Iron Mountain Schools Draws Flak for Novel Homeschool Co-op

'I don’t think it’s a fair way of doing it,' says neighboring superintendent

A school district near the Michigan-Wisconsin border in the Upper Peninsula is getting pushback over the structure and funding of a co-op it runs with some homeschool families in the area.

The resistance is coming from other schools in its area. The co-op offers virtual courses on subjects like Spanish, cooking and gymnastics, but also offers regular off-campus activities that allow local experts, who aren’t necessarily licensed teachers, to give hands-on instruction.

The homeschool co-op not only provides classes to homeschool families, but Iron Mountain also receives partial per pupil funding from the state for each student who takes an online course. It is currently working to reduce more than $427,000 in debt.

Allowing homeschool students to take noncore classes at public schools – subjects other than science, math, language arts and social studies classes – is not new for Michigan public schools. But the practice of offering regular off-campus activities that are connected to the class differs from what has typically been offered before.

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Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said he sees these types of partnerships as a positive development that provides families a wider range of options to help children succeed.

“More and more Michigan parents are being drawn to these homeschool partnerships as a way to enhance their ability to customize their children’s learning,” DeGrow said. “Districts that embrace the partnership model get the opportunity to learn innovative approaches that help them serve all students better.”

Opponents of this type of homeschool co-op claim Iron Mountain is skirting the rules set up to govern programs offered by school districts to nontraditional students. Since the Iron Mountain school district offers off-campus activities connected to the classes during the school day, some opponents, like Craig Allen, superintendent of Breitung Township Schools, say the programs aren’t truly available to all students.

Allen said he isn’t opposed to public school co-ops with homeschool families in general. But he doesn’t agree with how Iron Mountain’s co-op is set up.

“This new-wave homeschool partnership is to offer classes for homeschool students and to offer classes in a segregated way. I don’t think it’s a fair way of doing it and traditionally not what shared time was about,” Allen said.

In an interview with Michigan Capitol Confidential, Iron Mountain Superintendent Raphael Rittenhouse defended his school district’s program, saying that conventional public school students can set up their schedules so they can attend the off-campus activities.

According to Rittenhouse, the real disagreement between his school district and the surrounding ones is Iron Mountain’s frequent use of off-campus activities, which he believes have made them popular with homeschool families.

Offering online courses or even allowing homeschool students to take noncore classes at their local public school is not uncommon.

“Everybody is using the same resources that are available to run school districts,” Rittenhouse said. “There’s nothing being done here in Iron Mountain that isn’t being done somewhere else. This is a question of scale.”

Emelie Fairchild has six children who range from kindergarten to high school in the co-op program, where she helps teach Spanish. Fairchild appreciates the extra hands-on learning experiences the co-op provides for her children, not only for the educational value but also because her children can make friends with other kids their age.

“My kids would probably tell you that, that is the most fun part of the class,” Fairchild said. “The [hands-on activities] are the bonus and that’s the most fun part of the class.”


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