The Firstenburg Community Center is usually a sleepy place on weekday mornings, filled with exercising senior citizens and the occasional parent with a small child frolicking in the pool.
But on Mondays and Thursdays, the building comes alive with the sounds of children and teenagers rock climbing, acting and practicing new languages.
This is the Firstenburg Homeschool Community program, a new initiative by Vancouver Parks and Recreation to offer supplemental programs for families who home-school their children. The program’s first session — an academic quarter, if you will — was wrapping up Thursday, with additional courses slated to start Monday in subjects such as creative writing, music and public speaking.
The program was the brainchild of Stacey Allington, who oversees the program for Vancouver Parks and Recreation, and two home-school parents, Kelly Sporseen and Erin Robertson. Allington, who has relatives who home-school their children, has been eager to implement the idea locally since learning about similar programs elsewhere. So when Sporseen called Firstenburg to suggest offering a rock climbing class for home-school students, it was serendipity.
“My response was ‘Why don’t we look at what else we can do?’ ” Allington said.
Sporseen called her friend, Robertson, to help, and the rest is history. During this first home-school session, Firstenburg offered 29 classes with 120 students enrolled for 288 slots. In other words, most students are taking more than one class.
It’s a real need in Clark County, Robertson and Allington said. About 1,476 students received home-based instruction during the 2018-2019 school year, according to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Many families want some kind of supplemental programming for their children, preferably not in a religious setting, and not across the river in Portland.
“An opportunity like this doesn’t normally pop up,” said Robertson, who is home-schooling her three children.
Maggie McKinney, a mother of two home-schooled students, led an acting class this session. On Thursday, her students stretched and danced in a series of games designed to warm up for performing a rendition of the “Three Little Pigs.”
McKinney began home-schooling her 9-year-old son, Toby, after she said he “wasn’t thriving” in a traditional school setting.
“He needs to be who he needs to be and learn the way he needs to learn,” she said.
Since she began home-schooling him, he’s blossomed, she said. She pointed to her son, who was deep in discussion with the other students in the acting class.
“This conversing, this wouldn’t have happened,” she said.
The program also gives students an opportunity to engage with a group of peers in a wide age range, as well as those adults who are using the center, Allington said. Most classes are offered to an age range from elementary school to high school, and home-school parents teach many of the programs, with some professionals popping in for more specialized programming.
“They’re making connections in ways they may not have an opportunity to do,” Allington said.
Kiki Stephens, whose two daughters are enrolled in classes through the program, is teaching a public speaking class. During a break, she sat with her daughters, Siale, 14 and Soapie, 11.
Siale was relaxing after her acting class, where she’d stretched her face into wide grins and pretended to be a giraffe.
“It’s really helping me understand all that my body and emotions are capable of,” she said. “I’m realizing I have more control over how I view things.”
Stephens has been home schooling the girls since Siale finished third grade but admits opportunities like this are limited. That’s why she volunteered to teach a class, she said — to ensure the program thrives.
“I like the community we’re trying to build,” she said.