Over the past year or so, I have been re-reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As anyone who has read the books will remember, the story is both sad and hopeful at the same time. The action takes place in the context of a long-declining society. Tolkien writes in The Two Towers: “The Men of Numenor were settled far and wide…but for the most part they fell into evil and follies…some were given over wholly to idleness and ease, and some fought among themselves, until they were conquered in their weakness…”.
America is not as ruined as Numenor, but private education in the U.S. is facing some problems of decline as well:
- Declining enrollment. From the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007 through 2011 private school enrollment declined by over 10 percent, from just over 5.9 million students to just over 5.2 million, rebounding to about 5.7 million by 2017 (the most recent data available).
- Demographic changes. Enrollments aside, the absolute number of children being born in the U.S. declined from 4.23 million in 2007 to 3.75 million in 2019.
- Middle class decline. Alongside these trends, other research shows the proportion of middle class families enrolled in private schools dropping by about half from 1968 to 2013, while the proportion of high- and low-income families held about the same.
Frodo and Gandalf discuss dark days in The Fellowship of the Ring: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But it is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Not all private schools are Christian, of course, but none of the trends above bode well for Christian education. Still as in Lord of the Rings, there is hope! Many schools are thriving even among these declines, and one interesting sector—hybrid homeschools—seems to be growing.
What are Hybrid Homeschools?
Hybrid homeschools are schools in which the students attend classes a few days per week and are homeschooled on the other days. Two to three days is typical, though some schools are open only one day while others are open most of the week for partial days. What differentiates these schools from homeschool co-ops is the fact that most of them define the curriculum students follow, do most of the instruction, grading, etc. What differentiates them from full time private schools is the fact that they rely on parents to manage assignments (and, sometimes, instruction) on the home days.
“Hybrid homeschools” is a term most people intuitively understand, but they go by many names: Hybrid schools, University-Model Schools, College model schools, Shared instruction schools, Half-day model schools, Parent Partnership Programs, and others.
Not all of these schools are Christian, but the vast majority are. The vision of the oldest and largest network of these schools, the University-Model Schools International network, is: “To strengthen Christian families and values by helping parents prepare college-worthy disciples of Jesus for the next generation.” The largest Catholic network of these schools, the Regina Caeli Academies, calls for each of their students to:
- Achieve salvation
- Deepen in intellect and character
- Grow spiritually
- Develop the ability to win others for Christ
- Perceive and elect his or her God-given vocation
These schools also have a variety of origin stories: Some start as groups of homeschooling families decide to grow and formalize their operations. Some are created as ministries of individual churches. Some are recruited by one of the larger networks.
While these schools were likely growing before COVID-19 (many of them are less than 10 years old), America’s reaction to the pandemic has increased interest in hybrid homeschool models, as many families are seeking new options for their children.
How Might Hybrid Homeschools Help Christian Education?
While these schools are interesting because of their unique models, there are also several ways in which they might be helpful in the growth of Christian education, by helping to reach families who are currently unserved/underserved.
Lower Tuitions. First, hybrid homeschools are able to offer much lower tuitions (often one-half to one-third) compared to their full time private counterparts. This is possible because many schools only carry one, or only a few, full time employees (usually the director and a few other administrators). Because they are only open a few days per week, most teachers at these schools are part time and come in to teach a class or two—or at most a full day—two or three times per week. This personnel arrangement allows them to dramatically cuts costs. Many schools rent space from churches a few days per week, at low rates. Schools that are ministries attached to churches are in even better positions.
The Middle Class. School choice programs in the U.S. are typically geared toward two groups: high-income and low-income families. High-income families can access choice by moving to a school district they prefer or by simply paying tuition. Low-income families are often eligible for state or local private school choice programs. These arrangements leave out a large number of families: those who cannot simply pay tuition, but who also earn too much to be eligible for most school choice programs. A typical price point of about $5,000 per year puts these schools into reach for many more families (although families also have to be able to manage having a parent of other caregiver home to take care of children on the home days, which imposes costs as well).
Civil Society. Whatever an individual hybrid homeschool’s origin story—as a homeschool group, as a church ministry, or as a product of a network—their personnel arrangements make it necessary for families to be very engaged on a day-to-day basis with their children’s schooling. With fewer full time employees, it also requires the school community to be more involved in helping the school to operate. Hybrid homeschools are excellent examples of civil society coming together to solve local problems. They also avoid the political fights that would come with starting a charter school and the heavier financial lifts that come with starting a full time private school. They are simply groups of families coming together to start small, local schools.
Hybrid homeschools are usually small and are created in response to local needs. Returning to the story we began with, Gandalf advises at one point that “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set…so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.” In Return of the King, another character notes the surprising deeds the hobbits have done, “A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk.” Hybrid homeschools may be little, but they are playing an increasingly vital role in the school choice and Christian education ecosystems.