Voices of 4 families who turned to home schooling, and continue today
Over the past few years, Katie Nordby’s home has become like a “one-room schoolhouse.”
Nordby is a Cedar Rapids mom who decided to home-school her children over the summer months of 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic struck. She felt the end of the previous school year was “wasted” and the ongoing pandemic would make the upcoming school year unpredictable.
“We wanted to keep it simple and keep our stress level as low as possible.” Nordby said.
Nordby, who has a teaching degree, now home schools all five of her children — making her a preschool, first grade, fourth grade and seventh grade teacher.
Eldest son Garrett prefers home schooling. “I was learning the same things, but I think I (get) more in depth because (home-school) is more one-on-one time with the teacher.”
Garrett is interested in engineering and added, “The flexibility is really nice because I get to pick my science a lot.”
After a few years of home schooling, Garrett will have to decide whether to return to public school for high school.
The Nordbys’ experience isn’t unique. When schools changed to remote learning early in the pandemic, some students experienced learning outside of classroom structures for the first time. During this time, some families found cracks in their children’s schooling they say were remedied with flexible schedules or working with a parent one-on-one.
Home schooling in Iowa
The state of Iowa does not collect data on the number of students who participate in home-school instruction. Iowa uses school enrollment numbers to designate state funding to public and non-public schools. Home school families do not receive state funding, but can tap into state-funded school resources by dual enrolling in a school district or enrolling in an assistance program. School districts are awarded a percentage of the cost per pupil for home-school students who do.
Dual enrollment is a popular option for families to engage their children in extra curricular activities and classes at public schools that are provided for regularly enrolled students. Another option to access extra curriculars and enrichment classes is to enroll in a home-school assistance program. Home schooled students can choose to dual enroll or enroll in a HSAP or both.
In Iowa, the per-pupil cost for fiscal 2023 is $7,413. The state awards 10 percent of the full student level for each dual enrolled home-school student. Districts that offer assistance programs get state funding as well. The district is awarded 30 percent of the full student level for each student enrolled in the program.
In an effort to gauge the home-school population in Eastern Iowa, The Gazette collected enrollment numbers from the Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar and Marion assistance programs. The data shows an increase in the program’s enrollment at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and then a decrease after — which mostly mirrors the enrollment declines that private and public schools saw after the pandemic struck.
Each family’s decision to home-school is as unique as each student — something Linn-Mar mom Angela Tastad is learning to embrace in her household.
Tastad, who has an education degree, is home schooling two of her three children, while her oldest remains enrolled at Linn-Mar High School.
Tastad’s daughter, Freya, 10, is dual enrolled at Linn-Mar to continue her special education classes while Anders, 9, is enrolled with the Marion Home School Assistance Program for enrichment classes. Home schooling allowed Anders to break his school day into chunks, which helped him stay focused.
“I know there’s a lot of parents that have pulled their kids because of policies through the school district, and I think that really does put a lot of stigma that … you just don’t trust authority or you don’t want to do what the schools want to do kind of thing,” Tastad said. “We do it because it works for our kids.”
Help from assistance programs
At first, the Nordbys home schooled under independent private instruction, meaning they had no aid from a district or assistance program. Two years ago, they switched to competent private instruction. While Nordby still is the primary teacher, now the family is connected with Cedar Rapids Home School Assistance Program, which provides visits from a state-certified teacher, enrollment in enrichment classes and clubs and access to a curriculum and resource library.
“Sometimes when we’re doing science experiments, I need litmus paper or I need magnets,” Nordby said. “So then we borrow those.”
A big concern surrounding home schooling is socializing home-school students with their peers. The Nordbys are an active family. They frequent the public library. Garrett plays flag football and baritone horn in the Marion assistance program band. Plus, the Nordby kids are enrolled in enrichment classes, which cover topics like composting and piñatas.
Marion Home School Assistance Program Director Tom Ertz told The Gazette in an email that enrichment classes supplement at-home instruction.
“They are not designed to be stand alone for-credit classes,” Ertz said. “At the younger grade levels, the classes are short-term and designed to pique interest in a variety of subjects.”
