RICHLAND -- Tuesdays are hectic at Three Rivers HomeLink. Dozens of students, ages 5 to 18, attend classes that day at Southside Church, just south of Richland's business district on Jadwin Avenue.
Hallways and common areas are crammed with students -- some wearing their uniforms from a karate class, others working with their parents at folding tables.
There's a competitive cup-stacking lesson going on in the church sanctuary. In a nearby portable classroom, students develop devices to help senior citizens and others who have trouble walking.
The HomeLink program that once catered to helping parents teach their own children has expanded rapidly to include students who need an alternative to the traditional classroom, whether those students have learning problems or are ahead of their peers.
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In four years, HomeLink enrollment has soared from 43 students to almost 400 -- enough to populate a traditional elementary school.
"Honestly, I'm thinking we should call it custom schooling," said Cristi Hamilton, who has two of her five sons enrolled at HomeLink.
And while the Kennewick School District offers a similar program, it hasn't seen Richland's dramatic growth. The Pasco School District doesn't offer a comparable program.
But HomeLink's popularity is forcing the Richland School District to search for a real home for it.
"We didn't expect this much success," Richard Jansons, Richland School Board chairman, said during a recent meeting. "You guys outdid yourselves so now we have to find a place to put you."
But just last week, after considerable community opposition, the board backed away from a plan to close Jefferson Elementary School off George Washington Way and move its students to other K-5 schools so the alternative education program could operate there.
Now the board is considering using $5 million of its proposed $98 million bond measure to build HomeLink its own almost 25,000-square-foot facility. The board is planning to continue that discussion Tuesday.
It's about school choice
Richland school officials started HomeLink in fall 2008, with 43 students in the seventh through 12th grades. It was expanded to K-12 the following year.
The three districts each already have alternative high schools -- River's Edge in Richland, New Horizons in Pasco and Legacy and Phoenix high schools in Kennewick -- that cater to students who struggle in traditional classrooms.
And all three districts have students at Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick, which provides technical and professional training, and Delta High School, which specializes in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education.
Kennewick also offers the Mid-Columbia Parent Partnership, a program providing resources for about 200 home-schoolers throughout the Tri-Cities. The program has been around for more than seven years and expanded to helping students in grades K-12 three years ago.
"Really, it's about choice," said Kennewick spokeswoman Lorraine Cooper.
But only Richland offers a different school choice at the elementary and middle school levels, and HomeLink has seen the most growth in its grade-school offerings.
HomeLink serves families where the parents are the primary educators and anyone in the Tri-Cities is eligible to enroll. It provides classes and workshops, but also materials and access to an educational consultant to help guide students' education.
Parents say the alternative school appeals to parents with students with special needs who aren't comfortable in a traditional school or who want to dedicate more time to specific subjects. A few older students also are enrolled at other high schools, taking only one or two classes at HomeLink.
"These are normal Richland students," Jansons said.
Taxpayer-supported HomeLink is paid for with taxpayer money, with the district receiving about 80 percent of the state allocation per pupil to run the school, said Melissa Nimmo, one of the school's workshop coaches, parent-teacher association president and mother of a HomeLink student.
Just as there is no cost to enroll in a traditional public school, there is no fee to attend HomeLink. The school also does not cost the district any more money than it brings in and actually generates slightly more than HomeLink costs the district to operate, as each student's parents are required to be involved in every aspect of each child's education.
"I don't think (the district was) looking at recouping state dollars as much as getting kids what they need," said HomeLink Principal Eric Sobotta.
And yet, HomeLink doesn't operate like a traditional school. It offers classes in mathematics, science and language arts but also noncredit workshops in a variety of topics, ranging from martial arts to novel writing to robotics.
Class and workshop offerings are decided through parent surveys. Early on, Sobotta said, most parents wanted high-level math and science classes they couldn't teach themselves.
"Now, many are saying they come for on-site activities," he said.
Because HomeLink receives state dollars for each of its enrolled students, there are strict educational standards, including teachers who oversee curriculum development.
