KATY (Covering Katy News) — Bryson Bentz, 11, of Katy is polite, well-spoken and a good student. He’s done so well academically that he was pulling ahead of his classmates, so his family decided to explore his educational options.
His parents, Michael and Shawna, decided to enroll him in a local private school. But things didn’t work out for Bryson there. Students at that school were expected to use Edmodo, an electronic communication platform used in many schools.
But Edmodo, which allows unsupervised communication, wasn’t the ideal situation for the Bentzes.
“I thought it was absolutely silly to require it as part of day-to-day classwork,” Michael Bentz said, describing the program as a “Facebook for students and teachers.” He asked school officials if Bryson could be excused from using it. The request was denied.
“When they forced the computer on him and social networking as part of the class curriculum, we had to change things very quickly,” Bentz said.
It’s not that the Bentzes have anything against computers. Michael works from home, four days a week, as a programmer. Shawna is a unit clerk at a local hospital and is studying to become a registered nurse.
“I don’t have a problem with him using the computer,” Michael Bentz said, adding that Bryson can use the computer “very sparingly” when supervised. Bryson has no cellphone or tablet.
“Our approach is that it’s a tool, not where you live your life,” Bentz said. “He loves the idea of programming. When we sit him down with a laptop, we’re not sitting him down with a laptop unmonitored. We’re watching everything.”
So they enrolled Bryson in the Texas Virtual Academy, a virtual public charter school for which there is no tuition. It has accreditation from both the Texas Education Agency and Southern Association of College and Schools Council. Bryson began the program in January of last year.
A typical day for Bryson begins at 9 a.m. with three hours of online instruction with teachers. After lunch, he focuses on studies but has online access to his teachers or classmates.
Bentz said that being able to supervise the schoolwork and therefore not having to worry about it is an “insane benefit.”
In the Texas Virtual Academy, students cannot have an online chat without at least the teacher seeing it.
“We’re in the classroom with him,” Michael Bentz said. “If he has a question he can come grab me or his mother, whoever’s home at the time. We know how to interject when we need to.”
Both Michael and Bryson said that flexibility is a key advantage of the program. There are times when Bryson might ask his father for help with an assignment, but Michael isn’t immediately available due to business meetings. They can make up the schoolwork time after dinner.
Flexibility also applies to the subjects studied. Michael said that an activity such as cleaning out the garage counts toward physical education credits.
Physical safety is another advantage. It’s an issue that is on the minds of many this week following the mass shooting at a Florida high school, where 17 people were killed.
“We don’t ever have to worry about my child getting involved in some ‘stranger danger,’” Bentz said. “We don’t have to worry about that because he’s here with us. He’s putting the time and energy into his own education. We don’t have to worry about the political and religious leanings of the teachers. We get to be there with him and explain the other side of the story. Here, we know 100 percent of what’s going on.”
Bentz said he and Shawna have always been particular about Bryson’s education.
“We’re a Christian family,” Bentz said. “We take everything he learns very seriously. He’s always been a very serious student. He always makes good grades without pressure from us.”
Michael and Shawna recognize that not everybody is in a similar position to supervise things.
“It’s hard to have that flexibility,” Bentz said. “We’re blessed to have an option where I can work from home four days a week.” He added that Shawna is at home when he is not.
Bryson said his favorite subjects are science and music. He said he wants to pursue higher education at The Master’s University in California, or perhaps at universities such as the University of Houston, Texas A&M, or Texas.
Asked if Bryson would be missing out on typical extracurricular activities such as school sports, Michael Bentz said other options exist outside the school district, if Bryson were interested in those things.
“It’s not as worrying to us as it would be to other parents,” Bentz said. “He’s more of a music, programming style personality. He likes to create things.”
Online education isn’t for everyone. Sitting alone at the computer requires a consistent focus on classwork, not social media or other distractions. Not all of the students who participate in the Texas Virtual Academy are as dedicated as Bryson is proving to be. Michael Bentz said the program had lower STAAR test scores last year and they are a concern for the program’s long-term viability.
“I hope that they can weed out the kids that are goofing off,” Bentz said. “It could end up being the program’s demise. I’m all for more people getting involved if they’re the right people. It’s harder because you as a parent have to get more involved, keep them on pace, or grades are going to slip and affect the program.”
For more information about the program, see the web site at http://txva.k12.com/.