As an administrator with OC Online, when I tell people that I work at an online school, they often ask, “Do your own children attend?” Hidden inside that question are lots of other questions, but the most important one to me is do you believe in what you are doing enough to put your own kids in the program? The answer is yes and yes!
We are a family of five living in southern Virginia. My husband, Nate, is the senior pastor of our church and I (Lauren) work at OC Online as the Dean of Instruction. We have three children, in 4th, 6th, and 7th grade, and our oldest attends OC Online as a full-time online student. Our middle child attends our local large public middle school, and our youngest is homeschooled through an online curriculum provider.
This 22-23 school year was big in our family as Nate jumped into teaching two classes at OC Online: MS Math 1 for 6th grade students and Sports and Entertainment Marketing, an elective for high school students. It may seem wild that a senior pastor might opt to do this, but we have several pastors on our teaching staff at OC Online alongside full-time teachers from other schools and parents who are home with their young children.
Wrestling over OC Online
We sensed that our oldest was struggling at school that first year here in Virginia, but with the pandemic still in full swing, all schools were struggling. It seemed normal that school was hard. But as he began his second year in public school, now coming into 7th grade, we came to see that these challenges deserved more attention and response from us. With one other child at home, it felt like the obvious choice to bring him home to provide better support. So, in October we decided to withdraw our oldest from the public school and enroll in OC Online as a full-time student.
At first, I didn’t know if OC Online would be a good fit. Our program and teachers are amazing, but I thought the curriculum might be too challenging. Learning online actually requires more reading and lots of writing, and he had already shown some indicators that reading and processing could be more time consuming for him. I also knew that managing the workload on his own and being responsible for his work might be difficult and that supporting a student in an online program like ours takes parent involvement. With my job and another child learning at home, I wondered how this would impact our family. I didn’t know if he would enjoy more help from mom and dad as the plan was that my husband would help him with math and science, and I would help with English and history. I also slightly worried that being the “dean’s son” would be awkward or uncomfortable for him if he joined our program.
We included our son in the decision to a certain extent because we wanted to be sure his voice was heard in the process without burdening him with the ultimate decision. That really set him at peace, and once we did shift to online, the change in his demeanor and outlook was immediately positive.
We saw a remarkable shift in his personality and felt like we had our son back. It can be so hard in the midst of challenging circumstances to make moves like this, especially if there is stress in the decision-making process. We relied on our convictions, our trust in OC Online, the encouragement of my colleagues to me and my son, and ultimately, the peace we felt from the Holy Spirit. In that way, it felt surprisingly easy to make the switch!
Teaching the Teachers
It’s one thing to see how online education works for other families, but to see it work for our own child is powerful. I now have a front row seat to how a student navigates our program! I’m grateful that my son’s previous school was using Canvas, the same learning management system that we use at OC Online, as it made his transition to the platform faster than other students might experience. The learning curve for figuring out navigating his coursework was much quicker, which helped since we switched to our program mid-semester (which I would not usually recommend to most families). Even then, seeing him figure out how to upload documents, make videos, or find his digital history textbook page all became new skills.
Watching him, I found areas to improve right away and continue to ensure students have smooth onramps and clear directions based on his feedback. A silly thing, for example, is that we ask students to write “two takeaways” from attending live class. He had zero idea what a takeaway was, and it was a great moment between the two of us as I explained it. With his challenges in reading, I also started noticing where we needed better accessibility solutions.
One of the biggest challenges in the large public school was that our son was one among many. His educational needs didn’t stand out in such a large pool of students, and he was getting lost in the crowd. For us, a program with teachers who knew our son and cared about him was incredibly important. Upon enrollment, I received beautiful emails from some of our teachers who told me they were praying for my son and our family. They were so excited to know him and be part of his growth and learning. I realize these teachers know me, but I also know the ways they love all our students and families. Experiencing it personally made an incredible impact on me, encouraging me immensely that godly men and women were investing in my son.
I also wanted a program that had a strong community. One of the lovely things about our program is the way students dive into our Spiritual Life and Student Life events and friendships. Our son is 13 years old, and there is little at his public school that he opted to join. With the reduced stress of in-person events and crowds, I hoped these community opportunities would entice him to participate, and that he could connect with our other full-time online students. I had zero idea how invested he would be within a few days of joining!
Now our son attends every Student Life event no matter what, and engages fully, even if he isn’t on camera or has his microphone on. He loves every single one! It’s wild to hear him responding verbally with such passion and excitement and then realizing he’s just typing in the chat feature! No one can see him but us, and it’s amazing how connected he feels to other students and our chaplain, Samantha Farinacci, who hosts these events. We even attended the online Paint Night together. My concerns about my job influencing his interactions were completely unfounded. He even asked me to host a club for him and some other students so they could connect over online gaming.
