Debra Bokash isn't sure how she first heard about Alabama Connections Academy, but the Rogersville mom is sure she has no regrets about her child being one of the more than 1,800 who attended last year.
The virtual public school is a tuition-free option for children who may struggle with brick-and-mortar schools and for parents who may not feel comfortable being their child's sole teacher in home school. The school provides all curriculum materials, including textbooks, workbooks and hands-on materials.
Bokash said her oldest son struggled in public school and was home schooled before finally graduating from a virtual school in Georgia. With her youngest, Jonathan, she hoped to avoid the stress.
"I just couldn't go down that road again," Bokash said.
With ALCA, she said she not only has less stress but is also better able to schedule their lives. During a typical school year in public school, Bokash said work schedules meant her ex-husband, Jonathan's dad, was only able to see him for a few hours each weekend and Bokash, a Mary Kay consultant, was having to miss appointments or leave as soon as her son got off the bus.
Jonathan also had to miss out on signing up for after-school sports and activities.
"He really wanted to play hockey, but by the time he got off the bus and did dinner and homework, there was no way we were going to make it to Huntsville," Bokash said. "I just remember thinking, 'I need to find some other options.'"
She said she wasn't sure at first that ALCA would be a good fit, admitting she thought they all might be miserable. As the year progressed, she discovered more advantages.
"When I homeschooled my oldest one, I was on my own," Bokash said. "But Jonathan has a teacher, a principal, an art teacher ... He has more accountability than just Mom."
Jonathan will enter the second grade this fall. For first grade, all of his books and materials were shipped to their house for free. He got two live lessons with his teacher and classmates each week, a phone call with his teacher at least once a month and a weekly art lesson that included showing off every student's project at the end.
Bokash, who also cares for her elderly parents, said she's grateful everything is online.
"Even if we're not home, like if I have to drive my parents to Nashville or Birmingham for the day, we can just go to the zoo or the Vulcan park, but we can also sit in the doctor's office and do lessons," she said, adding she's met other parents who picked virtual school for the ease it provided in working around medical issues in the family.
Bokash said a lot of people ask about opportunities for children to socialize with each other, and she's happy to report that her family has seen no shortage of field trips or play dates since joining ALCA. From a back-to-school bash at the start of the year to options for school clubs and field trips with classmates, "you don't have to look too far for kids to play with," she said.
"We didn't have time when he was at school full-time," Bokash said.
When it comes to field trips, Bokash said she particularly likes that the whole family is invited, whether it's an elementary class trip to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center or a senior trip to New York City.
"My sister-in-law has four kids, so if she wants to go to New York with her oldest, she has to find someone to watch her younger kids," Bokash said.
Of course, that isn't to say Jonathan will stay with ALCA forever.
"We may go back to the regular classroom at some point, maybe in middle school, because I think at that point they really crave their friends more," Bokash said.
She said she was pleased to find out ALCA was using the same textbooks and materials as local brick-and-mortar schools, as it means her child won't be at a different level than his peers and can transfer back into the school system easily. She believes using virtual school for some or all of a child's education is "the way of the future."
"I think more people need to know about (virtual school)," Bokash said. "I've had a lot of people call me this year because they are afraid. It's stepping out of the norm ... but I think people are beginning to be a little more accepting of it."
ALCA is a virtual public school for kindergarten through 12th grade. Though it is housed at the former Owens Elementary School campus as part of the Limestone County Schools system, it is a statewide program.
The school will host an information session for teachers and families considering ALCA at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 18, at Holiday Inn Express and Suites, 16074 Athens Limestone Blvd, Athens. During the session, participants will discuss the family's role in the education process, such as how to best organize a space in the home for learning and balancing time when more than one child is enrolled in the school.
Attendees will also learn how field trips and extracurricular activities are arranged to ensure students and parents can have fun and socialize with others while still learning.
To register for the in-person session or to learn about other information sessions being held online, visit https://www.connectionsacademy.com/learn-more/events.