‘Pod’ homeschooling emerges in Rockbridge County

Stacie Wheeler teaches Kindergarteners at the Keystone “pod” school in Raphine, VA. The school currently has 45 students enrolled. (Brianna Hatch photo).

By Brianna Hatch

Rockbridge County parents are trying a new way to educate their children: “pod” schools.

Keystone, a pod school run out of New Providence Presbyterian Church in Raphine, Va., has 45 students enrolled during its first year of operation.

The pod school grew out of concerns about learning during the pandemic, but also reflects parents’ discontent with public education and the desire to integrate religion into the classrooms.

“We’re not in competition with the public schools. I’m not trying to tell you what’s better,” Keystone co-founder Brandy Mitchell said. “We just want to help these kids succeed socially, academically and spiritually.”

Rockbridge County Public Schools will lose some state aid because of these pods next year, although most children are still enrolled in public schools, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Administration Tim Martino said.

“There is a monetary amount that is designated for each child enrolled in public school, so when a child does leave the public school system, that money is retracted,” Martino said. “But we really have to focus on the kids that we have.”

In 2020, the rise of “pandemic pods” occurred nationwide as parents realized that school in the fall would be remote, leading to inadequate learning and childcare, The New York Times reported. A similar trend continued into 2021, as COVID-19 concerns lingered, Education Next wrote.

For Katherina Bishop, the decision to enroll her ninth-grade daughter at Keystone stemmed from the pandemic in a different way. Her daughter was originally enrolled in Rockbridge County High School, but she experienced daily anxiety.

A sign displaying Keystone’s mask policy in the hallway. (Brianna Hatch photo).

“Every morning was a fight, or crying, or a nervous wreck,” Bishop said.

Bishop listed the mandatory mask-wearing in the local public schools as the primary cause of her child’s stress.

“She does not have to wear a mask when she’s in her class [at Keystone], unless she prefers to. That was a big deal,” Bishop said. “All of her grades have come up; her anxiety went down.”

According to Mitchell, Keystone follows CDC cohort guidelines. Masks are required in common spaces, but religious and medical exemptions are respected. Around half of the students are masked; the desks in classrooms are also three feet apart.

Last week, Keystone closed temporarily because of a COVID-19 exposure. All parents were notified, Mitchell said.

Religious motivations

Religion is also a key factor that made some split from public schools. Keystone is described as a “faith-based homeschool cooperative” on its Facebook page. Their first mission statement listed on forms is “to uphold Christian home education.”

Students use religion-based spelling workbooks and create timelines beginning with Adam and Eve displayed in their classrooms. They also attend weekly non-denominational chapel services.

“I feel very strongly about not removing God from the classroom,” said Carrie O’Mahony, teacher of grades four through eight at Keystone and mother of seven. “I love that unlike in public school, we’re able to talk about our beliefs…and have God be part of the day.”

But this religious focus is not exclusionary, according to Mitchell.

“We’re Christian in distinction, but open to anyone,” she said.

Parent inclusion

Keystone also prides itself on including parents in their child’s education process, a factor that Mitchell believes is often missing in local public schools. One of their mottos is “the parent is the principal.”

“The parents are the original stakeholders,” Mitchell said. “We’re helping them reclaim that role.”

And Keystone’s parental demographics are diverse.

“We have parents here who don’t have high school degrees. We also have Board of Supervisors’ kids,” Mitchell said.

Parents of students at Keystone are required to contribute in some way, whether it be chaperoning a field trip or volunteering in an activity. Student grades and report cards, called “educational jackets,” are based on combined input from teachers and parents.

Mitchell said that teachers and parents communicate daily at Keystone, especially to discuss their child’s specific needs. There is also no mandatory attendance policy at Keystone. Students are allowed to not attend any day, as long as their parent keeps them on track with the curriculum.

Individual learning plans

The ability to customize curriculum for each student, due to smaller class sizes, is another key selling point of pod schooling. Mitchell said that that every student at Keystone has an individual learning plan.

“I love that we are able to individualize their education. I think that’s really important,” O’Mahony said.  “I don’t think that just because someone is 9, there is a list of things they should learn. So, I love that we’re freed from that here and able to customize.”

