Ore. district aims to woo home-schoolers

Myrtle Point, USA - One day after jazz band practice, 14-year-old Peter Wilson's band teacher pulled him aside. The instructor wanted to know whether Peter, who is home-schooled alongside his three brothers, liked being taught by his mother, and why he didn't come to public school full-time, instead of just for music.

The teacher seemed uncomfortable bringing it up, and the conversation was brief, Peter said. When he got home, he told his parents.

Mark and Teckla Wilson, who are raising their four sons in Mark Wilson's roomy childhood home in this former timber town, soon found out to their annoyance that the teacher's questions were part of an effort by the Myrtle Point school district to persuade home-schooling families to give the public system a shot.

Enrollment has been dropping steadily as timber jobs have dried up, and Oregon's budget cuts have left Myrtle Point facing a $675,000 gap for next year. Since Oregon bases its state school funding on enrollment, every home-schooled child Myrtle Point can woo means an extra $5,000 or so. An estimated 100 youngsters living in the district are home-schooled.

Already, 18 percent of the nation's 1.1 million home-schooled students are enrolled at least part-time in public school, usually for specialty courses such as music, art or science that are more difficult for parents to teach at home. But that is usually the parents' choice, not the result of a recruitment effort by strapped-for-cash public schools.

In Myrtle Point, the district is trying to phase in some courses that could prove particularly appealing to home-school parents, such as forestry, ecology and computer science.

Superintendent Robert Smith said the school system is also willing to adjust the curriculum - for example, by allowing discussion of creationism in biology class, or biblical literature in English courses.

"We're not setting up a church steeple. But students want academic freedom enough to encourage different things, and that should not be stifled by relying on exclusive treatments," Smith said.

Myrtle Point, with an enrollment of 779, is not the only district pursuing such a strategy.

In Walla Walla, Wash., school officials have launched plans for a new learning center that they hope will attract at least 30 home-school students, to help cope with a projected $200,000 in budget cuts next school year.

A school district in Fort Collins, Colo., started a program aimed at drawing home-schooled youngsters into the system with two days a week of art, science and music. In 2003, it earned the district an extra $203,341 in state funding.

There are no guarantees the strategy will work.

Many home-school parents are fiercely loyal to the lifestyle, and to the educational benefits they see for their children. Some want to protect their youngsters from the peer pressure and drugs they fear are rampant in public schools. Others, like the Wilsons, home-school their children in part for religious reasons.

"I like instruction where the instructor, not just the body of knowledge, is important," Teckla Wilson said. "Home-schooling allows you to work out the pace that is best for them. And, we are Christians, and for me, it is important that I teach them to think with a biblical world view."

After Mark Wilson complained, Myrtle Point officials told teachers not to try to recruit home-schooled students directly. Instead, parents got letters inviting them to a dinner to hear about the new classes the school is adding.

Lynn Potter was one of about 30 home-school parents who went to the dinner; her daughter, who plays in the band, was even part of the evening's entertainment. She said she is grateful that her children are allowed to participate in music and sports, but that there is nothing the district could say to get her to give up home-schooling.

"There would be the moral issues that our children would have to face with all the others who aren't taught the way they are," she said. "It's a lot of work, it is hard, but I am committed to five more years of home-schooling."

The fate of the school has provoked plenty of discussion in the town of 2,700, and prompted a tart opinion column by school board member Dal King in the weekly Myrtle Herald.

"Families who home school or choose to send their kids to other districts, we need your full support, not just what's convenient for you," King wrote. "While you may have good reasons, please do your part by enrolling your kids full-time in the district and don't just `cherry-pick' music or sports."

The Wilsons, whose son plays drums and other percussion instruments in the jazz band, took offense at that.

"We do this at some cost to ourselves," Mark Wilson said of home-schooling. "If the kids were all in school, my wife could get a job. To think that by offering us a few courses, by dining us, they could get us to say, `Oh, never mind,' is unrealistic on their part."