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Laura LokerApril 17, 2024
A student works in his "Writing Our Catholic Faith" handwriting book during a homeschool lesson July 29, 2020. (CNS photo/Karen Bonar, The Register)A student works in his "Writing Our Catholic Faith" handwriting book during a homeschool lesson July 29, 2020. (CNS photo/Karen Bonar, The Register)

Independent Catholic school “hybrid” programs straddle the line between homeschool and traditional diocesan schools, featuring in-person, formal instruction and independent study days. But though these programs typically emerge from the homeschool movement, their affordability is beginning to attract a new demographic.

St. John Bosco School, a hybrid 7th through 12th grade program located in Sterling, Va., opened in 2019 with a group of 20 homeschooled students. Today, it serves 80 students, about 30 percent of whom came from local parochial schools, said Kelly Sonnhalter, a founding parent and faculty member.

Students learn in person on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. During in-person days, teachers—some retirees, some otherwise stay-at-home moms with teaching backgrounds, one graduate student—introduce topics, facilitate class discussion and administer tests. On intervening days, students are expected to study 45 to 90 minutes per subject area on their own.

Legally, the students at St. John Bosco are considered homeschooled. But their school days, during which the students wear uniforms, are much like those at any other small school.

“We have clubs,” said Ms. Sonnhalter. “We have student government. We have athletics, and we have dances.”

And because the cost of running the school is minimal—teachers work part-time and the school borrows a local parish’s space at no cost—tuition is considerably lower than at traditional counterparts. At $4,250, one year’s high school tuition is a quarter or less of the sticker price of local diocesan high schools, which range from about $17,000 to $21,000 per student each year. (While three diocesan-affiliated independent high schools in the farther reaches of the Arlington area offer lower tuition—this year between approximately $9,000 and $13,000—they accommodate comparatively few students.)

For parents like Heather Ruffner, a northern Virginia resident, the price of a diocesan high school seems out of reach. “We can’t be the only family in this area struggling financially and unable to afford the local schools,” Ms. Ruffner said via email to America.

“I am absolutely considering a hybrid situation,” Ms. Ruffner, who recently toured a hybrid program in Manassas, Va., said. “But my preference would be for my child to be in a classroom setting more often than not.”

“It’s hard to deny that [Catholic school tuition is] a big commitment financially for families,” said Joseph Vorbach, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia. He noted that the jump from primary to secondary school tuition can be especially challenging to families.

The diocese will offer about $7 million in need-based tuition assistance this year to Catholic school families, said Mr. Vorbach. Most of that money is raised from parish collections, a diocesan tuition-assistance endowment and recurring philanthropic support.

Tuition rates for all Catholic families, regardless of aid, are lower than the actual student cost.

But for those who are not eligible for aid (or who do not qualify for enough tuition aid), hybrid programs that allow students to still practice their faith in an academic setting offer a different option than either public school or full-time homeschool. Ms. Ruffner struggled for weeks over the decision before finally deciding on a hybrid program offered by the Aquinas Learning Center for her son, 14, in the fall.

Ms. Sonnhalter said that some students who have enrolled in St. John Bosco may have preferred a full-time Catholic high  school but came to appreciate what the hybrid program offered.

“They ended up with us, but they ended up loving us,” she said.

Born from a different need

Hybrid programs are not new. Ms. Sonnhalter and the other founding parents modeled St. John Bosco after programs like Regina Caeli Academy, which has centers across the country that offer in-person instruction two days per week to aid and supplement homeschooling.

Regina Caeli Academy runs from pre-K to 12th grade and employs many of its parents as instructors. (Established in 2003, the network is under new leadership since one of its founders resigned after personal misconduct and alleged financial malfeasance in 2021.) Students come almost exclusively from homeschool backgrounds, according to Brynn Turner, a spokesperson for Regina Caeli Academy, and the program calls itself a “homeschool resource center,” rather than a school.

Homeschool families come to programs like St. John Bosco or Regina Caeli Academy for a number of reasons: to participate in sports and social events, for example, or to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the many different homeschool curriculum options. Some are not able to align their work schedule to the demands of a full homeschooling program.

“It’s essentially meant to provide all of those things that homeschool parents often wish they had or feel they’re lacking,” said Ms. Turner.

Ms. Sonnhalter and her co-founders’ aim in starting St. John Bosco was likewise to simplify and enrich their experience of homeschool. Their families had been participating in several different homeschool cooperatives to cover all the subject areas their children were studying, with few overlapping participants among the groups.

