The program provides an hourly part-time teacher, curriculum and weekly classroom activities for families who choose to home-school their children, but still want some structured guidance from a public school teacher and face-to-face interactions with other families.
At a Feb. 1 meeting, Assistant Superintendent Carmen Ghysels described the ISP to the board as an outdated resource from a time when parents relied on district oversight for home schooling. The district adopted the program 17 years ago from the Whisman School District — which rolled over to Mountain View Whisman when the districts merged — at a time when fewer families were home schooling, so finding curriculum and guidance for how to teach at home was a struggle, she said.
Gyhsels also pointed out that the program is budgeted to cost about $57,000 in discretionary funding this year, requires its own classroom and needs administrative oversight. Given that ISP is not mandated by the state and doesn't "align" to the district's five-year Strategic Plan, she recommended ending the program at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
But parents of children in the ISP came out in full force at the Feb. 15 school board meeting to make an impassioned appeal for the program, calling it a best-kept secret that should be cherished and expanded. Many parents also questioned the reasoning behind the decision to kill it, saying the ISP only suffered a decline in enrollment when district staff consciously slashed enrollment and prevented new students from joining.
Parents speak out
Maggie Carpenter told the board that she switched to the home schooling program after her son struggled in one of the district's schools after entering fourth grade. She said the rowdy classroom environment, with 30 students in each class, made it difficult for her son to concentrate, stressing him out to the point where he complained of stomach aches, cried after school and began to miss classes. That all changed when she enrolled her son in the ISP, she said, which allowed her son to pace his learning in a way that plays to his strengths.
"The ISP program has been so positive for us, and could be for so many to come (who) need assistance like I did," she said. "Most people worry and ask about social time when I mention home school, but with this group, the kids are social, educated, motivated and have each other's support."
The meeting marked the first real opportunity for ISP parents to weigh in and defend the program, because many said they had no idea their child's program was on the chopping block. Katy Crain, whose daughter is in her third year of the program, told the Voice that she had seen warning signs the district was planning to end the program since the start of the school year, but no one at the district office had bothered to tell the families — or the ISP teacher — about the impending plans.
The first signs came at the beginning of the year, when the ISP students were assigned a classroom at Monta Loma only to find out the district had double-booked the facility for a local YMCA program. It was only after that early glitch got sorted out, Crain said, when she realized the class was a little light on enrollment for the 2017-18 school year, even though she knew families were on the waiting list and agonizing about what to do for the upcoming school year.
When she watched the Feb. 1 board meeting, when Ghysels recommended ending ISP, Crain said her blood was boiling over how much district officials appeared to misunderstand the value of the program. Parents may have other home schooling options, but Crain said the ISP program is so much more than just guidance and textbooks: students are able to interact with one another, go on field trips together and build friendships, avoiding the isolation often associated with home schooling. Students may do most of the academic work outside of the classroom, but remain tethered to the home campus at Monta Loma with weekly science and art classes.
"To be told that there are lots of options shows the district doesn't understand why we chose this program, and what is so unique and special about it," Crain said.
Although school board members signaled at the Feb. 1 board meeting that they were ready to end the program next year, their position softened after hearing the testimonials last week. Board member Greg Coladonato said phasing out the ISP is one thing, but ending it with young children still enrolled is akin to closing down a family's school. It doesn't appear to cost much money, he said, and he wasn't sold on the idea of closing it.
Board member Jose Gutierrez said he agreed with Coladonato and leaned toward voting against ending the ISP. He also expressed frustration that the board wasn't given a full understanding of who would be affected by the decision.
Board member Ellen Wheeler and board president Laura Blakely, on the other hand, said families have plenty of ways to home-school their children with the help of the district, and that closing the program in June next year gave enough notice of ending the district's program.
Trustees eventually compromised and agreed to terminate the ISP in 2020.
This isn't the first time Mountain View Whisman officials have had the ISP in its cross hairs. In 2009, the district weighed eliminating the program, which at the time served 50 students throughout the region at a cost of roughly $150,000. The district eventually opted to keep the program, but not before shrinking down its budget by two-thirds and capping enrollment at 15 students.
The reduction resulted in the hiring of part-time teacher Shauna Reisewitz in 2013, who oversees the program and is largely credited by parents for shaping the ISP into what it is today. Reisewitz said she had little direction at the outset. She was told that she had to meet with families twice a month and was given a big roomful of curriculum materials to work with, and everything else — the field trips, the on-campus classes and the constant contact with families — was part of her larger goal to support students in a more holistic way.
No one at the district alerted Reisewitz of the plan to end the program next year, and she said she only found out earlier this month. She said she would have been willing to talk about the value that the ISP brings to the district and clear up confusion about why parents enroll in the program, but when she suggested the idea last year, she was turned down by then-Associate Superintendent Karen Robinson.
Ghysels claimed the program's budget went up this year because Reisewitz would be getting a 6.7 percent raise, in line with the rest of the district's employees. But Reisewitz told the Voice that she never received the raise, and when she called to ask, was told she was not included in the pool of employees receiving pay increases this year.
Reisewitz said she is perplexed as to why district officials are seeking to end ISP, and that it may come down to a lack of understanding. It's the only district-run home schooling program in the North County area, and nearly all of the students meet or exceed state standards on tests in both English language arts and math.
"The district, in a way, should be praised," Reisewitz said. "I feel like the district has been really really forward thinking without knowing it, because homeschooling is such a growing part of California and the U.S. education system."
ISP is hard to find
Reisewitz said the district has done little to advertise a program that many participants see as a shining example of how to support home schooling. The district website gives the program a three-sentence paragraph at the bottom of the "other programs" page, with little other indication that the program even exists, she said.
For ISP parent Autumn Vandiver, finding the program meant stumbling on the small paragraph on the district website, calling the number provided and getting bounced around for a while, and finally landing a phone call with Reisewitz. She said it felt like a fantastic match for her son, particularly the live classroom activities and a committed classroom teacher that students get to see each week.
"By the time I ended the conversation with her, I felt like I stumbled upon a kind of Narnia situation," she said. "If this is real, why don't more families know about it?"
Parent Jamie Seeba described a similar experience discovering the program. An eight-year teacher in both public and private school settings, she was carefully considering her options for home schooling when her friend, whose child was enrolled in Monta Loma, noticed a sign on one of the classroom doors that said it was devoted to independent study on campus. From there she was able to learn about the ISP and enrolled a year and a half ago.
Multiple parents from the ISP attended Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph's "State of the Schools" address earlier this month, and said they believe the home schooling program absolutely falls under the district's larger strategic goals to support all students and boost parent participation in schools. Seeba said she was disheartened to hear Rudolph talk about meeting the needs of every student when, only days before, she discovered he wanted to end the ISP.
"It was hard to hear Dr. Rudolph say they cared for every student, but not ours," she said.
This story contains 1688 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.