Iowa school districts compete for home school students

Marion program largest in state, drawing from others in Corridor

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Iowa school districts are competing for home-schooling students — and the state funding they bring — with bigger libraries, more field trips and renovated facilities.

The Iowa City school district, for one, has more than tripled its spending on home-schooling students, in part to lure back dozens of home-schooling families who have gone to other districts through open enrollment.

“Our goal is to make it so attractive the 100 or so students leaving the district may want to take another look,” said Kate Callahan, director of student services for the Iowa City Community School District.

Nearly 7,000 Iowa students were enrolled in Home School Assistance Programs or dual enrolled in home and public school programs in 2016-17, up from 6,600 three years earlier, according to Iowa Department of Education data. These programs provide enrichment activities led by licensed teachers, field trips and socialization for kids and parents.

Students can open enroll into other districts to join home-school programs, which has led some parents to shop around.

“I had heard phenomenal things about Mid-Prairie,” said Jessica Olinger, 37, of Iowa City. “I knew they had a great library and experienced teachers.”

She decided six years ago to open enroll her oldest daughter, Naomi, into the Mid-Prairie school district so she could be part of the home school program there.

When Olinger isn’t teaching her three girls at home, they participate in enrichment activities, such as gym classes or STEM workshops, at the program housed in the former Washington Township Elementary School in Kalona.

The Mid-Prairie program grew 8.4 percent between 2012-13 and 2016-17, adding about 90 students. It was the state’s fifth-largest program last year when counting students enrolled in the program and those dual-enrolled in the public schools for some activities, such as science classes, band or sports.

Largest program in the state

The Marion Independent School District is one of the smaller districts in the Corridor, with 2,173 student in 2016-17. But the district is a powerhouse for home schooling.

Marion has the largest home school program in the state with 997 students in the program or dual-enrolled in 2016-17. That’s more than twice as many as the next largest program, Des Moines, with 402.

Home school students are not counted in a district’s overall enrollment.

More than 90 percent of Marion’s home school program enrollment is students from other districts, including Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar, College Community and Iowa City, Director Tom Ertz said.

“I hope it’s because we’re providing meaningful service,” Ertz said. “Everyone is looking for an increasing amount of freedom in their lives, and education is part of that.”

The Marion program’s $2 million budget is funded by the state, which pays three-tenths the regular per capita funding for each home school program student. This is about $2,000 per pupil this year. The Marion program has 40 teachers, only nine of whom are full time, Ertz said.

“The teachers we have, the vast majority, have home-schooling experience,” Ertz said. “They understand the dynamics. That creates a bond, a trust, with home-school families.”

Kurt Jurgensmeier, pastor of New Life Community Church in Marion, and his wife, Brenda, home-schooled all five of their children, with the youngest, twin boys, graduating from high school last year.

“We put our second daughter, Joelle, in Marion Middle School when she was in seventh grade,” he recalled. “That first semester, the teacher assigned a book, I can’t remember the title. It was graphic sexually and promoted homosexuality. When I confronted the principal, he just backed up the teacher.”

The Jurgensmeiers enrolled their children in Marion’s home school program instead.

“It’s a cutting-edge program nationwide,” Kurt Jurgensmeier said. “The teachers are very supportive of the home-schooling mom.”

As Marion added home-schooling families, Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar and Iowa City lost them.

Iowa City Rebuilding

Iowa City had 142 home school program or dual-enrolled students in 2012-13, but that fell by 16 percent to 119 students in 2016-17. About 100 students who live in Iowa City this year are open enrolling to home school programs in other districts.

“Mid-Prairie and Marion are offering parents a lot because they want that .3,” said Craig Hansel, the Iowa City school district’s chief financial officer, said about the funding from the state.

his year, the Iowa City school district is paying $200,400 to other districts for Iowa City home school students open enrolled to other districts.

Iowa City home schooling parents complained more than a year ago about shortcomings in the Iowa City program, housed at the Theodore Roosevelt Education Center.

“At the end of last year, things were kind of a mess,” said Jamie Walpole, 33, of Iowa City, who has two children enrolled in the program. On Wednesday afternoon, Alexis Walpole, 9, was learning about river dynamics in a classroom of eight other home school students and Hayden Walpole, 7, was reading a Mo Willems picture book in the program library.

A year ago, the Iowa City program didn’t have much of a library, a popular teacher had left and parents questioned how state money was being spent. The program’s budget more than tripled from $141,550 in 2013-14 to $515,000 in 2016-17, but some parents didn’t feel they were seeing improvement.

“I think because there was no oversight, things were done improperly,” Walpole said.

Hansel said the program’s budget temporarily expanded because he advised administrators they should spend carry-over funds from previous years or risk losing them. Administrators hired more staff, added textbooks to the parent library and bought Chromebooks.

The district formed a 10-person advisory committee in July to make more changes. The committee met with Mid-Prairie’s home school program to get ideas.

Among changes borrowed from Mid-Prairie is a $100-per-student budget for educational materials recommended by parents.

The district also plans to give home-schooled children access to the same field trips provided other K-12 students, distribute iPads and Chromebooks for each student to use for school and to respond to requests for new enrichment activities.

“If parents say they really need help with astronomy, we’ll start offering astronomy,” said Ann Langenfeld, Lincoln Elementary principal now assigned as elementary liaison for the Iowa City home school program. “We want to give good customer service.”

Program leaders will unveil the changes at a 10-year celebration from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 18.

Does home schooling support districts?

Robust home school programs can provide financial benefits to districts.

Home-schooled students who dual enroll in public school classes or activities bring one-tenth state funding, about $668 per student this year, to the districts for the cost of the programming. This is on top of the three-tenths funding for home school program enrollment.

Legislation passed earlier this year allows districts to transfer unused money from home school programs into flexibility accounts the districts could spend on other things, such as facilities.

House File 565 is a boon for the Marion school district and the home school program, said Superintendent Chris Dyer.

The home school program is crammed into 7,500 square feet, but in the past has not been allowed to use program funding for facilities. Under the new legislation, the Marion school board will consider transferring unspent home school program funds, now more than $1 million, into a flexibility account to spend on a proposed community learning center at the former Emerson Elementary, Dyer said.

The 22,000-square-foot Emerson would house the home school program as well as other district services, such as before and after-school programming, adult learning and a community center, Dyer said.

The Mid-Prairie home school program recently expanded into the Washington Township school, which gives the program its own gym, kitchen and more classrooms, Director Jan Childress said. “This is the first time we’ve been able to spread out and say ‘Wow! We have space,” she said. “It’s going to be a big advantage.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

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