“So a lot of driving, a lot of different groups,” Ms. Sonnhalter said. “And we just didn’t have that consistent community.”

Catholic hybrid programs across the country—St. John Paul II Preparatory Academy in St. Charles, Mo.; St. Thomas Aquinas Classical in Des Moines, Iowa; and St. Benedict Classical School in Bloomington, Ind., to name a few—often follow a classical curriculum.

But while classical education, and, indeed, the homeschool movement in general, has come to be associated with social conservatism, not all hybrid schools reflect that demographic. In a 2023 national survey of hybrid programs conducted by a project of Kennesaw State University, most respondents made use of other curricula, including one STEM program and one special education program, and not all were religiously affiliated.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, homeschooling in general has become more diverse. In a 2023 Washington Post-Schar School survey, many new homeschool families responded that their decisions were motivated by dissatisfaction with local educational quality and concern about their children’s educational environment (including a distinct response from “too influenced by liberal viewpoints,” which falls farther down on the list).

Some families just tried homeschooling during Covid-19 lockdowns—and liked it.

“I think Covid made some families realize that they enjoyed that time together and that they could do it,” said Ms. Sonnhalter. “That it’s not as hard as some people imagine it to be, to do something different.”

Just as homeschooling is growing in appeal, so are hybrid schools (and some of the homeschool students counted in national statistics are in fact attending hybrid programs, but are categorized as homeschooled). In the Kennesaw State survey, nearly half of responding schools had been founded in the last ten years. Average enrollment increased nearly 30 percent from 2018 to 2022.

Parent involvement varies from program to program, as well as with the age of the student. Serving junior high and high school students and employing education professionals, St. John Bosco asks less of parents than some hybrid programs (though they do still contribute supplies and volunteer for school events).

“We want the parents to be the first advisor, educator, helping [students] with making the decisions. We don’t want to make the decisions for their family,” said Ms. Sonnhalter.

“But once those decisions are made, in terms of what classes they should take or what path they should go down, the parents are there more to walk alongside them. And to make sure they’re getting their work done and make sure they’re kind of learning those [time] management skills and stuff like that, but they shouldn’t have to do a whole lot of teaching.”

Unique offerings for unique families

Ms. Sonnhalter does not see St. John Bosco, an independent program with “Catholic values” (without diocesan affiliation, it cannot call itself a “Catholic school”), as a competitor to the Diocese of Arlington’s highly regarded Catholic high schools.

“I don’t really think we’re providing the same thing,” she said. “So I just think it’s really more what people want.”

Indeed, larger, well-established institutions can offer more classes, athletics and extracurriculars, as well as infrastructural resources like gymnasiums, auditoriums and science labs. Mr. Vorbach also noted that each of Arlington’s Catholic high schools has its own dedicated chaplain.

But St. John Bosco and programs like it have distinct characteristics, said Ms. Sonnhalter, that appeal to some families. One is parent and student schedule flexibility, which can allow parents to spend more time with family, allow students to pursue other interests like robotics or nature studies or simply accommodate a teenager’s preferred sleep schedule.

Another is the opportunity for students to learn how to work independently. The hybrid schedule, Ms. Sonnhalter said, has borne fruit for her oldest child, who was in St. John Bosco’s first graduating class and is now a freshman in college. He is, she said, “leaps and bounds” ahead of his peers in managing the rhythm of class work and unstructured study time.

The hybrid model is not for everyone. Jennifer Charest, herself a Catholic school teacher, is not sure yet where her 10- and 13-year-old children will go to high school. Currently, they attend their local Catholic parochial school, which the family loves.

“It is a very small school but has wonderful teachers and staff, a true community,” Ms. Charest said, responding to America by email. “I also love that my children are exposed to their faith in all subjects, not just religion.”

But Catholic high school tuition is beyond their means, and Ms. Charest does not expect that they will qualify for sufficient financial aid (though she plans to apply for it anyway). Still, she and her husband are not considering a hybrid program or homeschooling. They learned during Covid-19 lockdowns, she said, that those options did not work for their family.

“I truly believe that my girls have benefitted from having a Catholic education so far, and I wish we could financially afford [Catholic] high school,” she said. “My hope is that they have gotten the foundation of their faith, and we will still practice it as a family.”

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all program, said Ms. Sonnhalter. “Every family has to find what’s right for them.”

Correction: This report was updated on April 18 to improve clarity because of an editing error.

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