A bulletin board on the wall of a Keystone classroom. (Brianna Hatch photo).

Ashley Smith, who teaches the second and third graders at Keystone, loves that the small class sizes allow teachers to truly understand their students.

“It is possible to be successful going to public school, but I see a lot of kids who have a lot of struggles academically and socially just get pushed through,” Smith said. “The small classroom environment here just allows you to know the kids, know their strengths and struggles, and help them progress and grow in all different ways.”

Emily Taylor’s daughter has a medical condition that puts her at higher risk of serious infection for diseases like COVID-19, and a seizure condition. In bigger schools, Taylor said her daughter was bullied for her conditions, causing her to have seizures two or three times weekly.

“I had been assured in school settings before that there is no tolerance for bullying. But here’s the deal with a school with 500 people enrolled versus 50 people enrolled. It’s harder for them to control it,” Taylor said. “With the numbers [at Keystone], I felt more in control because if my daughter starts having seizures, I know stress is bringing it on – and there can’t be but so many people there to figure out who’s causing it.”

Curriculum

Small classes also allow Keystone teachers to cater their curriculum. Students take a test in their first month that shows teachers where their skill levels are, Mitchell said. This tells teachers what each student needs from the beginning.

Teachers at Keystone do not follow any state or local curriculum standards or teach to state standardized tests. During the four days per week that classes meet, they emphasize core subjects in their classrooms: reading and writing, history, science, math — and physical education outside.

Smith is really focused on filling the gaps she has seen in her teaching career with reading and math. She has taught many students who did not know how to read.

“I’m also really big on them knowing their math facts,” she said. “If they don’t know their times tables, how are they going to move into division and their upper-level math later on?”

For O’Mahony, a particularly big focus is on writing.

The outside of Keystone in Raphine, VA. (Brianna Hatch photo).

“I feel like a lot of times kids are told ‘just go write’ without any structure, any style. So, I’m trying to teach them how to gradually and incrementally increase their writing using some structure, using some writing techniques,” she said. “I’m really hoping to help them grow as writers this year.”

O’Mahony’s biggest challenge is educating a wide range of students, from fourth to eighth grade, in one classroom. But because she homeschooled her own seven children since kindergarten, she said she is uniquely prepared.

O’Mahony usually begins with one lesson for the whole class, then splits students into groups to do different activities based on their skill level.

“I try to specifically match the right student with the right assignment to meet their needs,” O’Mahony said.

Three out of the four teachers at Keystone are certified. Mitchell, the only uncertified teacher, oversees the high school students — who each use an already established curriculum.

Mitchell does teach the high schoolers “life skills” from folding laundry to sewing a button. She also allows students to choose a profession, then gives them a salary in monopoly money to help teach them how to sustain an adult lifestyle.

Pod funding and resources

Keystone’s funding and resources are a community effort, Mitchell said. The building, televisions, desks and internet access were donated. Mitchell said that Keystone receives donations from small businesses and 21 different churches in the area

Parents make up the bulk of the financial support, since Keystone is not a designated nonprofit or officially recognized school, so they receive no state or local funding.

Parents pay an annual fee of $65, plus $60 per week for the full 34 weeks. They also provide their child’s supplies, which vary per grade and per student. Fourth graders, for example, pay a minimum of $205.69, while eighth graders pay a minimum of $238.69.

Teachers basically serve as volunteers, because there is no set salary or benefits. They are paid a “love offering” that is “based on what’s going on at the school,” O’Mahony said.

Pod schooling vs. other forms

Keystone is not the only pod school in Rockbridge County. There are two others with about 15 students each, Mitchell said.

Pods are more accessible and provide social benefits for some, O’Mahony said.

“A working mom, a single mom – not everybody can homeschool. So, I think it’s nice to give them that opportunity to have that homeschool-like experience,” she said.

“And then for the homeschoolers, especially as they get to middle school, there’s something to be said for limited peer involvement. They do start to want to be with kids their own age.”

Taylor recognizes that while pod schooling is the best option for her child, it might not be for every child.

“I think every child’s different, and every child’s learning style is different,” she said. “I think you have to make the decision for each child based on what they need.”