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DEB VIERLING Using education as a tool for empowerment, the UI College of Education alumna has been dubbed everything from an advocate to an angel.

The name of Deb Vierling’s school sums up her life’s mission perfectly.

Crusade High School, the alternative school Vierling founded in 1996 and has served as principal of since 2003, epitomizes her commitment to create a home for the quarter of her students who don’t have one.

Vierling recently bought a house in the southeast Iowa town of Morning Sun, hoping to offer homeless kids the stability and structure that will help them succeed in academics and life.

“My philosophy is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” Vierling explains. “Once students have food in their stomachs, they can see, and their teeth aren’t aching, they can concentrate on algebra and biology and community service.”

Her commitment to these students is so strong because Vierling has walked in their shoes. Growing up in Burlington, Iowa, Vierling was touched by alcoholism, poverty, and abuse at an early age. Education became her ticket out.

Now the 53-year-old mother of five and grandmother, who went back to school at age 45 for a master’s degree in educational administration, is on a mission to help students who encounter the hardships she experienced. But it’s not easy.

Vierling’s students are predominantly poor. Some are raising children of their own, others have served prison time, and many have been abused emotionally and physically. Of 40 students currently enrolled—most from the towns of Morning Sun, Wapello, Winfield-Mt. Union, and Mediapolis—10 are homeless.

In 2002 Vierling launched a one-woman crusade to provide a home for these students, complete with house parents and comforts others take for granted. With donations from the community, she founded Crusade House Foundation, Inc., and purchased a two-story house. She’d like her students to help fix it up, earning “service-learning” credits in the process.

“I lost several homeless students last year because they had to move out of the district and had no way to get to school,” Vierling says. “If they could have lived at Crusade House while finishing their education, they would have had a much better chance of making a decent living.”

Crusade High School is a model of alternative education. Based in a one-room schoolhouse, it provides flexible schedules and emphasizes community service. There is no traditional homework. Instead, students work on different subjects independently, receiving 10-minute breaks every hour.

They learn to cook, help shovel driveways and clean gutters, and master life and social skills while contributing to the community. They also get to have fun. Vierling and her teacher and teacher’s aide take students bowling, to museums and amusement parks and, with the recent weather, sledding.

Since the school’s inception, more than 200 students have graduated. They’ve gone on to become respiratory therapists, business managers, and even educators themselves. Some attend four-year institutions on full-ride scholarships. Others work part time while pursuing more education.

Vierling also inspires others to pursue careers in alternative education. Kelsey Ruzzi teaches at Crusade High School and was named Alternative Educator of the Year in 2006 after Vierling nominated her for the honor.

“We were both teaching parenting classes to young mothers,” Ruzzi recalls. “She brought me into alternative education and showed me that sometimes we are put on the right path by unlikely angels.”

Ruzzi adds, “Deb is an extraordinary woman who touches every life with joy, compassion, humor, and love.”

Though donations to Crusade House have flowed in from churches, individuals, and businesses, the plan is on hold while Vierling battles the city over a zoning ordinance. She remains hopeful that people will see the good that could come from the house.

“I just have this overpowering urge to help my students have better lives,” Vierling says. “Education is the key. I have gained credibility for myself and my school by being a graduate of the University of Iowa, and I’ve also learned that you’re never too old to reach for a dream. I just want to help my students reach their own dreams.”

Story by Lois Gray; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

Feb. 11, 2008