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School at the click of a mouse

A Marshall mother and daughter share how an online school has worked for them

September 21, 2011
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Just as no two children are ever completely the same, the Gunderson family from Marshall would argue that there is no one-size-fits-all learning style or education system.

Eight-year-old Zoe Gunderson can attest to that. She loves school, but she doesn't have to hop on a noisy bus or be distracted by other students as she learns. She is one of the many students enrolled in a virtual public school.

"Many parents believe that the only way to educate their children is through the traditional classroom, but nothing could be more of a fallacy," Zoe's mom, Liz Gunderson, said. "As a parent, you have the power to be able to change your child's education and tailor it to the way they learn."

Article Photos

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Eight-year-old Zoe Gunderson works on a school lesson at her home in Marshall Monday. For the past two years, Gunderson has been enrolled in Minnesota Transitions School (MTS) Minnesota Connections Academy (MTSMCA), a tuition-free online public school that designs education to meet individual student needs.

Liz Gunderson said that many people can be skeptical of homeschooling at first, including her husband Timothy, who taught science in the area for many years.

"It's a lifestyle change," Liz Gunderson said. "You are taking your child's education into your own hands and taking control of it. That's a huge shift from the way most people were taught."

With a positive homeschooling seed planted years ago and current research done, the Gundersons chose to enroll Zoe in Minnesota Transitions School (MTS) Minnesota Connections Academy (MTSMCA), an online public school designed to meet the individual needs of K-12 students and their families who are looking for an alternate approach to traditional education.

"I like it because it doesn't really take long," said Zoe Gunderson, now a third-grader. "It's really easy and if I'm stuck on a problem, Mom can help me. Like if I have something I don't really get, we can take a couple of days off the homeschool to focus on that."

Unlike traditional homeschooling, Zoe Gunderson has a "learning coach" - her mom - in addition to a homeroom teacher from MTSMCA.

"I, as her 'learning coach,' go through the materials with her," Liz Gunderson said. "All the materials are provided online and in hardcover. But she also has a teacher. If Zoe has an attitude or doesn't understand a lesson, I can get on the phone and call her teacher and she'll give her what I like to call a 'tune-up.' It's been phenomenal."

Zoe's teacher may have 20 to 30 students, Liz Gunderson said, but she doesn't waste time with classroom management issues.

"You take that whole thing out of the equation," Liz Gunderson said. "So now the teacher has more time to focus on the students' needs."

Zoe's day typically begins at 9 a.m. and is comprised of subjects consistent with those at a traditional public school. After an hour break at noon, Zoe Gunderson gets back to work at her desk - a counter between the kitchen and dining room, which also holds a laptop and books.

"For Zoe's age, she is required to average 27 hours per week," Liz Gunderson said. "The beauty of it is its flexibility. If we have something going on in the morning, we can move stuff to the afternoon. And, if Zoe wants to start with science in the morning, she can. If she wants to start with language arts the next morning, she can."

Liz Gunderson said that Zoe's verbal skills are off the chart, but that math sometimes trips her up. Art is Zoe's favorite subject, though.

"I love drawing," Zoe Gunderson said. "I love coloring and sketch books. Whenever I go to the Dollar Tree, I want to buy something art, like markers and paint."

The family also takes learning as it comes.

"When my dad comes home from hunting, we'll cut up birds together and look at the gizzards and hearts," Zoe Gunderson said. "I like anatomy."

In the afternoon, Zoe Gunderson participates in extra-curricular activities, like art, music, phy ed and dance. There's also time for volunteer work. A majority of the time, students from two faith-based Marshall area homeschool groups - CHARISM and MACHEA (Marshall Area Christian Homeschool Educators Association) - get together. CHARISM is a Catholic homeschool group, which the Gundersons belong to.

"There are tons of resources available, like your child's homeroom teacher, principal or school counselor," Liz Gunderson said. "There's also our friends in the homeschool groups in Marshall."

Zoe Gunderson has classmates from across the state, too.

"She can talk with them and she doesn't have to absorb the habits of 15 to 30 other kids, which you may or may not want your kid to absorb," Liz Gunderson said. "You aren't in the homes of all those kids in the traditional classroom and aren't policing what their parents say or what they're watching to make sure they're not adopting negative habits."

Students also work with their state-certified teachers via live lessons online and through e-mail, textbook-based curriculum, webcasts and by telephone.

"The traditional setting was not working with Zoe's learning style," Liz Gunderson said. "With a totally 1-on-1 approach that homeschooling provides, she thrives now. She understands more when someone is there to explain a concept to her."

While she appreciates that her daughter isn't in a traditional classroom, possibly worrying about raising her hand to ask a question if she perceives that everyone else is "getting it," Liz Gunderson respects and supports public schools.

"I just want to stress that there is nothing wrong with Marshall Public Schools," Liz Gunderson said. "It's the traditional classroom setting that was not meeting my daughter's specific needs."

Liz Gunderson pointed out that lots of students thrive in the traditional classroom, but some do not.

"If it isn't broke, don't fix it," she said. "But if there is something that needs changing, or if you as a parent want to see something different for your child's education, there are a myriad of resources to help you with that. Connections Academy is just one of them."



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