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Vashon's alternative education program offers families support

Family Link students melt into puddles during a recent drama class. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Family Link students melt into puddles during a recent drama class.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

A dozen kids roamed a classroom in slow motion, filling the space around their bodies in creative and contorted ways. Then, at the command of teacher Jim Gilmour, they all melted slowly to the ground, collapsing in human puddles on the floor.

Their eyes lit up as they learned each new dramatic game, and their raucous laughter filled the small portable on the Vashon High School campus as they carried out different tasks.

It looked like a typical creative classroom, except that these kids don’t spend much time within the four walls of a school building. As homeschooled students, they’re taught primarily by their parents — with enrichment classes offered up by FamilyLink, an alternative program established by the Vashon Island School District to support homeschooling families.

Parents of Vashon’s robust homeschooling population say the parent-partner program makes the decision to homeschool one’s children a tad easier, a bit richer.

“It gives a way for homeschool families to have community,” said parent Michelle Crawford.

Vashon’s program also stands out.

A recent study by the Wash-ington Association for Learning Alternatives found that Family-Link’s graduation rate from 2005 to 2008 was 94.4 percent — 36 percent above the state average for all parent-partner programs and 22 percent above the state average graduation rate.

“It’s above practically everybody in the whole wide world’s average,” said Susan Hanson, principal of Vashon High School and FamilyLink. “It’s much higher than most traditional high schools. I think it’s because we have really competent, caring parents and the parents get such great support from our teacher consultants.”

FamilyLink serves 79 students in elementary through high school and offers graduates high school diplomas. In the program, parents are the primary educators of their children, but families check in with FamilyLink consulting teachers weekly to make sure the students are on target educationally.

The program assists homeschooling families by providing some of the perks of public school enrollment — like taking a class at one of the public schools or borrowing from FamilyLink’s resource library — while still allowing the families a large degree of control over when, where and how their children learn.

“The benefit of a parent-partner program is that the parent is the teacher, and the focus is their child or children,” said Julie Hanger, FamilyLink’s program manager. “Education is something these parents really value.”

Nationally, however, such programs are rare. Washington is the only state where school districts offer this type of support to homeschooling families. Out of the state’s 296 school districts, only 91 have parent-partner programs, according to the Washington Association for Learning Alternatives.

At the same time, the program mirrors a larger national phenomenon — a homeschooling movement that has existed for centuries but picked up steam in the United States in the last 15 years and now educates about 3 percent of the nation’s school-age children.

Data on Vashon’s homeschooling population is hard to come by, in part because some homeschooling families who aren’t a part of FamilyLink aren’t documented and because parents aren’t asked to register their children as homeschoolers until they turn 8, Hanger said.

FamilyLink numbers, on the other hand, are readily available. The program grew explosively in its first few years, then leveled off, following the trend in parent-partner programs statewide.

Vashon’s parent-partner program was created 13 years ago at the request of families who wanted some of the benefits of public schooling, such as high school diplomas, without giving up homeschooling. Traditionally, homeschoolers must take the General Educational Development test to prove high-school level educational proficiency.

Students say they like the latitude it gives them to shape their academic paths.

“There’s a good amount of freedom and leeway in how you set your schedule,” said senior Wyatt Shedd-Stewart, who has been a FamilyLink student since second grade. “It’s been great; it’s been like a family. I learned some really foundational knowledge early on, and at the same time it ended up giving me really good social connections as well.”

Shedd-Stewart — who now takes classes at Tacoma Community College through Running Start — is one of five FamilyLink seniors, all of whom will graduate with high school diplomas in June.

FamilyLink alums have gone on to graduate from universities, study and work in foreign countries and volunteer with Americorps.

“There’s a misconception that if you homeschool, going to college isn’t an option,” said Judi DeVere, a founding member of FamilyLink and longtime consulting teacher who is taking this year off from the program. FamilyLink “works for kids who are self-starters, who work on their own and can get things done. That’s the beauty of homeschooling, and that’s why kids of ours are sought after by good colleges.”

FamilyLink has been a great fit for many families over the years, all of whom were committed to the education of their children through homeschooling, she added.

Crawford, a mother and farmer, has sent all six of her kids through the program, two of whom have graduated.

“They’re very responsive to what parents want and very supportive,” she said. “If you have curriculum questions, they’re a great resource.”

FamilyLink consulting teacher Nan Hammett, who has a background in special education, has worked with the alternative education program for 11 years.

“Our ultimate job is to advocate for kids’ learning — to promote and support homeschooling, of course, but the bottom line is kids’ learning,” Hammett said.

Fellow consulting teacher Jim Gilmour has a unique perspective: He is both a certified teacher working for FamilyLink and a veteran of homeschooling, having educated his four daughters through the parent-partner program.

“People say, ‘How can you homeschool four kids?’” he said. “But individualized learning is a very efficient process. The older kids help the younger kids, and there’s a sense of community within the family that’s created. There’s a sense of unity — they can learn together and move forward as a family.”

As middle-school FamilyLinkers took a break between their math and drama classes, several were eager to talk to an observer.

“FamilyLink is awesome,” said sixth-grader Zach Hershey. “At McMurray, you get five minutes between classes. Here, we get 30-minute breaks. It’s different here.”

Eighth-grader Rowan Guion concurred, and said the program is a good fit for him.

“Here, you can take a class and it’s more of an experience than being home and looking at a textbook,” he said. “You can be with friends here, too.”

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