In existence for more than 17 years, the ISP has provided resources — including an assigned teacher, curriculum, weekly classroom activities and field trips — for families who choose to home-school their children and want them to interact with other kids while receiving instruction from a public school teacher. Participating parents have lauded the program as a positive alternative to the traditional public school environment and an example of how to support home schooling.
At the Feb. 1 board meeting, Ghysels laid out the district's rationale for ending the ISP, calling it an unnecessary carry-over from the former Whisman School District that few other districts have. Since the district no longer receives funding based on total enrollment, she said, the program went from bringing in money to costing the district money, while also having low enrollment. Moreover, the ISP is neither mandated by the state nor aligned with the district's five-year strategic plan, Ghysels said in recommending the program's termination.
Home schooling parents turned out in force for the school board's Feb. 15 meeting, presenting a different picture than the one board members had heard Feb. 1. They said the program's low enrollment is not due to lack of interest — in fact, parents told the Voice that it has a waiting list — but rather the result of a conscious decision by the district to cut enrollment. After considering eliminating the program in 2009, when it served 50 students at a rough cost of $150,000, the district opted to shrink its budget by two-thirds and cap enrollment at 15 students. This school year, the ISP is expected to cost about $57,000 in discretionary funding.
The program reduction resulted in the hiring of part-time teacher Shauna Reisewitz in 2013, who has since overseen the ISP. She too was left in the dark about the district's plan to get rid of the home schooling oversight, and told the Voice that although Ghysels claimed the program's budget increased this year because Reisewitz would be getting a 6.7 percent raise, she never got a salary increase.
After hearing from concerned parents, the board agreed to give the program an extra year and terminate it in 2020, but not before trustees expressed concerns of their own. Board member Greg Coladonato said ending the ISP with young children still enrolled was akin to closing down a family's school. Fellow trustee Jose Gutierrez said he agreed with Coladonato and expressed frustration that the board hadn't been given a full understanding of who would be impacted by the decision.
"When it comes to an issue like this, it would be nice to have been able to know who is affected," Gutierrez said. "At what year was the latest enrollment? How much time would be left for (ISP) students to graduate from the program and move on? I would've liked that information ... but we don't have that."
Not only did district staff fail to fully inform the board of the ramifications of the decision they were asking it to sign off on, it appears they misinformed trustees and the public by downplaying interest in the ISP — all while neglecting to sufficiently inform or seek input from the families that would be impacted.
To rectify the situation, the district should start the process over and take the time to engage with home schooling families — and the community at-large — so trustees can examine alternatives to terminating the program in 2020 and be assured that a fully-informed decision is being made.
While the district is not obligated to offer a home schooling program, the ISP has been a valued asset to families who feel that home schooling is the best educational option for their child. And there is value in providing resources and oversight for local home-schooled children — especially when it comes at a cost that's a tiny fraction of the district's overall expenditures.
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