WAUCHULA, Fla. – Sandra Shoffner dreamed of starting a homeschool co-op, but she never imagined the reception it would get when it finally happened.
Dozens of parents attended the first open house last month. They enrolled more than 50 kids for the first semester. And so many signed up for the second semester, there’s a waiting list.
“That night, I was just in awe. I’m still in awe,” said Shoffner, a mother of four with degrees in education. “It was surreal and fantastic. I was up there with the mic, literally shaking.”
“The turnout told me the need was insane.”
Home education was on the rise before the pandemic, then skyrocketed because of it. And it’s clear from the new Hardee Cooperative Learning Center in Wauchula, population 4,990, that the movement isn’t limited to cities and suburbs.
Hardee County, 70 miles from Tampa, is a patchwork of citrus groves, cattle ranches and phosphate mines.
A decade ago, it had 118 homeschoolers. Last year, it had 290.
Parents in the co-op say it’s even more important for rural communities to have learning options, because there are so few traditional schools, public or private. The expansion of co-ops, high-quality virtual providers and state-funded education savings accounts (ESAs) – which are more flexible than traditional school choice scholarships – are helping to make home education in rural areas even more viable.
“Bigger communities have a lot of options,” said parent Chelsea Green, who lives in another sprawling rural county next to Hardee. “We don’t.”
Green said she decided to homeschool her children, Tenley, 8, and Railan, 7, after realizing during the pandemic that she could actually do it. Tenley, who has ADHD, chafed under the rigid structure of a neighborhood school.
“It’s more like a rat race,” said Green, a former paraprofessional for district schools. “You have this time to do this, and this time to do that. My daughter isn’t good with a time schedule like that.”
With homeschooling, Tenley is less stressed and more engaged. She no longer needs as much of the ADHD medication that Green has never been comfortable giving her.
Wauchula isn’t an outlier.
The number of homeschool students in Florida’s 30 rural counties rose from 6,201 in 2011-12 to 10,207 last year. The sector keeps growing despite an explosion in school choice options, even in rural areas, and without the state support that’s helping those other options.
In raw numbers, homeschooling growth in rural Florida outpaces the growth in charter schools (from 2,673 students to 5,356 students in those counties over that same span) and it’s neck-in-neck with private schools (6,450 to 10,965). As but one manifestation of the trend, it’s easy to find other new co-ops that are thriving off the beaten path, like this one and this one.
Homeschooling would get another boost if Florida’s traditional school choice scholarships offered more flexibility like its ESAs. ESAs can be used for private schools or home schooling, but at present only students with special needs are eligible. In Florida’s rural counties last year, 791 students used them. (The ESAs are officially called the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. They’re administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
Shoffner’s son Elliott, who is 7 and on the autism spectrum, is one of those ESA students.
Shoffner works part time as executive director of the Hardee County Friends of the Library, and has degrees in elementary education and special education. She began homeschooling almost a decade ago with her two oldest children.
The dream of a co-op followed.
“It’s important for the adults as much as the kids,” Shoffner said. “I wanted that community with other adults with similar interests.”
Shoffner knew homeschool parents could feel a little isolated, especially in a small town. She knew they’d appreciate connecting with other parents while their kids got opportunities to learn from other teachers. So, a few months ago, she and a handful of other DIY homeschool moms decided to give it a go.
The Hardee Cooperative Learning Center is using space in a church. It’s offering 16 classes one day a week for students ages 3 to 19. Seven teachers, all of them parents, are teaching everything from geography and elementary engineering to creative writing and arts and crafts. Shoffner teaches four classes, including Plants 101 and Debate.
One recent Monday, she went over the difference between fact and opinion to the eight teens in her debate class, and explained “red herring” and “ad hominem attack.” She also led an exercise where the students took turns holding a ball of yarn and listing things they liked until another student said, “Me too.” Then they held the thread while tossing the yarn to the other student, who repeated the drill. The point was to 1) practice speaking in public, and 2) to see, as the yarn formed a web, how much everyone had in common.
For homework, Shoffner asked the students to find a partner and choose from one of two topics: The death penalty or legalizing marijuana. She gave them a week to prepare to debate either the pros or cons.
Where the new co-op heads is up to the participating families.
More classes? Different classes? More and/or different days of the week? How about a seasoned math instructor?
The beauty of the co-op is its flexibility and responsiveness.
“What the parents want is absolutely going to shape where this goes,” Shoffner said. “We’re parent led.”
Shoffner said the Hardee Cooperative Learning Center is not faith-based, to distinguish it from other co-ops in the area, although it does offer some Bible-based classes.
It’s also committed to including any family that wants in.
Shoffner said she has been a lifelong advocate for inclusion for persons with special needs, stemming from a sister who is severely intellectually disabled.
“I don’t know how I can fight for inclusion for kids with special needs, then tell someone else I won’t include them,” she said.
Homeschool parents are grateful for the new co-op.
Lisa Dickey said her son, Laremy, 11, was in neighborhood schools through third grade. He struggled academically after several emotional events, including a fire that destroyed the family’s house and led them to move to a different part of the county and a different zoned school.
Dickey is a stay-at-home mom whose husband works for the Mosaic phosphate company. She said she wasn’t sure, at first, if she could homeschool adequately. But Laremy is taking his core academic classes through Florida Virtual School – which he loves – and she found support from other homeschool families.
The co-op is a nice complement, she said. The team building and character building classes are especially good, she said. And the co-op gives Laremy an opportunity to interact and have fun with other students.
“If he had stayed in public school, he would have fallen further behind,” Dickey said. “It’s good to have that choice.”
Especially, Shoffner said, in a rural area.
“We’ve had one option, one way, for so long,” Shoffner said. “Now we have many options. And people want them.”