A hike through the woods, a backyard fort, a sewing machine positioned beneath alphabet wall hangings, a community table where children ages 2-11 read and sing together: All look more like play than class. But Andrea Olson believes learning can take place in each of those settings. The Asheville mother of five switched to home schooling during the 2020-21 school year and says she’ll never send her kids back to public school.
“Home schooling has simplified things for me,” says Olson, whose children previously attended both Asheville city and Buncombe County schools. “I wouldn’t trade this peaceful lifestyle for the hustle-bustle of public school — waking up early, dealing with teachers and grades and conferences and schools being shut down and opened up — ever.”
Enrollment in home schooling and other alternatives to public education, such as private, parochial and charter schools, has been on the rise in Buncombe County over the past decade. According to the N.C. Department of Administration, 1,829 home schools served approximately 2,920 Buncombe students in the 2011-12 school term; 3,997 county home schools with roughly 6,013 students were recorded for the 2020-21 school year, an enrollment increase of nearly 106%.
Enrollment in Buncombe’s charter schools has similarly boomed, rising over 233% from 680 in 2011-12 to 2,270 in 2019-20 (the latest year for which data is available). The county’s private and parochial schools, which are combined in state statistics, increased enrollment by a more gradual 19% over the same period, from 3,139 to 3,752.
The rate of change in county home schooling was particularly sharp last school year, as schools adopted virtual learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and many parents had to work from home. NCDOA data shows that Buncombe home school students increased by nearly 21% from 2019-20 to 2020-21.
And last school year, Buncombe County Schools saw an average daily membership drop of over 1,500 students, about 6.4% from its 2019-20 figure of 23,712, with nearly 450 students moving to home schools. (ADM at Asheville City Schools increased by 25 students, or roughly 0.6%, from 2019-20 to 2020-21.) “The pandemic disruptions affected families in different ways, and they made schooling choices based on their child’s needs at the time,” says BCS spokesperson Stacia Harris.
All public school classes met 100% virtually at the start of the pandemic. David Thompson, BCS director of student services, says that the system used numerous strategies to keep students engaged when they weren’t coming to the classroom.
School staff made home visits to provide packets of work from teachers, internet hot spots and wellness checks. Teachers and counselors offered virtual social-emotional skills lessons and personal sessions. Students checked in through social media and regular virtual club meetings, while families were connected with community organizations that could provide basic needs such as food and clothing.
But although BCS eventually transitioned to a hybrid model (two days of in-person instruction and three days of remote) in September 2020 and returned to full-time, in-person instruction in March, Thompson acknowledges that the disruption harmed many children. “Financial difficulty, unemployment, isolation in remote parts of the county and lack of social interaction and community support systems,” he says, led some students to engage minimally in virtual learning. The U.S. Department of Education reports that over 600 BCS students are homeless, and over 5,000 live in poverty.
Early return to full-time, in-person instruction, with practices in place to protect students and staff, motivated some parents to transfer their students out of public schools. “What we’re hearing from many families who come to us is that they want their children to be in school, but they want to know that the school also cares about the health and well-being of their children and their children’s teachers,” says Sarah Goldstein, director of marketing communications at the private Carolina Day School.
CDS students in grades pre-K-8 returned to full-time, in-person instruction in August 2020, while high school students transitioned from hybrid instruction to full-time, in-person classes in April. Many other area private and parochial schools, including Asheville Catholic School and The New Classical Academy, also gave students a full-time, in-person option before public schools did.
To make in-person learning possible at CDS, Goldstein explains, “We developed a stringent health and safety plan that included masks, increased ventilation and distancing, as well as protocols for parent communication and quarantine when exposures did occur.” With an average student-to-teacher ratio of 7-to-1 — less than half of the average for BCS — and a campus surrounded by forest land, the school was also able to convert outdoor spaces into classrooms, further reducing the risk of coronavirus transmission.
Olson similarly says her decision to home-school was driven by a desire to avoid virtual learning. “When COVID hit, and my daughter came home from kindergarten only seven months after beginning, our household simply couldn’t take the iPad’s presence,” she says.
Now, Olson says, her children’s learning is more grounded in the physical world, with regular activities including hikes, crafts and free outdoor play.
“We are all more deeply connected,” she says. “And they’re learning things I wish I’d known when I graduated, like how to use a sewing machine, how to build and fix things, and how to cook. The biggest benefit is that they all have that spark for learning that children are born with that public school tends to stifle out of them.”