800px-Student_using_LaptopThis fall my son started 9th grade, and we decided to enroll him with Kolbe Academy's online Catholic high school program.  We're entirely happy with that decision.  There are a number of reputable Catholic virtual schools available now, and you may be wondering about whether they are a good option for your family.  Let's look at some of the factors that matter in making that decision.

Are you comfortable with computer stuff?

I'm moderately competent as a computer user, my husband is very confident of his technical skills, and most of all, my son is entirely at home online.  He's comfortable learning to use new software, installing programs, and choosing appropriate hardware.  Because he enjoys multi-player gaming, he is at ease communicating with a group using a headset.

Online classes are online.  Someone in the house needs to be a competent tech person, because your courses will probably require specific equipment and programs you may not yet own.  The student taking the courses needs to be comfortable with online communications. If that's not your child, or if having to purchase the odd accessory is overwhelming or financially daunting, online classes may not be the best choice.

Can your child follow the curriculum exactly as written?

One of the benefits of homeschooling is that you can customize your child's education.  When you enroll in an online course, you are giving up that flexibility.  For us, the course of study Kolbe offered for 9th grade was nearly perfect.  We looked at the syllabus and knew that our son had the necessary background knowledge and academic ability to complete his classes, and that they'd be challenging enough for him that he'd have to work hard if he wanted to do well.

In evaluating the various online curricula, look closely at the course descriptions.  Is your child going to find the required reading too difficult?  Too extensive?  Some  of the better Catholic curriculum providers have a very strong liberal arts bent, which is perfect for some and overwhelming for others.  Your non-math child might do better working on a self-paced course with a tutor at home, rather than having to steadily move ahead with the group.  There are a variety of options out there, so think seriously about the talents and interests of this child you are considering enrolling, and not just “whether it's a good program.”  The programs are excellent, but they may or may not be the best fit for your student.

Is now the time for a traditional school experience?

My son's education up until high school was fairly relaxed.  He had many opportunities to pick his course of study and delve deeply into topics that interested him.  As he reached high school age, it became apparent that what he needed next was the rigor of learning to work within a traditional American school system, with all its deadlines and strict grading policies.  We knew that one skill he hadn't learned in K-8 was how to figure out what the teacher wanted, and produce exactly that.

We knew, therefore, that he was going to find his first semester of online classes to be daunting and at times unpleasant.  We determined that given his personality and likely future career path, this was exactly what he needed.

In contrast, many families homeschool in the upper grades after years of traditional brick-and-mortar or school-at-home education.  If you student has never had the opportunity to pick a passion and follow it, or to take on a self-directed course of study, more years of teacher-managed education may not be what your child needs right now.  If your child is living from test to test, and thinks of education as the necessary drudgery to get the mandated grades, it might be time to back up and broaden horizons.

Can you afford it?

Homeschooling doesn't have to be expensive, but the way the cost-to-effort ratio works is this: The less money you want to spend, the more work you the teaching parent have to do.

Catholic online schools are very affordable when you compare them to brick-and-mortar Catholic schools.  Because you provide your own classroom, library, gymnasium, cafeteria, and principal's office, costs are lower.  Classes meet once or twice a week rather than five days a week, so the cost of hiring instructors is more like paying adjunct professors rather than full time teachers.  If you are looking for one of the best values in rigorous, orthodox Catholic education, online Catholic homeschooling is worth investigating.

But you still have to pay your instructors.  In addition to the hours spent teaching, instructors work before and after class prepping lessons, grading papers and exams, and offering office hours when your student can ask questions or get help.  Your online school has to pay administrators to manage paperwork, maintain credentials, and keep the school up and running.  Your school will certainly try to make wise decisions about book choices, but because your classes follow a set syllabus, you can't just walk into the used the book sale and say, “This year we're going to study whichever Shakespearean tragedy I can purchase for a dollar or less.”  You can't buy the used workbook with chapter 1 already filled in, or go with the 1973 math book your friend gave you – math hasn't changed, but your class has to use a book currently in print.

Online classes tend to be geared towards older students; that means that you're thinking about making a significant investment in your child's education in the years when college, including college tuition, is just around the corner.  I can say without hesitation that the better Catholic virtual schools are an excellent value, but that doesn't mean they are a prudent decision for your family.  Be realistic about your budget, and resist the urge to get sucked into a financial obligation that is more than you can reasonably handle right now.

Should you consider online Catholic schooling?

I'm extremely satisfied with our decision to enroll our son in an online Catholic high school.  I'm thrilled with the education he's receiving.  It's more rigorous than what I could provide, and it offers him a faithful environment in which to be pushed academically.  I love that it's a truly Catholic school, and that he's meeting other kids from families that are serious about their faith.  I like that it saves me time and energy as well.  If you're unsure about your child's plans for high school, take at look at the various Catholic online programs.  They aren't a perfect fit for everybody, but they are certainly worth serious consideration.

Your turn: Have you enrolled your child in a virtual Catholic school, online program, or correspondence course?  Tell us about which program you used, what you liked about it, and who might be the ideal student for that course of study.

Copyright Jennifer Fitz 2014

Photo credit: Wikimedia.