COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. — A new and unique program is starting this year in Collier County to support homeschooled high school students. It’s called the Freedom Institute of Collier County.
Since the pandemic introduced many families to at-home and hybrid learning, homeschooling has become more common.
According to the Florida Department of Education, in the 2020-2021 school year, the number of kids enrolling in home education programs in the state shot up 35 percent. This past school year, numbers stayed steady, with another 6% increase.
In March, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that expands school choice. For the first time, it allows homeschooling families to apply for state scholarships that are funded by taxpayers.
“It’s been a great advantage for us, the flexibility,” said Danielle Black, whose daughter will be attending the Freedom Institute.
When Danielle’s daughter Lyla was in third grade, she decided she wanted to do school a little differently.
“I was in Cambridge, and I was in the gifted program, but even then, I was still being held back, so I just kind of wanted more education for myself,” said Lyla.
Lyla said for two months, she campaigned to be homeschooled.
“It wasn’t about sleeping in or going shopping with grandma. She just said why do I have to wait for 20 other kids? If I’m done, let me move on, and 7 hours is too much; we could do this in three,” Danielle said.
Lyla’s mom wasn’t quite convinced until she talked to the school guidance counselor.
“And she said if there was ever a candidate for homeschool, it’s your daughter,” Danielle said.
But it was a tough new territory to navigate.
“We started on our own, and that was kind of a disaster. It’s hard because I was not meant to be a teacher,” Danielle said.
They found a support program, but that was only through middle school, and now, Lyla is getting ready to start freshman year.
“We just really didn’t know what we were going to do,” Danielle said.
But then they found the Freedom Institute of Collier County.
“If they want more like a high school experience, that’s what they’ll get from us,” said Christopher Marker, CEO of the Freedom Institute.
They have classrooms and a steam lab where students can get hands-on engagement with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. They also have an area for E-gaming and learning other practical career skills.
“We expect a lot of them to pursue drone certifications, some coding certifications, some Microsoft certifications,” Marker said.
Marker also pointed out the fitness center and “the eagles nest” with games where students can go for some fun.
“Work hard, play hard. We really wanna be pushing those philosophies on our kids,” Marker said.
Marker and his team all have experience in teaching and school administration. Some were previously with Collier County Public Schools.
“We all come from public school backgrounds. We all respect and love public school but this was just kind of something different,” said Christy Vaill, a Senior Success Coach at the Freedom Institute
Just like traditional homeschooling, parents get to pick the curriculum. Families also get to pick how many days and hours a week their child goes to the Freedom Institute for in-person support or instruction.
“We’re all about the freedom of homeschool, but adding professional teachers to support that process and that journey,” said Marker.
Vaill said families they’re getting ready to work with seem to be looking for flexibility and customized learning.
“A lot of the students that we’re talking to feel like they can’t work at their own pace at High School. If they need to be accelerated, we’re happy to do that, or if they need to slow down,” she said.
For some, the switch to homeschooling may have to do with new state policies or how schools are caught up in debates over what students should learn.
“I think there’s a lot of politics involved right now with education as well, and sometimes it’s split down the middle; sometimes parents agree with things that are happening, sometimes they don’t,” Vaill said.
The Freedom Institute does have a curriculum families can follow if they choose, with a focus on something Marker said was lost on a lot of folks in his generation.
“First and foremost, our vision is getting kids through high school with financial literacy. Internships, jobs, whatnot, but also interest rates, loans, debt, credit cards, college debt. How it all works,” Marker said.
That’s something all high schoolers will be required to learn starting this school year. Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill requiring students to take one-half credit on topics like money management, credit scores, taxes, and debt. State leaders say they want students to know how to achieve financial stability and independence.
If you’d like to learn more about the Freedom Institute, they do tours, and they’re having an open house on Thursday, Aug. 3, from 6:30-7:30.
It’s located at 2706 Horseshoe Drive in Naples.