What you need to know about this nontraditional way of schooling
Last school year, parents had to make difficult choices about their children’s mode of schooling: face-to-face, virtual or a hybrid of the two. Some families opted to homeschool instead. While many families are eager to get their kids back to full-time face-to-face learning, others are turning toward a flex learning model again this year.
Simply put, flex learning provides students the freedom to choose how, what, where and when they learn. Parents choose this format through Florida Virtual School or by registering as homeschoolers through their school district. Thanks to a continuing surge of flexible learning options, Central Florida families have a plethora of educational and enrichment opportunities available right in their own backyards.
Having spent the first few months of school last year in a constant state of uncertainty, Michelle Forrestal decided to enroll her boys, Reid (13) and Miles (11), in the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) Flex program after their winter break. Michelle was apprehensive at first. She is not a teacher and was concerned that her boys’ academic progress would suffer. In search of solidarity, she joined multiple Facebook groups to seek out other parents in FLVS Flex, and it was within these virtual forums that she found an invaluable community of support.
Over the next few months, it became clear to both Michelle and her boys that they had made the right decision. The benefits were obvious: The boys were able to learn at their own pace, and their interaction with their FLVS teachers was a dream come true. Michelle has continued to see a huge improvement in her boys’ engagement and performance. “In a public school setting, Reid would rarely raise his hand or participate in class. Now he can text, email and call his teachers as often as needed, and they respond quickly and thoughtfully,” she explains.
Flex learning has also taken the pressure off trying to strike the right balance between school and life. The Forrestal children are involved with extracurricular activities like music and competitive cheer, so in the past, they had to rush from school to practices and competitions, and in turn, stay up late to complete assignments due the following day. Now, they have the ability to work based on their availability, significantly reducing the family’s stress. “We were so caught up in the ‘public schools race’ and jam-packed schedules that I’ve had to train my brain differently,” Michelle admits about the transition.
If you were to ask Mandy Pacheco to describe her family’s homeschooling environment, her reply would include “car schooling,” “Panera schooling,” and “wherever we happen to be schooling.” Mandy and her children, Jules (15) and Trey (12), have successfully navigated the flex learning space for years and continue to evaluate and adjust as needed with each new school year.
One of the reasons the Pacheco family first embarked on a flexible learning path was because Jules is on the autism spectrum and has been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia. Despite her diagnosis, Jules is thriving in her art classes at the Florida Film Academy in Winter Garden, and she has already completed 12 dual enrollment college credits.
Parents should keep in mind that they don’t need to be experts in order for flex learning to be successful. While Mandy has a Ph.D. in education and teaches at the University of Central Florida, she maintains that her role as a flex learning mom is more to facilitate, not necessarily to teach. For example, Mandy knew she wasn’t the best person to teach writing to her children. As a solution, she hired a tutor, a former NASA technical writer, who has been certified in the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) method. Lessons take place on a 20-acre cow farm, and the kids couldn’t be happier.
When it comes to planning curriculum, Mandy recommends involving kids in the process. “Include your child when deciding how, when, and where they will learn because together you will be able to choose what works best,” she advises. Jules has a varied schedule that includes activities like dance, printmaking, drawing, and volunteering with the public library. Trey belongs to a fencing club and a paintball team and participates in First Lego League. Mandy believes that these experiences offer opportunities for Jules and Trey to thrive outside of a traditional classroom setting.
If you can relate to either Michelle or Mandy’s stories, your family may be ready to make the leap into the world of flex learning. Luckily, Central Florida offers options for just about any subject or area of interest. For example, if your child is science-minded, check out Mad Science of NE Central Florida’s homeschool offerings for kids of all ages. Their mission is to inspire children through science, sparking lifelong imagination and curiosity. “Be sure to keep mixing in different opportunities for kids to work together in groups and face-to-face,” advises Kylie Koscoe, owner and “Chief Mad Scientist” of the program. “Find out how your child learns best, and then make sure [your choices] are continuing to benefit them.”
For children with an interest in wildlife and ecology, The Central Florida Zoo has worked with the homeschool community for over 20 years delivering interactive Zooventures for kids, teens and adults. With over 40 different species of animals, a natural wetland habitat, a botanical garden and a partnership with Florida Fish and Wildlife, there’s something for everyone at the zoo. “We really are where the classroom comes to life. We provide exciting opportunities through hands-on experiences for individuals, groups and families,” says Dawn Danzi, the zoo’s education manager.
