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HomeSource faces new, bigger threat.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Just a few weeks after learning their state funding is likely to be slashed by half this coming year, HomeSource and two other Eugene-area education programs for home-schoolers face another, possibly graver, threat: the imminent loss of contracts with the Eugene School District, home to the lion's share of their students.

In a meeting last week, the Eugene School Board heard a recommendation from Superintendent George Russell to refer home-schooled students to the publicly funded programs for one more year, but then to discontinue the practice.

Russell cited recent memos from the Oregon Department of Education that call into question existing placement practices allowing parents to enroll their children in the home-schooling programs with little or no district involvement.

But some board members advocated an immediate end to the program contracts, believing that the referrals amount to rubber-stamping and that continuing even another year places the district at odds with the state statute.

"There's a real concern that we've been operating illegally because we didn't have any kind of defined (referral) process," said board Chairwoman Beth Gerot, who believes a majority of the board is leaning toward immediate discontin- uation.

The board won't vote on the matter until Aug. 2, leaving nearly 300 Eugene students and their parents uncertain whether courses will be available to them in the fall.

About 20 of those attend Emerald Valley School, a student-directed program serving grades kindergarten through 12 at the old Westmoreland Elementary School, and about a half-dozen attend Full Circle Community Farm, which teaches skills to high-school-age students on a working farm. (A fourth program for home-schoolers, Impact Arts, relocated to Boise this spring.)

But the bulk take classes at HomeSource, a decade-old Bethel-area center that offers a wide range of free or low-fee courses - Advanced Placement English, calculus, Latin, tae- kwondo and salsa dancing, to name a few - meant to supplement and enrich a home-schooled education.

They include brothers Tim and Matthew Elick, ages 14 and 12, who just finished their third year at HomeSource.

Their parents' reasons for home-schooling have less to do with shortcomings in the public schools - although Joy Elick does believe public school can be a "negative environment" in terms of peer influence - than with the boys' health. Both have Type I diabetes, and require multiple insulin injections and monitoring through the day - a regimen made easier by having them at home.

HomeSource has helped fill gaps and provide enrichment to their home-schooling, she said.

"Using HomeSource has been wonderful in being able to give them more math and science and some writing, and also providing the classroom environment for the socialization factor and feeling like they're part of a greater whole," said Elick, who co-manages a south Eugene apartment complex with her husband, George.

The boys speak highly of their classes, which have also included robotics, karate, computer animation and pottery. Losing HomeSource would be a blow, their mother said, "but we're not going to go back to public school, regardless."

She said she would consider paying tuition, but believes it fair and appropriate that HomeSource be publicly funded.

"If we pay our taxes, I don't see why we wouldn't have some benefit," she said.

Added George Elick: "And the community will still benefit from our kids growing up to be productive members of the community," he said.

District officials say the recommendation to sever the partnership with HomeSource has nothing to do with the quality of the program, but is driven entirely by the Oregon Department of Education's stepped-up scrutiny and reinterpretation of its own rules.

Until last year, all public funds for HomeSource flowed through the Bethel School District, with neighboring districts signing release forms for their students to attend. Under the state's alternative education statute, programs like HomeSource receive 80 percent of net, per-pupil operating funds, with the district keeping the rest.

But last September, a department memo rescinded a 1995 letter to Bethel, saying it improperly laid the groundwork for long-running statute violations by Bethel and other districts contracting with similar programs.

The department said that per-pupil funds had to pass through a student's home district, and that those districts would also need to be accountable for those students' education and make sure they take required state tests. That ruling led to the cancellation of HomeSource contracts in the Fern Ridge and Junction City districts, and recently Pleasant Hill.

The crux of the issue in Eugene is the process by which the district refers students to private alternative programs. Most other programs, which include Northwest Youth Corps and Creative Minds, serve students - mainly teens - who have not been successful in district schools. Typically, a team that includes the student's parents, teachers and other employees meets to determine what private offering might best fit that student's particular needs. Parents offer input, but it's up to the district to grant the referral, Deputy Superintendent Tom Henry said.

After last year's memo, the Eugene district established a minimal referral process for HomeSource, essentially granting all requests. District officials have since determined that the process falls short of statutory requirements, as does the process applied to the other programs catering to home- schoolers.

The question before the Eugene board, then, is whether to end the contracts or subject home-schooled students to a similar referral process, Henry said - something he and others believe would be costly and probably contentious, given that the district might well determine that the student's neighborhood school is the most suitable placement.

Cliff Brush, an education specialist at the Department of Education, said the district interpretation appears to be correct and that the referral process "must be applied consistently" among programs.

Both the Springfield and Bethel districts have approved HomeSource as a provider for 2006-07, but have yet to hash out contract details. Officials in both districts said changes may be in order for the referral process, but that they intend to preserve the partnership.

Losing the Eugene contract would have "an enormous impact" on HomeSource, said founder and executive officer Paula Praus-Williamson. She hopes the board will approve the contract this year and reject Russell's recommendation to discontinue. Another memo, issued in May, said districts should apply a lower rate when channeling funds to home-school programs, a change that would reduce HomeSource's $1.2 million budget by half. HomeSource may challenge that determination.

Praus-Williamson said HomeSource could explore the possibility of seeking charter school status from the Bethel School District, which would require significant changes to the program but give parents the freedom to enroll their children.

Meanwhile, she said, she's optimistic. "I think every person who sits on the (Eugene) board cares about children," she said. "I think we can we find some common ground in maybe having something a little bit different that might be outside the box and also meet the legal requirements. We think this is good for kids."
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Title Annotation:Schools; The Bethel-area home-schooling center and two others could lose Eugene district contracts and most of their students
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Words:1146
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