Students also must meet one-on-one with a certificated teacher at least once a week. And there is no religious-based instruction. "There's heavy accountability with taxpayer dollars here," said Sobotta.
The school operates four days a week and there are limits on how frequently each student can attend, with grade school-level students restricted to taking six one-hour workshops and secondary students three full attendance days a week.
Students can't be left unsupervised if there's a gap between their classes, meaning they either must leave or stay with a parent. Parents volunteer a minimum of two hours a week to help at the school, and Nimmo said many contribute more than that.
A recent survey of 42 of the program's families showed about a third of the students were home-schooled before they enrolled. But even more attended a traditional public school before arriving. Former private school students make up the third largest portion of students.
Johanna Davis, the program's student counselor and one of its former teachers, said there are many parents who home-school and refuse to enroll their students in HomeLink for the same reason they choose to home-school in the first place.
"They don't want the government in education at all," she said.
Yet, many do embrace the program for the benefits that traditional public schools can't provide, such as smaller class sizes, specialized instruction, a less-stressful environment and academic challenges.
Why parents pick HomeLink
The HomeLink program has figured heavily in Hamilton's sons' educations.
None has taken the same educational path, though all were home-schooled at times. Her youngest attends a private school, while another is a junior at Hanford High School in Richland.
But four have attended HomeLink, and two -- Jesse, 14, and Jamie, 12 -- are enrolled in the science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM, program at the school and also are taking pre-engineering and writing.
"You can make it what you want," Hamilton said.
Jesse, who also attended Chief Joseph Middle School before this school year, said he misses the social aspect. But he likes a greater variety of classes at HomeLink and more one-on-one help from teachers.
Nimmo said she and her husband decided to enroll their son Josiah at HomeLink when considering options for kindergarten.
The west Pasco family visited Maya Angelou Elementary School, the school in their attendance area, and while the staff and administration were qualified and prepared, Nimmo said she didn't think her son would fit in well there after reviewing the list of goals for kindergartners and realizing he already was past them.
She said Josiah, now 7, also can be squirrelly and that could be disruptive in a regular class.
Josiah gets his basic education at home but takes four workshops at HomeLink, covering topics such as Lego robotics, the solar system and cooking.
"In my cooking class, she teaches us all the chemical reactions that happen when you're cooking," he said.
Nimmo said she thinks traditional public schools still are important and are a good option for 80 percent of children. But there are some children who don't do best in that environment.
"Our tax dollars are actually being used in a way we can utilize them," she said.
Bigger building needed
Last spring, HomeLink provided its first diplomas to about a dozen graduating seniors.
The program's growth means it has to use a few portables at nearby at River's Edge High and other space. A group of students in the STEAM program met one day in the basement rooms used to store Southside's choir robes, a space commonly called The Catacombs.
Sobotta said a room originally meant to be a gathering space for waiting parents was needed for classes, so now parents gather anywhere they can -- a hallway, church lobby or outside near the school's entrance near a spare pew.
"Everybody's piggy-backing on each other," Nimmo said. "Only one classroom has a sink."
The district is approaching the deadline to revise its the bond proposal in time to go on the February ballot. Board members are set to discuss the bond more at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday during a public meeting at the district's administration building, 615 Snow Ave.
A few parents at Jefferson have wondered whether HomeLink families want to share space with a traditional school, since they opted to put their children in a different type of program altogether.
Hamilton spoke in favor of HomeLink sharing space at Jefferson during a board meeting last week. Sobotta and Nimmo said they also don't think it would be a problem for the two schools to be neighbors. HomeLink already has to schedule space with Southside parishioners and the staff and students of River's Edge.
"We don't necessarily need Jefferson, but we need space," Sobotta said.
Sobotta said he estimated HomeLink's enrollment might break 400 students next year, but without additional space, the program will be restricted from growing any larger.
More importantly, those connected to HomeLink said they want the public to understand what it is and to know it isn't just for home-schoolers and it isn't taking more from the district than it gives.
But Jesse said getting out that information could make the program more popular and possibly threaten how it's currently operated.
"If you found a gold mine, you wouldn't want to tell people about it," he said.