At the recommendation of a friend, we did something a little different this year for my 12yo daughter. We enrolled her in an online school with live class sessions and mentors. The school is Williamsburg Intermediate. They claim to take a project based, liberal arts, literature strong approach to education, all of which sounded good to me. And given that I was still dealing with a lot of grief, health issues and financial issues, I was more than happy to pay someone else to take on my middle schooler's educaton for a year.
Speaking of payment: We only took three courses over the year: Leadership (required by all students), Humanities and STEM. These three classes ran about 2K for the year. Happily for us, the cost was covered by the state run parent partnership in which we particiapte. I realize that some of you grassroot homeschoolers will not be able to condone this admission. And I do have mixed feelings about it myself. But in the end, I'd like to have our tax money back to help fund the education I really want for my kids. Having the extra state funding in exchange for all of the reporting requirements is a trade I'm willing to make (so far) as it allows us so many opportunities that would otherwise not be available.
So after completing our first year at WI, I have mixed feelings about this program. I'll share the pros and cons incase you're looking for a place for your middle schooler this fall too.
School Identity: My daughter loved having a school identitiy. WI students call them selves "Burgers" and they have several ways to help identify themselves as such, creating a degree of school spirit. For example, they have first Friday game night online hosted by one of the mentors. My daughter only attended the very first of these. She didn't find them worth her while.
Peers: It was nice for my 12yo to meet other kids across the country who homeschool. It gave her a chance to take a look at her peer group and see where she fits in academically, socially and emotionally. She was surprised, I think, to find that a lot of 6th graders still struggle with simple assignments, they still interrupt, they still don't know how to work as a team on projects, and generally make class annoying. This also proved to be a con for her but I'm listing it as a PRO because where else do you get this experience at this age?
Leadership: At first I thought it was dumb to have her enroll in the leadership course. I thought it would be something dull like study skills or something lame. It turned out to be her favorite class and was very rich with meaningful material. Honestly, she's very independent and I didn't hover so I can't give you tons of detail about any of the classes, but I saw her semester finals for this class that summarized the character traits and student qualities taught during the year and it was FAB.
Mentors: The teachers are referred to as Mentors and they are super! My daugher found them to be very personable, approachable and caring. I had one online parent conference with each teacher in October an dfound them to be very responsive to my concerns and opinions about the coursework and workload.
Literature: She really did read a lot of great books for her classes. I was impressed with most of the required readings, even for math, and found that she was engaged in the readings. She has always been a voracious reasder anyway, but I was happy to let someone else feed her reading appetite for a change! And the mentors absolutely had to supplement her reading schedules with MULTIPLE novels throughout the year.
Weak STEM: I'll just say it. The science was really weak. There didn't seem to be any labs of any kind. There didn't seem to be any depth to the material. It was a very light survey of various topics with no real meat. I'd say the same about the writing. Humanities was extended an extra 20 minutes once a week to cover writing skills. Very skimpy in my opinion. Not nearly adequate.
Math: The school uses the free resources at KahnAcademy.com for their math work. The kids are expected to "master" a certain number of skills for their grade level at keep track of their minutes completed each week. Students choose to commit to 30, 45, or 60 minutes of math per day. My daughter really disliked Kahn Academy. The only saving grace here was the live online math lab available for two hours a day where she could go get online help from mentors. The Kahn videos alone were rarely enough to help her learn the material on her own. Without the math lab, this course would have beeen a total flop.
Workload: I generally have high expectations for my kids. I'm by no means a Tiger Mom, but I like to see them working hard and stretching themselves. The workload at WI was generally interesting, and broad in scope, but just too easy. My daughter never had less than 96% in any class the entire year. I asked her if it was hard to get her As and she said no. I mentioned this at our parent conferences with the mentors, noted above. The mentors did indeed step up her workload and expectations, but I still saw that she was not being pushed to her max capacity. It was just too easy.
I will also say that some of the "project based learning" felt like busy work. She was asked to do things that we had covered in our Story of the World class years before. Cooking and simple art projects were incorporated into the material, and I'm all about that. I love that. But it required minimal effort from my daughter and somehow she still got an A??? For her second semester HUM final she had to write a poem. A poem? For a final? She got a 100%
Timeline: WI schools start in August and end in early May, and two of those weeks are "review weeks" and two of those weeks are "finals weeks" So there was for sure some dead time during the year. Since the rest of my kids start school at least month later, and finish school six weeks later, it threw off our family rhythm a LOT. Currently, I am putting together work for her to do until the rest of us finish up the school year. And to be honest, I'm a whole lot happier with the work that I'm giving her now than the work she's had to do all year long. I feel like she's getting more. And she's having to readjust to more work again.
Notes: My daughter was happy in this school. She loved being voted class president of her STEM section. She loved that she won the contest for completing the orientation on time and being totally ready for the school year as was required. She received a prize in the mail for this, which she thought was pretty awesome. She loved being independent of me and in control of her own scheduling. She felt very autonomous and indeed she handled herself with a very high level of resonsiblity. She responded veyr well to the mentors and wanted to please them with her efforts. She never complained about due dates (much) and was happy to have the challenge of meeting them.
Often times, she would just be giddy and say, "Mom I love my school this year! All my stuff is going great!" But I have to clarify that WI was only a small part of this. In addition to WI, she was also on the YMCA swim team, she participated in the weekly co-op where she took Art, Human Anatomy and Band (beginning trumpet), and this spring she was invited to audtion for the Music Man at the local Jr. High and lllllooooooovvvved it!! And after turning 12 she graduated to a new level of social involvement at church, which was thrilling for her. So she had a lot going on outside of WI. Still she seemed content enough at WI, which is saying a lot for this very social, very capable, totally independent, strong willed girl.
Conclusion: Am I glad we did it? Yes. It was a good experience. As I mentioned earlier, this was certainly a year when I needed a few things cleared from my plate and WI was key in making that happen. I almost completely left my 12 yo in their seemlingly capable hands while I dealt with personal stuff.
Would we do it again? No. Probably not. At least not for middle school, especially since the 6th and 7th graders are combined and cover the same level of coursework. One of the mentors suggested that my daughter skip to 8th grade next year if she were to continue. And maybe it gets tougher in highschool? I don't know. But we have plans to go back to our former methods for 7th grade and my daughter seems happy about that. She said she was sick of doing "computer school" and looks forward to just working at a desk and doing "book and paper school" again. ha ha. I thought that was funny. She missed our family group projects and classes and has happily rejoined them since WI ended earlier this month.
Overall, I think I'd give it 3 or 3.5 stars. But for the price tag, and for my precious kiddos, I need 5 stars baby. Adios Williamsburg.