Another important aspect to consider when choosing a flex curriculum is its long-term or real-world benefits. Take Code Ninjas in Waterford Lakes. “No matter what path children choose in life, technology will be a part of their world. Coding is the new literacy,” says owner Ieshah Geary. Kids ages 5 through 14 can learn to code at their own pace via fun and familiar video game platforms, like Minecraft, Roblox and YouTube. No matter what their proficiency level — at Code Ninjas this is measured in belt colors, much like martial arts — students will learn different coding concepts and languages. Younger children who are unable to read begin with block-based code and advance later to languages. Once a student reaches the black belt level, they have a chance to develop their own app and publish it to the Apple or Google app store, providing an opportunity for kids to self-direct their learning while creating something tangible.
While interacting with animals at the zoo or coding in front of a computer all day may sound like all fun and games to many parents, at the end of the day, flex learning is still learning. It’s important to keep in mind that flex schooling can have its own challenges. First, children need to be able to work independently and be self-motivated to complete their work, even in subjects they don’t enjoy. Parents will have to spend time educating their children at home or driving them to their learning locations. Most importantly, parents who choose to customize their kids’ flex learning path using nontraditional programs and curriculum will need to comply with state laws to ensure their children are showing educational progress each year. More information, including the Home-Education Program Florida Statute 1002.41, can be found on the Florida Parent Educators Association website at fpea.com.
Flex Learning Resources
Here’s a list of PLAYGROUND’s favorite educational programs to support families through their flex learning journey.
4-H Youth Programs
Kids and teens complete hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture and civic engagement in a positive environment where they receive guidance from adult mentors and are encouraged to take on proactive leadership roles.
All Kids Spanish
A fun Spanish immersion program for children.
Big Dreams Bloom
Elementary school students explore influential women through popular children’s literature, book club-style discussions and maker-style STEM projects.
Central Florida Zoo Homeschool ZOOventures
Monthly virtual and in-person classes for children ages 5–13 starting in September and concluding in May. Each class comes to life with a natural science lesson, activity and up-close animal encounters.
Cheyne Ranch Homeschool Nature Club
Weekly classes focus on caring for and learning about the health and behavior of horses, goats and bunnies in a small group setting.
Kids learn to code in a fun, safe and inspiring learning environment, with a game-based curriculum that they love.
Waterford Lakes, 855-563-2633
Faithful Fruit Leadership, Inc.
Liz Washington provides in-person and online math tutoring, in addition to resume help, college advising, academic support, professional development, career counseling, and educational events to the Central Florida Area.
FIRST Lego League
FIRST LEGO League introduces science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to children ages 4–16 through fun, exciting hands-on learning. Find a team near you.
Florida Film Academy Home School Studio
Film production, editing, makeup, illustration, photography, animation and more creative classes are available for home school students aged 7–18.
Winter Garden, 407-654-8400
Florida Virtual School
Offers a free, standards-based, full-time and part-time, online curriculum and live classes supported by Florida teachers for Kindergarten through 12th grade.
IEW at the Farm
Mary Odell is a writing tutor and former NASA technical writer, who has been certified in the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) method.
Mad Science of Central Florida
A leading science enrichment provider that delivers unique, hands-on science experiences for children.
Oviedo & Ocoee 386-898-4570
Orange County Library System
Kids can learn how to run a business, make a web page, build video games, embroider and even how to cook through free classes at the library!
Multiple branches, 407-835-7323
Orlando Science Center
This bi-monthly science lab for homeschoolers in grades K–8, exposes students to a variety of exciting topics such as chemistry, astronomy, physics, renewable energy and more!
The Studio School
A new arts-immersive academy for dyslexic learners. A part-time program for homeschoolers in 1st–5th grade. Classes are led by Orton-Gillingham practitioners and professional artists.
Sword Masters Club
An array of classes for fencers of all abilities, levels and ages.
East Orlando, 321-246-3850
UKnight Training Center
A fun but direct approach to coaching, all while striving to create a positive and challenging atmosphere for athletes.
Winter Park, 407-679-6620
Walden Community School
An out-of-the-box school for the out-of-the-box thinker. Full-time and part-time programs available.
Winter Park, 407-677-8225