One of my readers, Vicki Parnell pointed out to me that the information on my Distributed Learning page was rather thin and she was right. She offered to do a guest blog which I gratefully accepted. So below is the first of what I hope will be a series of guest blogs.
Distributed Learning Option
Any family in British Columbia can choose to opt out of bricks-and-mortar schools and have their child learn at home. While it is possible to register your child as a homeschooler with any BC school district, and provide an educational program without any interference from the government, another popular option among home learning families is to enroll with a Distributed Learning (DL) school. A child enrolled in a DL is considered by the government to be a public school student, not a homeschooler, but in most cases this is merely a legal distinction, as a DL student’s education IS provided at home, by the parents.
The most important thing for families of autistic children to know is that if you choose a DL, it can mean access to thousands of dollars of additional funding for autism intervention. This is because in a bricks-and-mortar public school, special needs funding is absorbed into the school’s budget to provide resource teachers, SEAs, and other specialized staff, and to buy materials for special needs students. Many DLs, however, pass along the responsibility of providing additional support to the student with autism to the individual families; the parents work with the special ed staff to create an IEP (Individual Education Plan), then they find ways to implement it at home or in their community, using a portion of the Ministry of Education’s special needs funding.
How to choose a DL
There is a remarkable variety of DL options in BC. A family can enroll with any DL in the province, depending on their needs and interests. A list of DL programs maintained by the Greater Vancouver Homelearners can be found here: https://sites.google.com/site/gvhomelearners/home-learning-options/local-and-popular-dl-programs. Another informative site is Learn Now BC: http://www.learnnowbc.ca/
Once your child is enrolled, you will work with a special needs coordinator at your DL to develop an IEP. It’s important to note that many DLs with Special Education programs have a waiting list for access to Special Ed services; enrolling with a particular DL does not guarantee that your child will automatically be placed in their Special Education program. Depending on which DL you choose, you may have access to thousands of dollars of Special Education funding on top of the amount you currently receive from the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s Autism Funding Unit.
Special Ed Funding
In preparation for writing this post, I surveyed two online groups of home learning parents in BC, and asked for information and experiences from parents who have chosen the DL option for their child with autism. Please keep in mind as you read that this information is anecdotal and that policies are constantly shifting, so the procedures and dollar figures mentioned below may not reflect your own experience if you choose one of these options in the future. However, as I get new information, I will do my best to provide updates for this article.
The most popular DL among the parents who responded to me is SelfDesign (http://selfdesign.org/). SelfDesign provides comprehensive information about their Special Education program at this site: http://selfdesign.org/k-12-learning-programs/distributed-learning/special-education-support/ The two parents who wrote to me in detail about their experiences with SelfDesign reported that $13,400 and “about $14,000” of special education funding were made available to their families, respectively. Both of these families developed an IEP with their SelfDesign Learning Consultant and a Behaviour Interventionist, in association with an ABA clinic in the Lower Mainland; the clinic staff worked with the child, and billed the DL school directly for their services. Anecdotal reports from other families I know who have enrolled with SelfDesign suggest that this DL is extremely flexible in terms of how the Special Ed funds are allocated and spent, with the family given a great deal of input and control over their child’s intervention. The parents are responsible for providing an educational program at home, although from time to time SelfDesign offers special classes at their learning centre in the Jericho area of Vancouver. SelfDesign’s educational philosophy is unique, and worth exploring to ensure that it’s a good fit for your family’s beliefs about how children learn.
My own two children with ASD have been enrolled with another popular DL, EBUS Academy (http://ebus.ca/), for several years now. EBUS is operated by the Nechako Lakes school district, and offers no in-person classroom learning options (although there is a good variety of “V-Classes” available – students log in to a secure site every week at a certain day and time to receive instruction from a teacher, and interact with the teacher and one another using a microphone or typing into a chat window). From time to time EBUS will offer special field trips and outings, but for the most part, you receive curriculum support and a learning plan from a teacher and you, the parent, are responsible for delivering your child’s education.
