When Ryker McNeely was three, his mother Andrea McNeely went to enroll him in a West Virginia public school to get access to speech therapy. But McNeely quickly discovered that public programs couldn’t help her son in the capacity he needed. In one instance, Ryker’s assigned therapist told McNeely that her son’s case was unique and she didn’t know how to help.
As a result, McNeely sought out private speech therapy, eventually finding a group that has since then helped Ryker “grow tremendously” with three sessions a week. However, his therapists are an hour away from the McNeelys’ home, so when Ryker was about to start kindergarten, McNeely knew he would need to be homeschooled. Not only would this allow him to attend regular therapy sessions, but McNeely also recognized that her son would benefit from a one-on-one education tailored to his unique learning needs.
In 2022, West Virginia launched its first school choice program, the Hope Scholarship Program, which allows eligible students to access Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that give parents access to funding for certain qualified educational expenditures upon taking their children out of public school. With Ryker’s multiple diagnoses, which include apraxia of speech (a rare neurological disability that makes it difficult to develop speech motor movements), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and oppositional defiance disorder, access to this program supports his intellectual growth at home.
Prior to this, McNeely would have been responsible for fully funding her son’s homeschooling and therapy needs under the state’s homeschool law, which gives certain students exemptions from compulsory public school attendance. But now, Ryker has been part of the Hope Scholarship’s first generation of ESA recipients, and McNeely said the opportunities her son has been afforded through it have been “phenomenal.”
“Now that we’ve been able to use the Hope Scholarship to give him the tools that he needs and learn at home one-on-one, Ryker is actually going to graduate kindergarten a month before public school students and private school students,” she said. “[Medical professionals] basically told me he can’t, and we’re showing him that he can. With the right tools, with the right environment, he can do this.”
McNeely said the flexibility of homeschooling has been great for her family and that access to ESA funds for quality curriculum and engaging learning materials has given Ryker as much of a chance to succeed as public and private school students.
“[Homeschool] curriculum is not always cheap, and the cheaper curriculum is not always the best. So with the ESA, I’m able to afford some of the better curriculum,” she said, adding:
“I’m just thankful to have the access to this ESA, because the older he gets, the more his curriculum will cost, the more that he will want to branch out and do electives like music and art.”
Now that Ryker’s apraxia and other developmental delays continue to improve through homeschooling and private speech therapy, McNeely has been able to enroll him in martial arts, which has helped him learn respect, self-control, and foreign language skills. These advancements in Ryker’s development are meaningful to McNeely, especially considering that her son has tested positive for “borderline intellectual functioning” three times—a diagnosis she doesn’t believe is true.
“Having the flexibility for Ryker to be able to receive therapy in the mornings and then come home and homeschool has been so great for us,” she said. “Sadly, some people just think that the public school system is the only way because that’s how they were brought up. It’s been ingrained into their mind that this is how children should learn, but there are other options.”
And for McNeely’s situation, these options feel less like a luxury, and more like a necessity.