Noah Brown was in the second grade when he started asking his parents to enroll him in an online school.
Now 17, Brown is a junior at Oregon Virtual Academy, an online public charter school based in North Bend on the Oregon coast. He said he does not remember exactly how he first learned about online schools, but he suspects his elementary school friends told him he would have more time to snowboard if he did not have to go to class every morning.
“We were like yeah, what kid wouldn’t want to do that? That would be the best life ever, but what are you, 8?” Noah’s father, Adam Brown, recounted recently at their home in Bend. “But he kept talking about it, and (Noah and his siblings) kept riding more every year. It was 10 times (a year), then 20 then 40. And then they’re going like 60 times and they kept getting better and he kept asking.”
The fact is, elementary-aged Noah had a point: The schedule for elite youth snowboarders does not always mesh well with traditional public or private schools.
Major competitions can stretch for a full week or longer (the upcoming national championships at Copper Mountain, Colorado, for example, will run from April 1 to 13), and travel to and from championship sites increases the time young athletes are away from home and missing school. Even training time is an issue, as the best times for snowboarders and freestyle skiers to practice are in the morning and early afternoon, when most kids are sitting in math class.
So when Noah was a fifth-grader at Pine Ridge Elementary School, his parents asked his teacher if she thought he would be able to handle online school, in which he would be responsible for keeping up with the curriculum and would not have a teacher in the room to keep him on task. After what Adam Brown described as a “ramp-up” year, during which Noah’s teacher often encouraged him to work independently, he enrolled in Oregon Virtual Academy (also called ORVA), which is hosted by the North Bend School District. His siblings Micah, 15 and in the ninth grade, and Emma, 13 and in the seventh grade, enrolled in ORVA when they started middle school. Their youngest sister, Aida, still attends Pine Ridge Elementary.
“They don’t have to do (online school), and it’s not just to not go to school,” Adam Brown said. “They all happen to like snowboarding and competing and are excelling at it, so we might as well give them a chance.”
On most weekdays, the three oldest Brown kids will wake up and spend three hours watching lectures or working on assignments on their laptops. They then meet with their coaches at the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation in Bend and ride the van up to Mount Bachelor, where they practice from noon to 4 p.m. Any schoolwork not finished in the morning is completed after they return home for the evening. At least, that is the plan — Emma admitted she once let a number of assignments pile up and had to complete them all on the final night before the end of the semester.
“(I was surprised by) how much work you have to do,” Micah said when asked about the hardest part of adjusting to online schooling. “I didn’t expect it to be easy, but you have to work hard, actually.”
The Browns are not the only Bend family that has sought out nontraditional schooling as a way to balance education and athletics. Starting in the third grade, Jameson Coffman, now 14, was home-schooled, which seemed like a better option than skipping school to compete in skateboard competitions or missing the skateboarding competitions altogether. But as he got older, his father, Kyle Coffman, noticed Jameson needed a change.
“Jameson is a teenager, so he still does all the snowboarding stuff, but he’d look at people hanging out and be like, oh, I want to do that,” Kyle Coffman recounted. “A lot of his snowboarding and skateboarding friends live in different cities and states, so if he’s bored, he can’t go call them up and say, hey, do you want to hang out?”
At the beginning of this school year, Jameson enrolled as an eighth-grader at Redmond Proficiency Academy, a public charter school. Like ORVA and traditional public schools in the Bend-La Pine and Redmond school districts, RPA students are working toward a high school diploma and are on a college preparatory track, but they have more flexibility while designing their class schedules. Instead of attending class every day for seven or eight straight hours, RPA students can leave mornings or afternoons and even full days of the week open for extracurricular activities, internships or other responsibilities. RPA students can also take some of their classes on the Redmond campus while completing others online.
During the winter snowboarding season, Jameson attends classes in person on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. His younger brother Benjermen is in sixth grade and attends class in Redmond each day of the week, although his schedule will change when skateboarding season starts. Their youngest brother, Anthony, still attends a public elementary school in Bend but will likely start at RPA next year.
“I’ve definitely got to wake up earlier — that’s the only thing I don’t like about that school,” Jameson said of his first year at RPA. “I was worried that I wasn’t going to snowboard as much or skateboard as much, but I still snowboard and skate a lot, and it’s easier for me to learn with an actual person instead of an online teacher.”
The Brown and Coffman kids said many of their teammates and competitors use some form of nontraditional education such as home schooling, online schooling or a part-time schedule at a public or charter school. Still, it is difficult to say how many families are seeking alternatives to traditional schools primarily for the sake of athletics. RPA students are allowed to compete in varsity and club sports at other high schools, and Jameson mentioned several classmates who participate in various sports and often travel outside of Central Oregon to compete. But RPA does not track its students’ participation in athletic activities that are not affiliated with any school. ORVA officials reported that at least 20 of their students are serious athletes, but as is the case for RPA, students are not required to inform schools of all their athletic activities, so the number could be higher.
The Oregon Department of Education reported 1,032 students in the High Desert region (which includes Bend-La Pine, Redmond, Sisters and Crook County school districts) were registered as home-schoolers during the 2012-2013 school year (the latest school year for which data was available), but probably only a small portion are doing so for athletics. According to a 2012 survey by the National Household Education Surveys program, 1 in 4 home-schooling parents cited concerns about the environment of local schools — issues such as bullying, drug use or peer pressure from other students — as their primary reason for teaching at home. Another 22 percent said their primary motivation was a desire to provide religious or moral instruction, and 19 percent were unsatisfied with the academic instruction offered by local schools. More flexibility to pursue extracurricular activities, including sports, was not even listed as a common reason for home schooling, so families in that camp would have been grouped with the 21 percent who responded with “other reasons.”
As much as some of these nontraditional schools do sound like an 8-year-old’s idea of “the best life ever,” they are not for everyone.
“I think not being around friends (at school) is kind of hard, because we’re all kind of social,” Emma Brown said. “So when we don’t have snowboarding, it’s a little hard.”
The Oregonian reported on Jan. 26 that just 28 percent of the 223 students in the ORVA class of 2016 graduated on time, but Adam Brown said he is pleased with both the variety of classes offered (in addition to staples like physics, pre-calculus and Spanish, the Brown kids have taken game design and sports marketing) and how his kids have performed in class.
“You’re going to get out of it what you put into it,” Adam Brown said. “There are kids that we know that have tried this or another online school, and it didn’t work. (My kids are) pretty self-driven, and you’ve either got that or you don’t. And it does take a little bit of supervision to do it. If they’re not being supervised at all, then they could totally get behind.”
Noah Brown is now just over a year away from graduating high school, and while he hopes to one day snowboard professionally, he plans to attend college no matter where his snowboarding career takes him. And just as in middle school and high school, snowboarding is playing a big role in where he chooses to go to college.
“I would not go down to San Diego,” he said, ticking off some of the areas he has ruled out.
“You could go to Colorado,” Emma replied helpfully. “You could snowboard there.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0305, firstname.lastname@example.org