School choice celebrated in Utah County while homeschooling numbers grow

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National School Choice Week, held Jan 26 to Feb. 1, saw students, schools and parents across the country celebrating parents’ right to choose the best form of education for their children. But homeschooling, an increasingly popular option in Utah County, was left out.

The week has been celebrated since 2011 by the National School Choice Week organization, which, according to its website, is a “nonpartisan, nonpolitical, independent public awareness effort” that does not “advocate, directly or indirectly, for the passage or defeat of legislation or policy proposals.”

Celebrations across Utah included one by the Freedom Preparatory Academy in Provo, which has a pre-school, two elementary schools and a high school in Utah County. Freedom Prep students from various campuses gathered at the campus on 900 North.

Freedom Academy, where a recent assembly celebrating National School Choice Week was held. (Emma Willes)

Jonathan Kano, the dean of students for Freedom Preparatory Academy, said the school was honored to be part of the celebration. “They contacted us earlier on in the school year and asked us if we would like to be spotlighted,” he said. The school filled out an application and was subsequently selected.

While every school is welcome to host a sponsored event with bright yellow scarves and stickers supplied by National School Choice Week, Freedom Preparatory Academy is the only school that was spotlighted in Utah this year.

“In Utah, we’re one of the older charter schools,” Kano said. “We’ve been open for 17 school years.”

During the assembly, children heard from Executive Director Lynne Herring and Provo City Mayor Michelle Kaufusi.

Other schools celebrated the week as well. Redeemer Lutheran School in Salt Lake hosted activities that included taking their students bowling. But Principal Joni Davis said they did not apply to be considered a spotlight school. After meeting with a NSCW representative, she was under the impression that school had to pay to be considered.

“Once they started talking money, I said ‘No, thank you,'” she said.

But Kano says the application was free. NSCW lists many partners that help fund these celebrations. One of their partners includes The American Federation for Children, whose chairman, prior to November 2016, was Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — a long-time advocate for parental choice beyond traditional public school education.

In an email interview, NSCW spokesperson Savanna Buckner said, “All schools and organizations that are hosting events that are open to the media and will have more than 100 attendees can apply to that spotlight program.” She added that the event hosted by Freedom Prep was “the largest school assembly in Utah for School Choice Week this year.”

Kano explained that the week is meant to celebrate all choices when it comes to education. “We’re not out to compete, we’re out to support,” he said. “The hope is that we’re working in connection with the traditional schools, and not in competition.”

Recently, more Utah County parents are choosing to homeschool their children, a choice that is under-represented by the National School Choice Week.

The Provo School District in particular has seen an increased number of students choose homeschooling. As of January, there are 1,115 students being homeschooled. In 2016, there were only 456. Similarly, Nebo School District reports 1,642 homeschooled children within district boundaries. They saw 539 of those make the switch just last year. Alpine School District reports 3,632 homeschooled students, when four years ago there were just over 2,700.

But hardly any specific homeschooling programs were featured on NSCW’s website. Buckner says it wasn’t not on purpose. “We definitely want to shine a spotlight on homeschools as well,” she said in a phone interview. “Our outreach team told me that they had 1,477 homeschool groups sign up this year [nationwide] . . . It’s more difficult to reach out to homeschools because they aren’t as publicly accessible as more traditional schools.”

The organization’s marketing strategy includes sending mailers and emails inviting schools to participate, which, when it comes to homeschools, makes it difficult to know where to send information.

Buckner said they try to be where the homeschoolers are. She attended the Home School Legal Defense Association conference last fall. Their small outreach team travels around the country. “We also send supplies to parents who sign up,” she said. However, they have no way of knowing if these parents are homeschooling their children or not.

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