For families in states that allow parents to use scholarships to customize their children’s education, the opportunities can be exciting. However, the plethora of choices can also make the process overwhelming. To help parents seeking to personalize their child’s learning, entrepreneurs have begun to offer a range of services, from assessments to establish benchmarks to curricula and other programs that best fit a child’s needs. Megan Santini, a second-generation home educator who holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in special education, was recently hired as director of FUE Academy to help West Virginians navigate this new landscape of customization made possible by the Hope Scholarship. (Answers in this interview have been edited for clarity.)
Q. Please describe your role with West Virginia Families United for Education (WV FUE) and its affiliated organization, FUE Academy. Can families use part of their Hope Scholarship to pay for your services?
A. WV FUE is a participating provider with the state’s expansive ESA program called the Hope Scholarship. We currently have nine approved services that participating families can purchase using their funds. We also accept private pay from traditional homeschooling families for some of the services that they find valuable. My role is to provide essential academic and state compliance support to families educating at home. We like to call it unbundling and assembling options — unbundling education into customizable parts, and then assembling those parts into a program of study that fits the child and the family.
Q. What is the difference between the general navigation services that WV FUE provides and the type of navigation you provide at FUE Academy for Hope Scholarship parents seeking to design a customized education plan for their children?
A. Jamie Buckland, executive director of the WV FUE, has primarily focused on ensuring families have the information they need to determine which option is best for them. If they choose a bundled option such as a traditional public school, public charter school, or private school, there isn’t as much of a need for additional support navigating compliance with assessments or planning out the course of study for their academics. Traditional homeschool groups don’t quite meet the needs of Hope scholars. Our organization sees a lack of resources to support Hope families who choose an unbundled option, such as home educating with Hope funds, and we feel passionately that these families deserve sustainable support.
Q. Let’s say I’m a parent who just got their Hope Scholarship and wants to know how best to educate my 8-year-old, who has been in a district-zoned school since kindergarten. Where do I start, and what are the next steps necessary to get there?
A. Once a family reaches out looking for academic support, I lay out the options we have available for their student. Usually, this communication occurs over email. Once a family determines they want my assistance in creating their plan, they reserve their funds in the portal. I go in and submit the invoice, and then it takes about two weeks for us to receive the funds. During that time, I have them complete an intake form so I can get to know their family well enough to begin to customize their options. As a second-generation homeschooler, I have years of experience in home education. I have a master’s degree in special education, which has given me the training to individualize education to meet all kinds of students’ needs. I have worked in various educational settings such as public schools, higher education, tutoring, brain training, and providing support to families using state-funded educational programs. I utilize my wide variety of experience to create a plan based on the needs articulated by the parent. We find that it’s always best if the parent chooses the benchmark assessment as well, because the data from the benchmark along with the intake process really gives me a clear picture of what the students need and what next steps are best.
Q. What are some of the most innovative programs you have recommended so far?
A. While it may not seem incredibly innovative on its head, I feel that I help families to see through the shiny and fancy bids for their funds and their time to find the programs and curricula that will actually be sustainable and life-giving to the learners and home. I know how a homeschool functions. I know that curriculum and programs need to fit the learners, and the parents, and fit into the lifestyle of the family. Sometimes that means online programs or a specialist. Sometimes that means a library card. In a time where there are so many options and programs to wade through, I think it’s pretty innovative to encourage families to spend time in nature with a nature journal.
Q. What questions and concerns do you hear most often from parents, and how do you respond to those?
A. Many parents ask me how to make home education work in their full and complicated lives. I’ve helped a family who has a child with medical issues requiring frequent trips to a hospital in another state. They spend a lot of time in the car. I helped them design an educational plan that fit their needs. I have helped families with lots of little ones develop a plan to manage the toddlers’ and their school-aged children’s learning. I have helped families find educational specialists for their children with disabilities. I’ve helped families with children who are gifted find programs and curricula to support their learners. Many families come to home education because they have unique needs, and they need help navigating their options to create a plan that will fit their family and lifestyle.
Q. Where is West Virginia in terms of making it possible for district schools to offer unbundled services to students? Is there a mechanism for that now? Do you expect there to be one created soon, and if so, how do you think it should be designed to make things as smooth as possible for schools and families?
A. It’s actually been in practice for years here. Traditional homeschoolers don’t have to pay to participate in public education up to part-time participation, but Hope Scholars do. This is why we believe so strongly in our work. Often the family just needs to know what they can do and what they must do. We can provide information and guidance built on decades of experience. Additionally, we find with new legislation, the agencies at the county level aren’t familiar with the code, so they may provide inaccurate information to families. If a family gets told no, hopefully, they will find out about us and reach out. We hope to expand the staff this year so Jamie can train a school options navigator to take over that role.
Q. What advice do you have for those working in a similar role in other states that followed West Virginia’s lead and approved ESAs?
A. Listen to families and help find ways for their feedback to be used to improve the experience. Be prepared not to be paid what you’re worth as things get off the ground.