students; this year, there are nearly 200.

In order to deal with the increase, Surridge said Summit West is hiring a third facilitator to take on the increased workload.

“Once she’s filled her roster, we probably will have to stop. Definitely by end of September we won’t be taking new students after that,” she said.

The Phoenix Foundation is an independent school in Calgary that offers two kinds of programs. One is its blended program, which combines on-site learning and online classes along with community experiences, and the other is its homeschool program. 

Diana Stinn, founder of the Phoenix Foundation said they’ve seen a huge increase in interest in both programs. 

“It has been an incredibly crazy time,” she said. “The phone has been ringing off the hook.”

Stinn said that to meet increased demand, the foundation made the decision to increase the number of students they accept by about 50. But, with 325 students enrolled, they’ve reached capacity.

“We’ve had lots of parents call, and honestly some of those parents have been in tears because we have indicated that we are full,” she said.

Surridge — who has been in the home education business for two decades — said the parents looking to home educate are different this year than in past years. 

“People who [usually] reach out to me want to do home education or they’ve already been doing it. They’re choosing,” she said. “The parents now, this was not their choice and they feel forced into it.”

Elizabeth Surridge is a homeschool facilitator with more than two decades of experience. (CBC)

She said many parents didn’t have success with online learning last spring and don’t feel classrooms are safe right now.

“Some have said, ‘we’ve been thinking about this for years and this is the little kick to do it,'” she said. “And they didn’t really like what was happening in March. The online learning was so sudden and shocking, and the option to create a home education program that’s more aligned with who their students are and how they learn has become very appealing.”

Stinn said that for others, the online learning in March proved to them how rewarding home education can be.

“Lots of people, they had often considered homeschooling in the past, and then that was sort of the final straw to say, ‘look, we did it we can do it. It’s not as hard as some people thought.’ So those people are very eager and very excited to be learning from home,” she said.

“For other parents there is some concern. We do absolutely have some parents who have students who are immune compromised or someone in their household who is. So they’re looking for options in order to make sure that their family and extended family is safe. And there are some parents who are just worried.”

Judy Arnall, president of the Alberta Homeschooling Association, said homeschool providers have been seeing increased interest across the board this year.

She said many major school boards — like the Calgary Board of Education — offer homeschool facilitation (which is different than online education) and there are plenty of spaces still available for families who are interested in taking that avenue.

For those taking the plunge for the first time, Arnall has some advice. 

“Just like having a newborn baby, it’s scary the first year and it’s a huge learning curve. But once they get the hang of it, they will enjoy all the benefits that experienced home education parents have been having for years,” she said. “It takes so much less time, it is so much more personalized to the child, and it’s so flexible that parents can really customize things to their children’s interests.”

And Arnall said facilitators are always there to help. 

“They can call a teacher every day to ask questions,” she said.

Arnall said each student who is homeschooling is assigned a certified teacher as a facilitator whom parents or students can can ask questions of at any time.

“So they’re not going to be alone. They’re going to have lots of support and lots of help choosing curriculum that fits their child,” she said. “And there’s lots of peer support, too. There’s so many veteran home educators out there that are so willing to help out families this year.”

Phoenix Foundation founder Diana Stinn says the school has added 50 new spots for students to meet demand this year. (CBC)

Stinn said it’s also important for parents and students undertaking homeschooling for the first time not to be too hard on themselves.

“If you had planned to do five pages of math and nobody is interested in math, then pick an alternative educational activity. Maybe it’s listening to an audio book, maybe it is going outside to play for a while,” she said. 

“Remember, you’re looking at a long term. You’re looking at your progress over the course of the year. If you have one bad day or even a bad week, it’s just that — move on and look at what you achieve over the course of a year.”

In an emailed statement, Alberta Education said there were 13,564 students who received home education in the 2019-20 school year. Numbers for the 2020-21 school year will not be available until enrolment counts are finalized.

Arnall said it’s critical that parents who are considering homeschooling know the deadline to sign up and receive government funding is Sept. 30.

“It’s not going to take funding from their school boards. School boards are funded for each child no matter what program they’re in — if they’re in home education or if they’re on online or in the classroom,” she said. “Parents need to know their children are going to thrive and they’ll just keep on learning no matter what decision they make.”

She believes that once parents and students go down the home education path, they won’t want to turn back.

“Once parents try it and see how much their kids advance, they will continue with it. There’s a common myth out there that families who home educate are somehow deficient or their kids are behind — and that is not true. That’s not what the research bears,” she said.

“Once parents see how happy their children are, I think they will continue it and it will grow definitely in the future.”

Students are not eligible for funding if they register for a home education program after Sept. 30. 

When a student registers for homeschooling, the province provides about $1,700 to the school board they’ve enrolled with. The family is then eligible to be reimbursed half of that money over the course of a year.

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