The homeschool community has, in many ways, existed parallel to the traditional school system -- both present but each distrusting of the other.
It's not uncommon to find professional educators who look down on homeschooling as a way of circumventing learning standards, seeing it as a path chosen mostly by families wanting to include religion in their children’s education. Meanwhile, many homeschool families can’t see how an institutional setting like a school could value and nurture the specific qualities and passions that make their children unique.
The appeal of home schooling has grown over the past decade -- between 2003 and 2012, the percentage of students who are homeschooled grew from 2.2 percent of the student population to 3.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Several school districts in Michigan have taken note of this trend and are participating in homeschool partnerships that are building bridges between the two communities and changing public school instruction along the way.
While only a handful of districts in the state have taken the leap, those who have are using the education laws creatively to enroll homeschooled kids as part-time students, bringing more funding into the school district. The funding can be used for classes the homeschool community requests and to bolster training and programming for teachers and kids throughout the district.
Michigan has a Schools of Choice program, which means families can choose where to send their children based on the programs offered, not only on where they live. School districts are competing to attract students, and the state funds that come with them. While many homeschool families aren’t interested in enrolling their children in public school full time, they see the benefit of taking a few classes if that means they have more access to funds to pay for instruction of their choice.
Berrien Springs was one of the first districts to form a partnership with the homeschoolers in the area. Homeschoolers don’t have to register with the state, making it hard to track how many families choose this option, but their part-time participation in Berrien Springs meant additional funds for the district.
“We bring a lot of money into the districts and they use the money to run our programs and have some left over,” said Cindy Fadel, a homeschool mom who helped launch partnerships around the state and coordinates one for Gull Lakes Community Schools.
It’s expensive for homeschooling families to provide the music lessons, tutors and other opportunities they’d like their children to access. Getting help from the public schools -- which their tax money supports -- gave homeschooling families a tremendous lift and helped them overcome their distrust of the public system.
Based on age, most homeschool kids would be in K-8 grades in regular school. Elementary school is cheaper to operate and most can do so on state funds with some left over, said recently retired Berrien Springs Superintendent Jim Bermingham, who started the partnership.
In many districts those savings are pumped into secondary instruction, which is more expensive to provide. But with the extra money coming in from part-time homeschool students, Berrien Springs was able to fund high-level teacher training, summer programming for all students, a Project Lead the Way STEM program and other opportunities that the traditional public school kids and the homeschool kids could both access.
What started as a financial incentive for both sides has resulted in a program that has broken down stereotypes, built trust and helped change ingrained notions of how instruction and learning can look both in and outside the system.
Bermingham has no doubts that the partnership with homeschool families helped change his district for the better. “We became much more married to project-based instruction, to offering different learning opportunities to kids and parents based on what they want,” he said.
After the professional educators in his district got over their stereotypes about homeschool parents, they started learning from the student-directed, personally tailored, hands-on approach favored by homeschoolers.
“After they get a chance to see what reality is, then all of a sudden they are supportive of the concept that parents have a right to choose the method under which their kids will be educated,” Bermingham said.
Berrien Springs has found that offering choices both in coursework and type of instruction has given them a competitive edge. The district applied for and received a seat-time waiver from the state, which allows 25 percent of its students to be educated using alternative methods that aren’t necessarily in the school building. Now the district has project-based learning programs, blended learning, traditional instruction, virtual school and this partnership with homeschoolers.
“We basically offer it all and let the parents determine, based on what they know of their child, the method of delivery,” Bermingham said. He also credits the homeschool community for bringing other innovations to the district, like a robotics club. The homeschoolers were asking for a robotics class, which they got, but a public school educator also got involved and together they formed a robotics club. Programs like this one provide great opportunities for the full-time public school students and the part-timers to get to know one another.
“There’s a suspicion of public school educators towards homeschool parents and children, but it goes the other way, too,” Bermingham said. “Once you develop trust and demonstrate the program is good for homeschool kids, then they keep coming.” In fact, after six years of the partnership, Berrien Springs now has about 600 homeschoolers participating.
“There’s a lot the public school has that we can use and there’s a lot we have that they can use,” Fadel said. “But you can’t push it together, you just have to co-mingle.”
Part of the law is that the alternative classes put together for the homeschoolers must be available to the full-time public school students, too. That provision has allowed parents and students interested in looking outside the traditional box to take advantage of the dual enrollment and early college programs that are central to many homeschool families’ curriculum.
But despite that freedom, Fadel says that of the 90 students she has helped enroll in early-college programs in Gull Lake, only five are traditional public school students. “It’s slow, partly because public school people are used to doing the same thing year after year, and they don’t know they have these opportunities,” said Kathy Joyce, another homeschool mom who has been instrumental in launching these partnerships.
IT TAKES A SPECIFIC KIND OF LEADER
“You’ve got to have a superintendent who's willing to take the heat,” Fadel said. Most of the districts running homeschool partnerships are also interested in other innovations. These leaders often look at the law creatively and find ways to do the things they think will work best for kids.
“What I tried to create was some niche markets that would in essence give us the ability to entice different groups of parents and students to come to our district,” Bermingham said.
He’s a self-proclaimed “fixer” of troubled districts and has experience in both charter schools and traditional public schools. He lives by three principles: 1) don’t be a victim and do only the things the state clearly lays out; 2) be entrepreneurial, and; 3) be open-minded to the general dissatisfaction people feel toward the public schools.
“Too many districts are too concerned about what’s best for adults instead of what’s best for kids,” Bermingham said. He believes more districts don’t pursue ideas like the partnership or virtual school because leaders don’t want to battle the unions. The teachers of the alternative programs and of the virtual classes are not in the union, which can be a sticking point.
Bermingham instituted the partnership as a pilot, which gave him three years to experiment before he needed the union to sign off. By the end of the pilot, the union were on board because its members could see the extra money positively affecting everyone with very few drawbacks.
Bermingham attributes another part of his success to the fact that he worked with the state auditors from the beginning to make sure they agreed that Berrien Springs was in compliance with the law. This was an important step since district partnerships in other parts of the state have had more trouble with their auditors, who often want to shut these kinds of programs down.
And over time, choice has become part of the culture of the district. The stereotypes about homeschoolers are mostly gone, too.
“These are really good dedicated parents and intelligent kids who are getting a good education,” Bermingham said. “It’s just different.”