For some rural private schools, education looks better on paper

Lisa Buie

Lighthouse Christian Academy students Connor and Christopher Snipes, 12-year-old twins, are adjusting to their new learning environment.

Kristie Hillwig teaches 45 students in grades 4 through 8 in a town that has one traffic light, one national chain restaurant and one grocery store.

The town – Mayo, Florida, in rural Lafayette County, population 8,623 – has only one internet service provider, which is why she’s not teaching online at this moment in history.

“It’s been quite challenging because I can’t reach all my students at one time,” said Hillwig, who is one of 15 teachers at Lighthouse Christian Academy, a ministry of Lighthouse Christian Center of Mayo. “I get a lot of phone calls and spend a lot of time on the phone with the kids.”

Lighthouse is the only private school in Florida’s second-smallest county. It serves 107 students from age 3 through 12th grade, 46 of whom receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for students from lower-income and working-class families. Five students receive a Gardiner Scholarship for students with unique abilities. (Both programs are administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)

Located about an hour south of Tallahassee, Mayo has only two public schools: one elementary school and one high school.

“Mayo is a dot,” said Lighthouse administrator Connie Bowie, who gave serious consideration to her options when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis closed brick-and-mortar schools in March. One of her board members cautioned against attempting online learning, given that internet service can be spotty in this part of North Florida.

Correctly assuming the combination of college students and district students taking online classes added to the number of adults working remotely would overtax the system, Bowie knew she needed to find a different solution.

National statistics indicate that Lighthouse families aren’t the only ones dealing with infrastructure challenges. A 2018 Microsoft study estimated that about half of Americans – 163 million people – lack  high-speed internet in their homes. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission estimates that broadband connections are unavailable to nearly 25 million people in the United States, including 19 million in rural areas.

With those concerns in mind, Lighthouse teachers began collating paper packets containing three weeks’ worth of assignments. The teachers distributed the packets to families when they came to the school to pick up their children’s belongings at the start of the quarantine. Families also received instructions on the best way to communicate with teachers and how to access an easy-to-use app.

Lighthouse Christian Academy student Kami Snipes, 10, works on an assignment from her take-home packet.

“Lighthouse has done an excellent job with distance learning,” said Melissa Snipes, whose four children, ranging in age from 16 to 10, attend the school. “Teachers have really stepped up to the plate.”

She praised school staff for being available any time her children have questions and for introducing ParentSquare, which allows students to see their teachers and “makes them feel better.”

Students turn in assignments by emailing scans of their work for teachers to review. Families also can use a drop box outside the school, which teachers check regularly. Parents have had to return only once to get new packets.

There have been challenges. Bowie, who in addition to acting as the school’s leader also teaches, found herself in the challenging position of explaining algebra via FaceTime.

“I’m holding the phone on top of graph paper and trying to explain it, and (hearing) kids say ‘I can’t see the paper anymore,’” she said.

While some schools have struggled with how to take attendance, Lighthouse decided to keep things simple by monitoring the amount of work submitted. Most students have been keeping up, Bowie said, although a few of the older students have needed a nudge.

“I sent out some certified letters,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lighthouse teacher Hillwig reports that her classes are going well, but her working hours have increased. Her phone starts ringing by 9 each morning. She’s busy until 1 p.m., when things begin to quiet down. But then things heat up later in the afternoon, when her older students, many of whom spend the earlier part of their day caring for younger siblings, begin their lessons.

Amid all of this, Hillwig is teaching her own three kids, ages 7, 12 and 15.

Most of her students are ready to return to brick-and-mortar school, Hillwig said – and so is she. Still, there have been benefits to the “new normal.”

“It’s taught the kids not to take for granted what we have,” she said. “It could always be worse.”

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Karla Bye May 7, 2020 - 7:15 pm

My daughter is a student at Lighthouse Christian Academy.

They have really stepped up and made this process work. There were hiccups but the teachers and administrators are there not only for the students but the parents as well.

This would not have worked if it weren’t for all their effort.

Due to their communication & guidance my daughter who is in 7th grade was able to finish up her classes earlier than anticipated and she also had a high school FLVS course she finished a month early.

They not only have done so much with just situation but they always a call away and willing to help.

I had asked how to best help my daughter with subjects I felt she needed extra help with.
All her teachers and Ms. Bowie were very helpful and guiding me on different web sites & different methods to use.

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