Flexibility in learning
Gabriella Rustebakke went from working as a supervising teacher at the Marion assistance program to home schooling her own children, Paul, 7, and Astrid, 4.
“I always wanted to send my kids to school and just be at home to reinforce whatever they are learning. That was my mindset. But seeing from the inside what every family was doing just made me fall in love.”
Rustebakke realized that she had been teaching her children but “not formally calling it home schooling because I was sending them for a few hours to a school.”
Rustebakke described her son Paul as “kinesthetic.” Home schooling allows him to get his wiggles out without distracting other students. In a learning area of the basement, Paul has a swing and trampoline for this purpose. Even with these breaks, Rustebakke’s one-on-one attention allows Paul and Astrid to finish their lessons quickly.
Rustebakke also stressed the ability to meet her children where they are at. While Paul is officially in second grade, his fine motor skills needed lessons suited for pre-K.
“In reading, you can read fifth grade stuff,” Rustebakke said to Paul.
“No, I’m in fifteenth!” Paul interrupted.
For Rustebakke, incorporating her native language and Christianity into her lessons was important. Paul and Astrid start their day listening to her read the Bible in Spanish. Paul will then translate it into English or recite Psalms.
“I don’t want them to lose my Spanish heritage. I’m from Peru and my family only speaks Spanish,” Rustebakke said. “So home schooling allowed me to do that like spend more time with them speaking English and in Spanish.”
Students with special needs
For Marion mom Missy Buesing, home schooling allowed her daughter, Aislinn, to continue her education despite struggles with physical illness and anxiety.
Aislinn, or Ash, was 6 years old when she started to exhibit “school refusal.” Ash experienced enough anxiety about going to school that she became physically ill, experiencing migraines and nausea. Physically getting Ash to school became a regular challenge. People with autism like routine, Buesing said. When the pandemic changed Ash’s routine, things worsened.
“For Aislinn it was devastating. Like they expected us to be on the Zoom,” Buesing said of the online application. “She could not stand all the pictures of the people on Zoom and would just scream and cry.”
When Buesing asked for Ash to meet with her special education teacher one-on-one over Zoom — not in person — that accommodation was not immediately provided, Buesing said. Ash couldn’t keep up with the pace of her general education classes.
“The Zoom sessions were hard for Ash,” Buesing said. “She would outright refuse to engage with teachers. Some days were great; others were awful.”
“School refusal” is common with autistic children, Buesing said, but in 2020 Buesing and her husband were reprimanded by Ash’s school for truancy.
It is the parent or guardian’s legal responsibility to ensure children between the ages of 5 and 16 attend school, according to Iowa’s compulsory attendance law. If a child misses more than eight days of school in a 45-day period, the parents can be charged with truancy. This can mean 10 days in jail or a fine of up to $100. The Buesings hired an attorney and in the end were not charged with truancy.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to go through that again,” Buesing said. “I knew that if I did home-school, that school refusal wouldn’t be a legal problem for us.”
Aislinn, now 8, began home schooling in December and is starting to like learning again. Buesing, with help from the Marion assistance program, has taken an ‘unschooling’ approach. Ash’s lessons are about things she is interested in, like science and art, or independent life skills like grocery shopping. Buesing could dual-enroll Ash in public school to retain the individualized education plan that provided specialized instruction, occupational therapy and speech therapy. The Marion assistance program, however, does not provide special education services.
Ash’s private occupational therapist has provided Buesing with creative accommodation ideas.
“She loves to draw pictures and then we kind of create stories, and because she has a really hard time writing, we use a lot of the voice-activated text,” Buesing said. “So we do a lot of story writing about her crazy pictures. The other day she wrote about an eel that’s trapped by a giant eggplant.”
The biggest success in Ash’s home schooling has been a solar system project, Buesing said. Ash built a model of a solar system and memorized the orders of the planets and a “Blues Clues” solar system song. With the seasons changing to spring, they are moving on to studying bugs.
“I can say just in the last few months that I do feel that our bond has gotten a lot stronger.”
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