balmerWhen her youngest child, Joanna, was twelve years old, Helen Balmer felt called to a decision that would change her life. “We were looking at the parenting homestretch,” she explains. “I always wanted more children. I had already been talking and praying about adoption with my husband, Wayne, for two years.”

While they originally planned to adopt one child, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, they welcomed three with open arms. “All of our girls are from different parts of China.” Having homeschooled her first three children, it was a natural transition for her to do the same for her adopted daughters.

In 2009, her school district made a decision to prevent homeschooling students from participating in their art and music programs. “After more than 20 years of allowing homeschoolers to participate, the new board decided ‘no.’ That created a big issue for us because having three kids in music lessons is cost prohibitive. Our girls showed a lot of musical talent.”

Elizabeth, who was adopted at age five, also had ESL needs. Helen recalls, “I did teach her English and I taught her how to read but she was missing a strong foundation because her first language was Chinese. When we adopted her, she was beginning to write in Chinese characters. We felt we needed more support.”

The Balmers learned about PA Leadership Charter School (PALCS) from a family at their church. “They told me about The Center for Performing and Fine Arts. While any cyber school would have piqued my interest and I would have investigated, it was the additional options that were offered in the arts and gifted education that really grabbed my attention.”

All three girls participate in the onsite arts program. They are also thriving in their academic studies, which Helen credits to the emphasis PALCS places on relationships. “They love school. They couldn’t wait for it to start this year. While some of the courses are challenging, they love how readily accessible their cyber teachers are. Elizabeth especially appreciates this, because she started later and works hard for her grades.” Laughing, Helen continued, “She is on the phone with her teachers four, sometimes five, times a day. The accessibility is greater than in public school. They love being able to talk to their teachers. They send them notes outside of class. They feel like they are more than just teachers.”

Helen has watched all three of her students blossom in the online environment, growing in their abilities and independence. “They basically went from being computer illiterate to having computer skills. I watch them type now and think, ‘Wow, they’re fast.’ Their personal accountability is greater because they can get online, find out what their assignments are, and are responsible to do them. The teachers are there. They are there to help them and they really care.”

With a smile, Helen recalls one of her earliest experiences with Mr. Wilcocz, Elizabeth’s social studies Teacher. “He called me one day and said, ‘Help me understand. I have two of your girls in the same class, Joy and Liz. Joy seems to be batting a thousand and Lizzy seems to be struggling.’ I replied, ‘Well, sometimes it may be the way you word assignments. She is still in ESL. Reading directions and deciphering what you want is difficult for her.’ He responded, ‘Look, that’s great. I’ll call her. I’ll talk to her. I’ll let her resubmit the assignment.’ All of the teachers, when they find out a special circumstance, have tried to accommodate.”

Juggling a packed schedule is not a challenge for the Balmers as all three girls are self-motivated learners. “On the days not at CPFA, we get up early and go to school online. My girls know they should try to work ahead. It is feasible for them to do five days of academic work in three days because my girls are very disciplined. They’ve learned how to look over their assignments and figure out how much time they need to spend on each. It has been a major area of growth for them.”

Amidst their artistic pursuits and a rigorous academic education, the girls still find time to play an active role in their church, participating in Awana and their youth group. “They have a full life outside of PALCS.”

“From my own experience: this is doable. This is actually stress-free. It’s like homeschooling, in that you have a protected environment. You are able to be with your children. You are able to instill your values and principles. At the same time, you know academically they’re covered and will have everything they need to go to the next level. I also think it is great preparation for college. Sitting in a class chat, learning what the assignment is, and doing the work is a lot more ‘college-like’ than a traditional public school. I believe they will be better prepared for life.”