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Wood County Schools looks to bring back homeschool students

PARKERSBURG — Wood County Schools administrators are hoping a new virtual school program will help bring some of the more than 800 homeschooled students back to the public school system.

Superintendent Will Hosaflook this week told members of the Parkersburg Rotary Club the school system has 861 homeschooled students. Wood County Schools has seen a decrease in enrollment of 2,500 since 2001, and Hosaflook said homeschool students represent a chunk of those losses.

“We’ve doubled the number of homeschooled students in the past 4-5 years,” said Attendance Director Chris Rutherford. “We used to have an average of about 350 homeschooled students each year. Now it’s up in the 800s.”

One way officials are addressing those numbers is through the Wood County Virtual Schools program.

“This is our first full year with the Wood County Virtual Schools,” said Jason Potts, curriculum coordinator of math and science and coordinator of the online school program for Wood County Schools. “Our target audience is those homeschooled students who are not enrolled at Wood County Schools.”

The online program, which is open to qualifying students in grades 6-12, serves about 70 students, but those numbers can fluctuate through the year, Potts said. The program is at no cost to the families, and enrolled students have the opportunity to participate in co-curricular and extra curricular activities, such as sports and clubs, as students of Wood County Schools. They also can enroll in career and technical programs, he said.

“They are full-fledged Wood County Schools students,” he said.

This past summer, officials sent out letters requesting information from homeschool families, not only asking about demographics but also the reasons why families choose to homeschool.

Rutherford said officials felt it was a perfect opportunity to let those families know about the new virtual school program, and “about 59 families returned to Wood County Schools.”

Potts said a second enrollment window for homeschool families will open in December and early January.

Potts said of the 70 students enrolled in the program this year, about 15 are middle school age, with the rest taking high school courses. About 25 are students who previously were homeschooled, and Potts estimates another 20-25 students would not have been enrolled in Wood County Schools if it were not for the virtual school program.

“It also can be used for students who are homebound” due to personal or family illness, Potts said.

The experience also can be tailored for the specific student and needs of the family.

“We would like to offer them the opportunity to be part of Wood County Schools, whether that’s part-time, a blended experience, or full-time virtual school,” he said.

Potts said Kanawha County Schools has had a virtual school program for more than two years. About 400 students are enrolled, and recently the school system opened the program to kindergarten through fifth-grade as well.

“We’ve not done that, but it is something we might consider in the future,” Potts said.

But Potts warned virtual school is not for everyone, and some students might struggle with the less-traditional classes.

“It’s very academically challenging,” he said. “You have to have technical skills and be able to communicate well via email. Your big unit tests have to be taken at the residence school (in the student’s attendance zone).”

Potts said the school system will soon have a virtual school teacher, and other improvements are being considered.

“It’s been a good journey, so far,” he said. “It’s something we’re going to continue.”

Hosaflook also said in recent years Wood County schools have shown dramatic improvements in test scores and have been recognized at both the state and national level for academic achievement.

“The academic culture is changing,” he said. “When you have three of the top 10 elementary schools in West Virginia, that changes the perception. We are saying public education is good. We are making it good.”

For more information on the Wood County Virtual School, visit woodcountyschoolswv.com, go to the Curriculum and Instruction Department and click on the Virtual School link.

Families also can email Jason Potts at jason.potts@k12.wv.us or call 1-304-485-1891 x123.

Michael Erb can be reached at merb@newsandsentinel.com.

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