WELLMAN, Iowa — Mid-Prairie Community School District looks like any of the dozens of rural school districts in Iowa.
Its boundaries encompass 215 square miles of soybeans and corn broken up by the occasional small-town co-op and farm house.
Students go to middle school in one town and high school in another. They tend to do better on standardized tests and have a lower student poverty rate than the state as a whole.
But, in at least one respect, Mid-Prairie is an outlier.
In a state where on average 2.3 percent of any school districts’ population is homeschooled, Mid-Prairie’s 27.6 percent homeschool population is 12 times the state average and more than one in four students.
It’s a percentage based on figures from a one-time collection of data the Iowa Department of Education conducted in the 2012-2013 school, which, because of changes to the state law, can’t be replicated.
“It’s our religious background and beliefs, that’s a big part of it, probably not the only part, but the big one,” said Randy Billups, who served on the Mid-Prairie school board from 2004 until he resigned this May to take a job with the district.
“There’s a strong Christian community here that just wants to be in control of what their children learn,” he said.
Mid-Prairie is just south of Iowa City and west of U.S. 218. It’s in the heart of Amish and Mennonite country with a Mennonite high school and 11 Amish schools in its boundaries. Its largest town, Kalona, began as an Amish settlement in the 1840s, and the downtown still maintains hitching posts for horse-drawn wagons.
“Mid-Prairie is a very diverse district, not racially, but if you look at the district, it’s 215 square miles and includes three incorporated towns, seven unincorporated areas and over 25 churches,” said Superintendent Mark Schneider, whose district office is a converted mobile home resting on a gravel parking lot opposite the high school on Iowa 22. “We don’t have a synagogue, we don’t have a mosque, but we have a wide variety of faiths in the district.”
Religion a big reason
According to the National Center for Education statistics, the most common reason parents (36 percent) cite for homeschooling is to provide their children with religious or moral instruction.
Next is concern about the school environment (24 percent), followed by dissatisfaction with academic instruction (17 percent).
Roughly 14 percent of parents cited “other reasons” that include family time, travel and distance, and 7 percent said it was a desire to provide their children with non-traditional education and 6 percent cited their child’s health problems or special needs.
Faith was one reason Christian author and homeschool parent Kimberly Ehlers chose homeschooling for her son, Seth. He was born with several heart defects. Surgeries at 4 days old, and two more by the time he was 18 months helped get him through those early days.
But public school wasn’t part of the plan.
“There were lots of little reasons,” Ehlers said. “The bullying that occurs in school and the school environment were two of the reasons. We also wanted to make sure that God was part of his day.”
Now 15, Seth is doing fine, Ehlers said. His school day typically runs from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., and he participates in the Mid-Prairie Community School District Homeschool Assistance Program.
Districts in Iowa can choose to operate a homeschool assistance program but are under no requirement to do so. Districts that do get roughly a third of per pupil state aid for each student who uses the program. Offerings vary between school district programs, but most have at least one district-assigned supervising teacher running the program.
Overall, the state estimates it will spend more than $9 million this year on homeschool assistance programs. The money can go to administration, transportation and other costs associated with running the program, as outlined in state statute. In 2011, the statute was amended so state funds could cover rent costs.
Mid-Prairie’s Homeschool Assistance Program is run out of Washington Elementary School — the district’s smallest — in rural Kalona. With its resource library, standardized testing classes, field trips and high school diploma option program, it's arguably one of the most robust homeschool assistance programs in the state.
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It’s also a likely driver of Mid-Prairie’s high homeschool figures; nearly half of the homeschool assistance program’s 280 students live outside the Mid-Prairie district and transfer in specifically to use the program.
“The reasons for homeschooling have expanded so much,” said Assistant Program Director Rose Schrock, who has been with the homeschool assistance program since it began 16 years ago.
“When I started, most of the families were doing it for religious purposes,” she said. “That is probably not that much greater than any other at this point. We see a lot of families that the reason is dad has a crazy work schedule where he works a lot of evenings. We see more families with parents who are in graduate school. It’s convenience and family philosophy, a family philosophy where they want to take this on.”
Schneider doesn’t see the homeschool program as competition, as much as he sees it as another education option.
“I think it’s just a basic respect for parents and the choices they make,” he said. “It is the parent’s responsibility to decide what’s best for their family, and if a parent believes that another choice is more appropriate for their family, who am I to argue with that?”
But Billups, who was school board president when he stepped down, said it’s not always easy to sell that idea to voters.
Case in point is a planned bond referendum the district hopes to put before voters soon.
District officials are considering new space for administrative offices, which would get Schneider and his staff out of the trailer, space for kindergarten and preschool classrooms and a heating-ventilation-air conditioning upgrade for the middle school.
Also for potential inclusion in the $9 million to $12 million bond issue is new space for the district’s growing homeschool assistance program.
Schneider said nothing is final and hopes “that no matter what is decided to be included, with the proper public education efforts, a bond issue will pass.”
“It’ll be a lot harder if you have the (homeschool assistance program) rooms included,” Billups said. “People want to know why they have to cover the cost for homeschoolers.”