Muskoka Christian School (MCS) is finding new ways to engage the families in their community. In the small town of Utterson, Ontario, MCS includes homeschooling families from a large rural area through two unique offerings: A Homeschool membership and a Half-time program.
The school community is benefitting from new connections while providing a valued service to families choosing to educate their children at home. Homeschool parents appreciate getting a flavour of the school and the opportunity for their children to engage with other students.
The Homeschool membership offers many extracurricular activities and events to homeschooling families such as participating in the school’s Christmas musical. They attend the morning assembly on Fridays, connect with their grade’s classroom for snack and recess, and then have a musical rehearsal. Other activities open to homeschool members include assemblies, field trips, special events, and an outdoor winter program. The Homeschool members are kept informed through the school’s newsletter and can access facilities such as the school’s library.
The school’s winter activities are popular with homeschool members. The first session is three weeks of cross-country skiing at Arrowhead Provincial Park. The second session has outdoor options for students, including downhill skiing or snowboarding.
Principal Lauralynn Mercer says the homeschool membership has spread the word about MCS to the broader community while allowing children who are homeschooled to enjoy some benefits of a Christian school. In the 2016-17 school year, 13 families used a homeschool membership.
Lisa Spence was homeschooled for three years. Her children previously attended a public school in Huntsville, but when there was a desire to give some extra one-on-one instruction she started her homeschooling journey. She has participated in the MCS Homeschool membership and appreciates the chance for her children to have another authority figure in their lives with the classroom teacher.
“It was a great opportunity for my kids both academically and on a social level to be participating in the homeschool program,” Mrs. Spence says. “The connection is great between the school and the homeschooling community.”
Every year, Mrs. Spence and her husband would re-evaluate their schooling options and discuss whether to continue homeschooling, enroll in a Christian school, or in a public school. Last year, she says it became clear the children needed to go back to a formal school. They prayed about it, and when the children heard they would be going into school they wanted to be at MCS because of their previous involvement. “They already knew the routines, they knew the teachers, they knew the students, so it became a natural choice,” Mrs. Spence says.
Coming from a teaching background herself, things solidified for the family when a permanent part-time teaching position at MCS became available. Mrs. Spence was hired, which helped the family afford tuition. Having her on staff has been “fabulous,” says Mrs. Mercer, noting that in addition to Mrs. Spence’s teaching background, she brings the perspective of how the school can help meet the needs of homeschooling families.
A few months into the school year, Mrs. Spence says her children are fully participating. The previous connections with the teachers and classmates has eased the transition. She appreciates the family-like feel at the school, with students across all grades caring for one another. Older students take on the role of transitional facilitators to younger grades, helping them to go outside and come back in from recess. Academics are tailored to meet the needs of students where they are, while still setting high expectations.
“Students have an opportunity to grow where they are planted,” Mrs. Spence says.
The school’s students also benefit from having homeschooling families involved in this program. These new relationships have helped students learn how to welcome their peers who don’t attend daily, and extend hospitality and a sense of community to more people beyond the school families. The parents often get involved as volunteers, bringing new skills and capacity to the school community.
The other program MCS offers for homeschooling families is called the half-time program and includes academic oversight. Offered to students in Grades 1-8, these students attend full days Tuesdays and Thursdays and three-quarters of the day on Friday.
The half-time program has been offered for about five years, with one to four families participating at a time. Many use it as a transition from homeschooling to formal education. Mrs. Mercer notes one family started Half-time last year and within a week decided to move to full-time. The option keeps the parent in a teaching role for at-home learning days, where students can often quickly work through the material and the parent can supplement with other learning options. Some subjects, such as music, are not provided on the days half-time students are at the school so the parents are responsible for providing that instruction.
Alicia Acevedo homeschooled her son, Isaac, from kindergarten through Grade 5. Many families from her church homeschool and it was an automatic decision for her. This fall, Isaac started as a half-time MCS student and is enjoying making more friends at school. The half-time program is “the perfect choice” when full-time homeschooling doesn’t work, Ms. Acevedo says. Previously, Isaac’s grandmother provided care for him on the days Ms. Acevedo worked, and this year it was time to find another option for him.
“Since I’ve always homeschooled him it would have been a huge adjustment—for both of us—to enrol him full-time,” she says. “The half-time program is an excellent opportunity to be able to have Isaac in school three days a week, but know I can still homeschool him working part-time.”
Isaac’s teacher sends home curriculum for them to work on when he’s at home. Ms. Acevedo appreciates that he is learning from other teachers and parents at the school.
“They are doing an excellent job; all the teachers and staff are very compassionate and welcoming and always there to answer any questions if you have anything you are concerned about,” she adds.
With both the homeschool membership program and the half-time program it’s not unusual for what began as extra-curricular involvement or part-time studies to develop into full-time enrolment.
Mya in Grade 8 is one of several students who enrolled first year full-time this fall at MCS. She previously experienced a mix of being homeschooled, a year at a public school, as well as time in the mission field. Her first memory at MCS is the day she attended in Grade 2 when she played with playdough and read. She also recalls being an angel in the Christmas play.
“I love being at school every day,” she says, noting that she enjoys seeing her teacher and knowing what’s happening daily.
Grade 6 student Ashley was homeschooled from kindergarten to Grade 5. “I enjoy that there are a lot of kids to play with,” she says. “While being home-schooled, I had to play with my brothers.”
Through opening its doors and embracing homeschooling families in its community, MCS has in turn been blessed by several families choosing to enroll their children at the school. Mrs. Mercer says the school intends to continue being accessible to more families, and the homeschooling programs are a way for more parents to connect with the school.
“We want to continue to open our doors and allow others to access it who might not otherwise be able to,” she says.
With many families in the area choosing homeschooling, providing both the Homeschool membership and Half-time program enables MCS to engage these families with Christian education and enjoy fellowship. In the experience of MCS, both the school and the homeschooling families benefit from the creative programs that build community and connection.