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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘The best of both worlds’

This public school looks different from the others.

On a typical Thursday, grade school students in white karate robes fling kicks in the gym, while students across the hall create structures with Lego blocks to study construction methods.

Piano scales dance down the hallway. On other days, a group of young fiddlers take lessons. Parents wait for their children in a family room with babies in strollers or backpacks.

This is a standard day at Spokane Public Schools “parent partnership” program at the Bryant Center called The Enrichment Cooperative. Here, parents come twice a week with their entire family. While here, they consult with teachers to design a program around their child’s interests. Most of the work is done in their own homes.

But this is not home schooling. It’s called a parent partnership because students use district resources and actually are counted in district enrollment numbers.

Through word of mouth and without advertising, these home-based district programs have drawn both traditional home-school households and young parents looking for an alternative to a public school system where even the best principal can’t learn the names of 500 students.

A recent state study said that Washington was the only state that offered this kind of program. Several other states used similar approaches, but with heavier restrictions. In all, 41 states did not offer anything like it.

“We want accountability, but we want enough flexibility to have a program that looks a little different,” said Dana Lyman, principal of the Bryant Center.

Critics say there’s too much freedom.

For years, parents had limited choices in educating their children. They could pick public or private schools. Some parents started pulling their children out of school and educating them at home through home-school programs, which developed informal networks and co-ops in the region.

Parent partnerships barely existed five years ago.

Chewelah had one of the first parent partnerships in Eastern Washington.

Deer Park followed. Now hundreds of parents use these growing programs.

Spokane Public Schools, Central Valley, West Valley, Mead and Deer Park all offer similar programs. Cheney started one this fall. Last year, there were 17 parent partner programs serving the full-time equivalent of 1,305 students in the Eastern Washington Educational Service District 101, which includes part of Adams, Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens and Whitman counties. Statewide there were 101 programs serving an enrollment of 9,016 students. That’s almost half the number of 19,300 declared home-school students who are taught at home without any district control of funding.

In the partnerships, families are provided with curriculum materials, some field trip costs, content, courses and encouragement. Most programs reimburse parents an average of $470 for education-related costs like books, event tickets and even educational games and software.

New choice

On Thursday, mother Lanith Merchant sat to take a breather near the Bryant Center’s entrance while three of her six children headed back to class. One by one her children walked by with smiles and greetings as they went on to their classes. Twice a week the mother comes for classes. On other days lessons are done at home.

Last year, Merchant pulled her kids out of the East Valley School District and enrolled them into The Enrichment Cooperative.

Twice a week, she takes her children to a variety of classes. On other days, she works on reading, writing and math at home.

Merchant, who strongly values family bonds, said the public school system was “toxic” for her family, especially her oldest daughters.

“I tried to protect them by living in the small towns,” Merchant said.

Her two oldest daughters, who are in their late teens, did most of their schooling in Tekoa and Ephrata. As they reached high school, the family moved to Spokane.

Her oldest came home one day and said, “I’m going to English class and a girl kisses a girl and then turns around and kisses a guy. I’m supposed to go into English class after that?”

For Merchant, the final straw came when her oldest daughter started pulling away from the family.

“She was replacing her family with friends,” Merchant said. “Society is tearing down the family.”

High school was a place where hundreds of teens who didn’t have a sense of who they are went around like a bucket of crabs pulling each other into a pit, Merchant said.

“It’s drama. That’s what we called it. Drama,” Merchant said.

A family recently left Shadle Park High School to join a Deer Park program called Home Link to avoid the social pressures, said program director Carol Van Wormer.

“All that social stuff is just washed away,” Van Wormer said. “You take out those social hothouse dynamics of the public school. I’d say that’s the biggest blessing. It’s a safe haven for kids. It’s a safe haven for mothers.”

Deciding what’s best

Merchant, like many parents who consider teaching at home, had worries about being able to teach her children. One visit to Bryant, where parents can create a learning program around their children’s interests, won her over. This was home, her support system, she thought. Many times after classes, she will join another family at a park for the afternoon.

While it may seem like an idyllic system to parents looking for control and flexibility, there are detractors – mainly from traditional home-school parents. Their concerns helped motivate the state to study the partnership programs.

Karen Carver, with the local Family Learning Organization, said it’s hard to forget the years of tension between home-school groups and public school districts.

“They’ve been bugging us and giving us a hard time, and now they’re saying ‘Come and let us help you,’ ” Carver said.

When parents ask, she encourages them to check out the partnership programs, but she warns them to be cautious. She also reminds them they can be a home-school family and still dabble in districts’ extracurricular activities.

“The reason we wanted to home school was so we could take back that control and the responsibility that goes with it,” Carver said.

Yet it was home-school parents in most cases who went to the school districts and asked for some district support.

The Central Valley School District started its home school cooperative, called the Spokane Valley Learning Academy, five years ago after parents approached the school board and requested a parent partner program.

“The district listened and took their advice,” said Vicki Ink, the lead teacher for Central Valley’s program. “The board has always been very supportive.”

The program began in 2000 with 15 students. This year, the cooperative, housed inside the old Keystone Elementary School on South McDonald Road, has the equivalent of 108 full-time students. There are four full-time teachers.

“I think they get the best of both worlds,” Ink said. “They still have the option to do much of the teaching themselves, and yet they get a measure of support from the school district.”

In the West Valley School District, about 22 children are involved in a parent program called LIFE, or Learning in a Family Environment.

The program is offered only to students in grades K-8, and has many of the same amenities as Central Valley, including a parent library and reimbursements for teaching materials.

Deer Park’s Home Link program is the largest in Eastern Washington. They have more than 300 students.

“It was started at the request of home schoolers,” said Home Link Director Van Wormer.

Partnership vs. home school

Van Wormer home-schooled her own children. She’s well aware of the tension between her district partnership and traditional home-school parents who want nothing to do with the government.

“There’s a home-school world out there that would like nothing better than to see us curl up and die. They see us as a camel’s nose under the tent,” Van Wormer said. “They believe it’s really a ploy by the government to get rid of home schooling. It’s kind of a paranoid, black helicopter look at it.”

Since she joined the district, she said, some old friends still refuse to speak with her.

“I’ve joined the dark side,” she said.

As more people get involved in the partnerships, the educating stereotypes will fade, she said.

“A lot of people think home schoolers hide up in the woods and grow marijuana,” Van Wormer said. “The perception over the years has changed dramatically (for the better).”

Just as parent partnerships are steadily gaining new populations, the state government may be poised to impose a list of new restrictions. To receive a state diploma, home-school students and partnership students beginning in 2008 will need to pass the WASL. Most home-school and about half of partnership students have opted out of the high-stakes test.

Some home-school students simply accept a noncertified certificate from their own home-school organization.

The Legislature ordered a study on the partnership programs that spells out some concerns that will likely be addressed in the next session. The study states that based on an audit of 2003 records, the partnership programs have the “highest risk of non-compliance with state rules.” It goes on to state there are serious concerns with funding and spending issues with these programs, which may need tighter guidelines.

Pete Arthur, director of the Mead Education Partnership Program, was concerned by the tone of the study, especially making it sound like a bad thing that only Washington state offered such a program in the United States.

“If Washington is the only state doing this, let’s celebrate it,” Arthur said.

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