The Special Education support at EBUS has worked very smoothly for my family. A staff member works with me at the beginning of each school year to develop an IEP for each child. We have access to $10,000 per child of special education funding, per school year, which I have used to hire various therapists and provide tutoring to both children. The specialists are chosen by me, based on their ability to help my child fulfill specific IEP goals; they bill EBUS directly for the services. I check in with the Special Ed staff each time I am considering adding a new therapist or tutor to the roster, to ensure that the expense is connected to a goal the IEP; they are always willing to update and adapt the IEP goals throughout the year, as my child’s needs change.
There are other DLs in the province which provide Special Ed programs or funding for ASD families (see the list linked above, from the Greater Vancouver Homelearners site). At this time I don’t have any details on how these DLs work with families and how much control parents are given over the selection and implementation of intervention. One parent told me that funding of “around $13,000” was available from both Regent Christian Online Academy (https://regentonline.ca/) and Traditional Learning Academy (http://www.traditionallearning.com). I have also heard from staff at Kleos Open Learning (http://www.kleos.ca/), who confirmed that they do have a Special Ed program, with varying dollar amounts made available to Special Education students on a case-by-case basis; they did not respond further when I asked them to provide a range of dollar amounts so that families could compare apples to apples. If I find out more, I will send updates for this post to Milburn.
It’s important to be clear that as the parent of a DL student you are, in most cases, entirely responsible for your child’s academic education and for reporting on his/her academic progress to the DL. Reporting requirements vary from one DL to another. For example, some DLs ask for brief weekly summaries of learning activities, others ask you to send in a portfolio three times per year with work samples from the child, and others may have a teacher visit with your family regularly to document evidence of the child’s learning. The DL may provide you with textbooks and workbooks appropriate to your child’s grade, or other curriculum resources. As a general rule, DLs will provide all students (whether typical and special needs) with about $1000 per school year to spend on curriculum, supplies, lessons and other things to supplement the home learning program. Several popular DLs in the lower mainland provide one, two or three days per week of classroom activities in a school building with a teacher, but it appears that the DLs offering these classroom days generally don’t provide generous access (or any access at all) to Special Ed funds. One parent reported that her son attended the New Westminster home learners’ program, which provided an SEA on the days he was in the classroom, but that “he received no extra funding above what a typical learner does. We spent the standard $1000 that everyone else receives.”
While there are aspects of the home learning lifestyle that are liberating, fun and rewarding, it’s also hard work and it takes a huge amount of commitment from the parents. It’s entirely up to you to ensure that your child has a social life, so you have to be quite motivated to research suitable outings, classes and activities for your child, and to advocate for your child’s unique needs with the instructors or leaders of these programs, who often have no experience or training with autistic children. With all of that said, my family and many others have found this option to be a wonderful fit for our children. My two kids have made great progress during the years since we made the switch from bricks-and-mortar schools to DL, and on the whole it has been a very positive experience for us.
Update, February 2020:
The response to this article has been astonishing – almost 7 years later, I continue to receive emails from parents who have found my guest blog and have questions about DL learning. I’m so glad that other parents have been able to find a starting point for exploring school options they may not have known about in the past.
My own children have now finished their public school educations. One graduated from EBUS and benefited from an additional transition year there; the other moved back into the bricks-and-mortar school system (where he received excellent support from his high school’s resource teaching staff). He graduated last year.
Because I no longer have current experience with the DL system, if you have questions about this topic I would encourage you to join Facebook, where there are a number of active communities of parents who are involved in the DL and home learning experience. For example, this group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/385597354924709/
“BC Parents and Service Providers of Special Needs DL and Homeschoolers” is very active and has almost 2500 members on the date I’m writing this update. There you can talk to families whose knowledge of the DL system is much more up to date than mine!
Some of the information in my original blog is out of date (not surprising as it is now 7 years since I collected the information). Keep in mind that the best source of information about your DL options is always the DLs themselves!