A chance to give parents more options led a tiny school district to brave the unknown 20 years ago, bringing home schooling through a public charter school to Stanislaus County.
Wednesday, Hickman Charter School celebrated the milestone with choir performances, a release of doves and speakers remembering when, and why.
“It’s staff, parents and students working together. It’s a safe place to nurture and to launch,” said charter Co-director Frank Kampen.
He stood at a lectern flanked by California Distinguished School 2014 flags. The school is the only home-based charter in the area, one of very few in the state, to hold the honor this year, Superintendent Paul Gardner told about 150 gathered students, families and alumni.
“It was one of the pioneers,” said Jeff Sands, Central Valley regional director for the California Charter Schools Association, after the ceremony. Hickman’s school was one of 72 charters in California in November 1994. Today there are many schools, but Hickman is one of only seven all-charter districts statewide, he said.
Then-teacher Pat Golding led the creation of the home-based charter. “We started it because there were parents who were looking for options and trusted our little district enough to partner with us,” she said.
An article in The Modesto Bee two months later “got the word out,” Golding said, and families flocked to the tiny campus east of Waterford. Today, the school serves about 600 home-schooled students who can attend core classes on Mondays, and art, music, robotics and other electives on other days.
The number of students, she decided, would be limited by the bounds of personal connections. “I said, when I don’t recognize the parent’s voice on the phone, that’s when I know we’ve hit it,” said Golding, who retired three years ago.
Dave Meyer was teaching in the regular Hickman School at the time. “It was very small in those days. Pat would poke her head in the door when she had a student who needed some tutoring and we’d do it,” he said. A few years later, he became a charter teacher. “Working with families expands your whole world,” he said.
Parents at the ceremony said the experience was life-changing for their families.
“It’s been the most amazing opportunity. God opened that door for me,” said Florina Mitchell, whose son is an eighth-grader. “I just wish they did high school.”
Linda Simmons Harder brought her two sons to the school, one of whom has graduated from Harvard, and one with autism now attending California State University, Stanislaus.
“They told me he should never be home-schooled,” she said, advice she did not follow. “This is the best place for a child on the spectrum,” she said. “What draws me here is the freedom to learn, regardless of where you are on the learning spectrum.”
Students chatting in groups around the sprawling central grass area said they liked seeing friends every week or so in charter classes.
“I love that you can have variety,” said sixth-grader Claire Miller, citing robotics, art and gifted classes.
“It’s just nice to have all your friends around you and be home-schooled by your parents,” said Brylan Finley.
Brylan’s mother said she liked the flexibility to adapt lessons to different learning styles but also liked the weekly classes. “If I home-schooled alone I would not be able to replicate these,” Brooke Finley said.
The school has switched to Common Core State Standards, just as every public school has, Kampen said. But the school’s hands-on focus and family-learning bent made that a more simple transition, he said.
“They’re standards. They’re like blueprints,” he said. “But there are multiple ways to build that house.”