Basehor — Jessie and Ellen Farris enjoy playing sports and hanging out with their friends
Despite a slight dislike for math, both receive good grades and aspire to go to college and have successful careers in adulthood.
They're adjusted socially and academically just like any other middle school student - except they're home-schooled.
The stereotype that all home-schooled children lack social skills is something the girls' mother Leigh Farris said isn't always true.
"There are all kinds of home-schooled kids," she said. "That is the first thing that comes up - they're not going to get their socialization. I think that's a stereotype. There are those out there that just stay home, but they're not all like that."
The family's home schooling journey began when Jessie was in first grade and Ellen was just a kindergartner.
Journey to virtual
Frequent interruptions in crowded classrooms added to growing disenchantment by Leigh and her husband, Fred, with the school district their children were attending. While Leigh Farris said the teachers were great, the environment was not conducive to learning, and it forced the Farrises to consider education options for their girls.
Their first thought was to place them in a Catholic school; however the drive to the nearest one was too far. Home schooling was their next option.
"We went through a Catholic curriculum," Leigh said. "We had a syllabus, bought a book and followed along everyday. At that time, seven years ago, there weren't many programs that you could connect with."
While home school was supposed to be a temporary solution, the Farris family found a program when they moved to Basehor that went above and beyond their needs.
The Basehor-Linwood Virtual School sent the Farrises a card in the mail inviting them to join the program, which caters to all students who cannot or choose not to attend traditional public school for any reason.
Virtual school director Brenda DeGroot said the online program allows students to not only receive a high-quality education through curriculum that meets Kansas State standards, but also allows the students to connect with real teachers.
"They receive guidance from a certified teacher that gives them lesson plans, still with the freedom to travel and not miss a beat because they can access our program from anywhere in the country," she said.
How it works
Virtual students access assignments from teacher-maintained Web sites for each class and follow along in the same textbooks used by students in the classrooms of Basehor-Linwood schools. Tests are taken via the Internet, and students document their work through time logs.
Students also can ask teachers questions by e-mail or phone.
Leigh Farris said the resources and the connection to real people through the virtual school have been a welcome change from the old ways of home schooling.
"Back then, I felt like I was a lot more isolated," she said. "I felt like I had to do a lot more searching for what I needed."
The freedom the virtual school and home schooling in general allows is something the Farris family enjoys the most. Family vacations are taken when the Farrises please, the girls have more time to complete volunteer work and other extra activities - and finding time for at least one family meal a day is more promising.
Tom Cooper, reading teacher at Basehor-Linwood Middle School and the virtual reading teacher for middle school and high school students, said most of his virtual students do well despite the added freedom of online classes. Virtual school teachers are more like facilitators than teachers because they cannot always monitor students in person, he said. Students' success is entirely up to them.
"How much they (the students) get out of it is how much they put in and how much their parents put in," he said. "For the most part, the kids put in a good amount of effort. And, they like it because they can work at their own pace or get up at two in the morning and type. There is a niche in our society that benefits from this type of learning."
Leigh Farris said it's this type of learning that has made her children more independent.
While being home for school provides certain distractions for the sisters, from television to the family's dogs, they know schoolwork comes first. They aren't allowed to sleep in or lounge around the house all day, and they break for lunch much like their public school counterparts.
Leigh Farris said she often thinks of her children's education schedule as a form of college preparation.
"They've learned that if they start earlier in the morning, they get done earlier in the day and they can do other things," she said. "That's time management there. It's not totally stiff, but they have their guidelines."
As for the social aspect, the girls continued to stay in activities such as Girl Scouts after they left the public school system and joined soccer and other sports teams as they got older.
DeGroot said parents of home-schooled children also often connect to form home school networks and organize social events.
The virtual school has taken another step regarding socialization.
Most virtual school students live within a 60-mile radius of the Basehor-Linwood district, DeGroot said, and they are welcome to participate in class field trips, attend open auditions for school musicals and take classes.
The Farris girls went to Glenwood Ridge Elementary School at various times during the day to take classes such as art, computers, physical education and music during their grade-school years.
Jessie, now an eighth-grader, and Ellen, a seventh-grader, continue to take a strings class at BLMS.
"Every state is supposed to allow home-schooled students to visit the schools," Leigh said. "That was one of the things I felt gave them a healthy balance."
The state recently decided that virtual school students who were enrolled in at least one class in the public school system could also participate in athletics. Jessie's strings class counted, and she took advantage of the opportunity by joining the track team.
"One of the girls up at school told me, 'You're a lot different than the other home-schooled kids,'" Jessie said. "She said they usually keep to themselves and don't open up."
But, Leigh Farris doesn't credit her children's social success with their exposure to public schools. She believes socializing children is the job of the parents instead of teachers and fellow students. And, oftentimes children are forced to grow up too fast when parents don't stay involved in their children's lives.
"I believe learning starts in the home and it doesn't stop when school starts," she said. "Parenting is a 24/7 job all the way through. It's not the responsibility of the school to parent."
Leigh Farris said she knows she and her husband cannot protect the girls forever. They recently decided to allow Jessie to attend public school next year as a freshman at Basehor-Linwood High School.
Parents of a home-schooled student can find anything their child wants to experience without enrolling them in public school, Leigh Farris said. It just depends on how far and how much a parent is willing to drive. While home schooling through the virtual school has met the family's needs, everything Jessie wants to do is available under one roof at the high school, so they decided to give it a try. And, if it works out, Ellen will follow suit.
Both girls said they are looking forward to the opportunity.
"I'm excited, but nervous at the same time because it's a huge step from being home-schooled most of my life," Jessie said.
Leigh Farris said she knows Jessie will be exposed to things to at school she's not used. Yet the mother is confident the relationship they've built and the values instilled in her through home schooling will continue to keep open lines of communication between them.
But, Leigh Farris still maintains her strong belief in home schooling and knows it remains an option.
"Home schooling is a la carte," she said. "I get to pick and choose what I get to do with my kids. I can find anything I want to do with these girls."