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HeartLife School focuses on character building

Anyone who loves Christmas and anyone who wants to learn more about HeartLife Imagineering Home School Co-op should come see the school’s Holiday Revue on Dec. 7 at The Bridge House in Milwaukie, said Kevin Brusett, HeartLife’s founder and director.

“It will be a showcase of our music, drama and dance classes along with a silent auction, and it is free and open to the community,” he said.

by: PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Students at HeartLife Home School Co-op rehearse a scene from their upcoming Holiday Revue. Seated, left to right are: Michael Crozier, Alexander Bates and Ezra Kamerman. Standing, left to right are: Trinity Edwards, Griffin Guy, Ben Wheelhouse and Kris Hess.HeartLife is a private, family-oriented educational community, shaping students via character formation, core academics, arts, travel and technology. It provides a rigorous program with a challenging curriculum and supportive environment for students entering grades 6 through 10, Brusett said.

He founded the school in 2007 because he wanted more investment in students’ lives than he was getting just as a youth pastor at Milwaukie’s Bridge City Community Church.

Brusett has been a teacher or youth pastor since 1985 and has been with Bridge City since 2002.

The school is structured in a “character format, rather than a religious format,” he said, adding that he chose to call the school HeartLife, “because that seemed to be what the character process is about. It is an inside-out process.”

Housed inside Bridge City Community Church, the school has 14 students, but can accommodate as many as 28. There are 13 teachers, all part-time.

Curriculum at the school is inspired by a book Brusett read, “Character First: The Hyde School Difference,” by Joseph W. Gauld.

“The school is in Bath, Maine, and I contacted them and observed there for 10 days. The idea is that school shapes the character of the child,” Brusett said. He now uses a different book as inspiration, “The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have: The Hyde School Program for Character-Based Education and Parenting,” by Laura and Malcolm Gauld and Marc Brown.

Character counts

“The way the system works is that students spend so much time in class and the same amount of time outside of class” doing their school work, Brusett said.

Students attend classes at HeartLife on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. At the end of that time, they will have 12 hours of homework due the following Tuesday.

The curriculum includes language arts, math, science, performing arts, computer classes and life-fitness classes.

“It is based around students building initiative. We have a Wiki system where they post their homework. Their parents can see it, and we can see it, so they have the highest level of accountability. We have a grading period every month, so if they don’t do their work, the consequences are immediate,” he said.

At the end of each month, students are checked to make sure they have all their homework done and turned in. If they do not, they must spend one extra day, a “joy day,” outside of regular class time, doing service projects or engaging in supervised study time.

In the character-building class that he teaches, Brusett stresses five positive character traits: courage, leadership, integrity, curiosity and concern for others.

Parent involvement

There are several aspects of HeartLife that set the school apart from others, and one of those is parent involvement, especially in the character-building process.

Parents are expected to be involved at least two hours per week at the school, preferably during class time, and many of them volunteer to teach classes.

“Parents come into the character class and can see the character process of their kids. We teach them to communicate with each other by using the same language,” Brusett said.

And it is working, said Lynne Kammerman, who has a 10th-grade son at HeartLife.

She said she can tell when her son looks checked out or disengaged, asks him what she can do to help him, and he understands.

She commends the school for its “atmosphere of character standards that I can build on at home. It provides a consistent environment.”

Tina Buda, whose daughter attends HeartLife, said: “There are people here who have been where she is, in transition, and she feels loved and encouraged. She is doing her work and completing her assignments, but the school cares about your attitude. It’s not just about getting results, it is about the character behind those results.”

Because of changes in state laws, HeartLife is not an accredited school, so parents are responsible for ensuring their child meets all state educational requirements when they move on to grades 11 and 12, Brusett said. Some public schools may not accept HeartLife credits.

“When students leave HeartLife, they know how to study hard because of our high expectations and accountability. Private schools take all our credits, and we tell parents about some really good early college programs,” he said.

Travel program

Susan Crozier’s son is in his second year at HeartLife, and she said she and her husband looked around at other schools before deciding that this was the right one for their son. He wanted to jump right in to the school in the middle of the year, but because of the way classes are structured, he needed to wait until the start of a new school year to enroll.

HeartLife has been a success for her son, and Crozier said she appreciates the diversity of the school and the variety of experiences it provides, especially the travel opportunities it offers.

Students spend eight months in the classroom, and one month traveling, and it is in the extended travel experience, called TREX, “where everything they’ve learned comes together,” Brusett said.

“The whole year comes into play during TREX. They plan their menus, do their laundry, and write in their journals every day,” he said, and when students fail to follow through, they are not permitted to take part in certain activities.

The staff is there to keep them safe, but students plan the itinerary, Brusett added, noting that first- and second-year students travel in the United States, while the older students travel overseas.

“That first week, they act just like they do at home. The second week the wheels fall off in a reality check, and the third week they get it together,” he said.

Students are expected to raise the funds for the travel experience, and “they can’t just get the money from mom and dad,” Brusett said, nor can they borrow it from each other.

During a trip to Paris, a student spent too much of her money at the start of the trip, and ran out of funds just as the group was preparing to tour the opera house. She was disappointed to miss the opera house, and spent that day walking around the city instead.

That same student is now in Europe on a college program, and Brusett said she let him know she finally was able to go on the opera house tour.

Brusett also was along on a trip to New Jersey with a younger group of students, and was able to press home the importance of following through on commitments.

“There was a huge roller coaster that the kids wanted to go on, but I told them they could only do so if their homework was done. Some had to sit down right there and write in their journals, and I pointed out what they had learned from this experience,” he said.

As for the future of HeartLife, Brusett said he does not have plans to extend the school to grades 11 and 12, but he does hope the school continues to thrive for another 10 years or more.

Celebrate the season

What: HeartLife School’s free Holiday Revue and open house

When: 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7

Where: The Bridge House, 2816 S.E. Harrison St., in Milwaukie

Contact: For more information about HeartLife Imagineering Home School Co-op, visit heartlifepdx.com or call director Kevin Brusett at 971-570-2253.




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