Crossroads United Methodist Church

Tricia Sutherland teaches homeschooled students to cook at Crossroads United Methodist Church in February 2016 in Kimberly.

TIMES-NEWS FILE PHOTO

TWIN FALLS — Six months after launching a partnership to allow homeschooled students to take online classes, the Twin Falls School District is eyeing expansion.

In June, the district signed a one-year agreement with Harmony Educational Services, based in Springville, Utah. So far, 16 students are enrolled in kindergarten-through-eighth grades.

It’s an option for homeschooling parents who want a little more support instead of trying to go it completely on their own.

“It seems to have been a really good option for a number of parents this year who are looking for online opportunities,” said Jim Brown, principal of Bridge Academy, an alternative middle school in Twin Falls. He manages the school district’s agreement with Harmony.

The school district pays Harmony to recruit students and for the online curriculum. In exchange, the district is getting more students and receives state funding for each one.

Brown said he’d like to see the number of participating homeschoolers grow. “What I really envision is quadrupling this.”

Kristi Hawks, a teacher of record for Harmony, said she’d like to see the program opened up to the entire Magic Valley, but there isn’t confirmation yet on whether that will happen.

“We’d really like to grow the program,” said Hawks, a Twin Falls native who now lives in Middleton. She’d also like to see a once-a-week in-person option for students to take classes.

Hawks comes to Twin Falls once a month to meet with Brown. She’s in charge of monitoring Twin Falls Harmony students’ progress in their classes and their grades.

Twin Falls parent Shawnee Zelenka has five of her children enrolled in Harmony through the Twin Falls School District, ranging from kindergarten through seventh grade. She also has a high schooler who’s in a different program, iSucceed Virtual High School.

“We have really, really enjoyed Harmony,” she said. “It’s been nice knowing my kids are hitting the Idaho Core Standards, but that I still have the flexibility of getting to teach them and choose the curriculum.”

Having results from standardized tests is also reassuring, Zelenka said, because she can make sure her children are on the right path to eventually become college ready.

Her children are each taking four core classes through Harmony, plus one or two elective classes.

One of the electives is rock climbing at Gemstone Climbing Center, with Harmony picking up the cost. “There’s quite a few homeschoolers doing that class,” Zelenka said, adding it’s an opportunity her family wouldn’t normally be able to afford.

That has been a highlight of Harmony so far, she said. “The kids absolutely love it.”

Her children are also taking a cultural exploration elective class that’s part Spanish immersion.

A couple of Twin Falls students are doing swimming and tennis through the Magic Valley YMCA and one is taking piano lessons.

The flexibility and choices for electives is a big plus with Harmony, Zelenka said, adding she also appreciates parent feedback is taken seriously and there’s an effort to meet the needs of individual families.

The Idaho State Department of Education doesn’t regulate or monitor homeschooling education. It’s up to each parent to select the curriculum they’ll use. Parents don’t have to fill out any paperwork or register showing they’re homeschooling their child.

Magic Valley Junior School and Magic Valley Commonwealth School are among several organized local homeschooling groups. Other families meet informally for classes.

Under the contract with Harmony, the district pays $300 to the company for each student Harmony recruits to enroll, according to the contract.

Plus, for the curriculum, the district pays Harmony $1,590 per year for each full-time kindergartner and $2,390 for each full-time first through sixth-grader. It costs $250 per semester course for seventh and eighth-graders.

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The Salt Lake Tribune reported in May 2014 two Utah charter schools cut ties with Harmony. One of the school leaders called the company “predatory” during a meeting with the Utah State Charter School Board, saying taxpayer money wasn’t used wisely.

It came after a 2014 audit report from the Utah State Board of Education, scrutinizing distance learning and online programs in Utah schools. It found about $10.5 million in state money that year went to Harmony Educational Services and My Tech High Inc., another Utah-based online learning provider.

Harmony operates in four states: Idaho, Utah, Minnesota and Hawaii.

Here in Twin Falls, the agreement with Harmony is going smoothly, Brown said.

For the school district, a benefit of the agreement is becoming familiar with the children and their performance on standardized tests, Brown said. That’s helpful if they transfer into the school district later on.

“It’s pretty common that many of these students will attend a public school when they hit high school age,” he said.

Having test score data, Brown said, allows the district to better meet those students’ needs. Also, some students taking online classes through Harmony also take a few classes in traditional Twin Falls schools.

Harmony provides a “teacher of record” who oversees students’ online coursework and makes sure they’re on track with assignments, Brown said. The Twin Falls School District provides an Individualized Education Program or 504 Plan for students who have special needs.

For students in Harmony online classes, they must take the same standardized tests — such as the Idaho Reading Indicator and Smarter Balanced Assessment — as their peers in mainstream Twin Falls schools.

That may be a deal breaker for some families.

Harmony isn’t for everyone, Hawks said, adding some homeschooled parents don’t want that many requirements or the schedule.

But for others, the agreement with Harmony is a way to have support in individualizing their child’s education beyond the walls of a traditional classroom.

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