BATTLE GROUND — It’s an unusual start to the school year for all families, but for those at River HomeLink in the Battle Ground school district, the reach to distance learning hasn’t been as far.
This kindergarten through 12th-grade campus in Battle Ground Public Schools offers a blended model for families, offering a mix of online classes and support for families that home-school their children. Some are enrolled in on-campus programs, though those programs are on hold for now.
In effect, it’s what traditional schools have been forced to shift to as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
“I felt like we were better equipped to handle it than some of the other schools, just because our kids are already … used to being self-paced,” said Christina Beck, a parent of three who attend River HomeLink.
The school is what’s known in Washington as an “Alternative Learning Experience,” programs designed for families wishing to provide some or all of their child’s school outside of a traditional campus. Students are paired with a teacher who does weekly check-ins, and families at River HomeLink can choose from a slate of curriculum they believe will meet their child’s needs.
“It allows that flex parents need,” Principal Matt Kesler said.
As Washington schools continue to provide distance learning for children, these programs appear to be growing in popularity. River HomeLink added 567 new students as of Sept. 1, bringing its fall enrollment to 1,570 students over last year’s 1,003. That number could be growing; Kesler said his registrar’s phone has been ringing off the hook.
“It’s a bubble passing through our system,” Kesler said.
Of those new students, 461 are enrolled in the school’s fully online program, which allows students to complete virtual coursework on their schedule. Julie Hill, who oversees the online program, said some families may be struggling to navigate the virtual learning schedules set by comprehensive schools, or may be concerned about the possibility of their child returning to school at all as the pandemic continues.
“They really want an option that’s fully remote,” she said. “We’re trying to be the place that will help them.”
The district, meanwhile, can claim some or all state funding for those students because they remain enrolled in the public school system, with certificated teachers overseeing their education.
“They’re there to support students who might not be at the school building each day,” said Anissa Sharratt, Alternative Learning Experience manager for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Vancouver and Evergreen public schools have also seen some growth at their alternative campuses.
Vancouver Public Schools added elementary school instruction to its Vancouver Virtual Learning Academy, expanding on its existing middle and high school program. As of Friday, 55 students had enrolled in the kindergarten through fifth-grade programs, district spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo said. Enrollment at the higher grades, meanwhile, remained steady at about 270 students.
The district’s new Home School Support Program, which pairs families with a teacher for weekly check-ins while providing district curriculum and devices, enrolled 17 students, Nuzzo said.
Evergreen Public Schools’ Home Choice Academy, which traditionally blends on-campus classes with home schooling, added 74 students from last year. Its enrollment grew from 157 to 231 students, district spokeswoman Gail Spolar said.
Beck’s children are enrolled in River HomeLink’s blended model. When schools are open, they’ll attend some classes in person. Her two oldest have dyslexia, she said, but the Alternative Learning Experience has allowed her to keep her children with peers their age for some classes while she can work with them on their reading and writing.
“I’m not having to hold my kids back if they’re not at the same reading level as everybody else their age,” Beck said.
Tina Cox has had five students enrolled in River HomeLink on and off over the years, with two students currently enrolled in the program. Cox enrolled one of her sons after noticing he was struggling with his core classes at school. At River HomeLink, he received more structured one-on-one attention, while Cox and her husband had the option to pick their preferred curriculum for his home instruction.
In the midst of the pandemic, she said that transition has paid off for all her children.
“My kids learning this way has given them a much higher self-motivation,” Cox said. “They definitely have to be willing, especially as they get older … to be willing to just get in there and get started.”