Learning at OC Online
Given our son’s challenges with reading and processing, I knew that he would benefit from reducing the noise and distractions of a physical classroom. We are able to focus on him and get him the just-in-time support he needs. However, tools like immersive or screen readers and talk to text have given him some freedom I didn’t even realize would be as powerful as they are. Without a crowd around him watching, he’s finding the tricks that make learning work for him. We can push through obstacles where they might have either been ignored in a classroom setting or become future roadblocks. The confidence he has gained in his own learning abilities has been tremendous, and incredibly encouraging.
Something that we’ve noticed is that he hasn’t asked, “Why do I have to do this?” about any particular assignments or work in his courses. We don’t see him completing unnecessary assignments along the way. Being educators, we know there were times in a brick-and-mortar classroom where activities or work was needed for extra practice or to fill extra time, but his work online is focused. When he plans and works well throughout his day, he has extra time to do things he wants to do. Learning how to manage his time continues to be something we work on, but that sense that he’s completing an assignment that doesn’t matter or has no purpose just hasn’t happened.
Moreover, he actually likes some of his assignments. For example, our son loves his history assignments. The 7th grade course explores medieval history around the globe, and the projects and assignments are really creative and fun. He built a waterwheel out of plastic bottles, created a scroll depicting life in medieval China that he drew over a few weeks, and created a sculpture of a crab inside his VR platform. Even in English where his reading challenges show up, the two of us had fun in his fall end of semester assignments creating a PowerPoint explaining the parts of speech. He created the characters Marshmallow, Toast, and Burger who were the stars of all his example sentences. His joy in the learning process is incredible to experience and not something we had seen for a long time.
My son hates—and that isn’t too strong a word—reflecting on his learning. We all know research supports metacognition and its importance to the learning process. Becoming knowledgeable of self is crucial. Perhaps the processing issues play into this, but beautiful reflection assignments that I built with members of our staff and am so proud of, are absolute torture to him! Other students submit these fantastic responses, thrilled that someone is actually asking them what they think, but my son has answers like “I don’t know” and “Not at this time.” I love how he has been able to be honest with me and his teachers about this and the insight it has given me about some of our students.
Also, because he’s really working on his own and not in a classroom environment, we get to experience everything he learns. His frustrations are fully visible, and we were a little surprised at some of his objections to assignments in his Jesus in Middle School course. It prompted some honest conversations for this pastor’s kid with his dad and mom about what he thinks and believes. That line of communication had not been totally open before, and his observations about those who follow Jesus have been illuminating to us!
Advice for Prospective OC Online Families
There was this idyllic season in our family’s life when all three of my children were in one school together, greeting one another from classroom doors and interacting on playgrounds. Without the pandemic and moving, that would have been their experience through 8th grade. However, because of the strong bonds they formed, I see how each one of them felt free to thrive in their own unique schools.
What has helped us is focusing on each of them as individuals, and the different programs have forced us to do that. Having taught in many contexts, my husband and I both know that one size does not fit all, and our experience has shown that it certainly did not fit all three of our children.
Here are some of my tips for helping you decide if OC online is a “fit” for your son or daughter:
- Find Freedom not Fear. Ignore the inflammatory negativity in the media and even among family members whose concerns about online learning can skew into fear-based thinking. While physical schools provide excellent activities and social engagements—some of which our daughter who is still attending fully enjoys—they have social drawbacks and challenges as well. Determine with your child what level of social engagement works for his or her personality. For us, our son really enjoys the online events OC Online provides, and then he has been freed up to play basketball in a local league and participate in a dance and manners class. He is still connected to his friends in our neighborhood and attends our church youth group. Those are a great fit for him, whereas a 1,500 student middle school was not.
- Know that not all online programs work the same way. Investigate the opportunities an online school will provide for interaction with teachers and other students and determine if that level of connection is a good fit. OC Online teachers meet with students once a week for 30 minutes, and they are available by scheduled appointment when needed. This level of interaction has been a sweet spot for our son and our family schedule. Many online programs are fully asynchronous, meaning students mostly work alone and just have occasional check-ins with an instructor, or fully synchronous resulting in lots of screentime more like remote instruction during the pandemic.
- Consider your own capacity as tech support. Our family has experience working in the various platforms used at OC Online, but in any online program, know your limits and determine where you and your child will get help for tech issues. They happen to all of us! Find a method of planning and scheduling that works for both you and your child.
- Get organized. We use a paper planner book where my son and I plan out his week, marking when he will work on certain assignments. The more activities your child is involved in outside of school makes that planning even more important. Be ready in the beginning to be very involved, knowing that independence is coming!
- Communicate. Reach out to the administrative team for support often and encourage your child to do that also. And of course, reach out to teachers. There is a delay, so patience in the communication process is key. Help de-escalate your child’s stress by having good expectations around teacher response times. I love that our online teachers are part-time and many of them, like our students, have pursuits outside of OC Online. They bring a wealth of experience to the table, but it helps to keep a little patience in the communication process.
If you’ve been inspired by Lauren’s story and want to explore OC Online further, we’d love to chat with you. Feel free to reach out to us by clicking this link which has all of our contact information.