New Bellingham School District program offers help to homeschoolers

Shannon West knew she wanted some help homeschooling her 5-year-old son, Alxzander, but she didn’t didn’t know where to find it.

She checked out some options that would help with his early education and give him the opportunity to meet other children — including the Bellingham children’s co-op and Meridian School District’s Parent Partnership Program — but nothing worked with her family’s schedule.

That was until she found the Family Partnership Program, a new homeschool assistance effort from the Bellingham School District that will fully launch this fall. A trial started this spring, and West, a Bellingham resident, said it is exactly the kind of help she was looking for.

The program helps parents homeschool their children by providing an individualized learning plan for each student and supplementing home instruction with hands-on activities at the former Larrabee Elementary School. Other districts in the county have been offering similar programs for years, but Bellingham School District hopes this program will bridge the gap for hundreds of homeschooled students within the district who have been unable to find the right help.

The trial, which the district is calling the “launch to learn,” began in late March with around 10 students. Kate Baehr, the principal of the program, hopes 100 kindergarten through eighth-grade students will enroll for fall.

“We’re getting our feet wet and seeing what we don’t know,” Baehr said.

The district previously has identified approximately 400 homeschooled students within the district, and more than half of those students are already enrolled in family partnership programs in other districts.

Bellingham School District is using the old Larrabee Elementary School building for the program. In April 2014, the district discussed several options for repurposing the building. One proposal would have used the building for district office space; another would have used it for preschool space. Ultimately, the group decided the Family Partnership Program was the best fit for Larrabee.

Baehr — the former principal of Larrabee Elementary School — said the building works much better as a sort of community center that’s also available for the family partnership than it did as an elementary school.

Students and parents attend classes twice a week for a few hours at a time. The program provides an individualized learning plan for students, and classes usually involve some sort of activity that supports what students learn at home. One class this spring connects kids with Common Threads volunteers who teach them how to manage the garden outside of the Larrabee building.

The requirement that parents are on the site is a key difference between the Family Partnership Program and some other homeschool assistance programs. At the Meridian Parent Partnership Program, for comparison, parents drop kids off twice a week, and core classes are taught by certified teachers who also work with parents to develop curriculum.

Michelle Siadal, principal of the Meridian Parent Partnership Program, does not think Bellingham School District’s program will cause enrollment to drop at Meridian. Most families are already re-enrolling next year, she said. The program started in 2006.

The state provides funding for each student enrolled in the Bellingham Family Partnership the same way it would for other public schools. There were some initial start-up costs, but Baehr said the the program eventually will sustain itself, meaning the state funding the district receives based on enrollment pays for staffing and facility needs. The district doesn’t anticipate enrollment to reach that level for another year or two. Students from other districts also may enroll in the Bellingham program.

There are still some details to work out before the fall, Baehr said, but parents already seem to be pleased that another option for home-school students is available in Bellingham.

West said she’s already learning how to be a better parent and a better teacher. Families are able to learn together, which is something both she and her son appreciated from the first day of class.

“As soon as he saw the other students coming, he said, ‘Here are my friends!’” West said.