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Richmond family tries homeschooling for a year

on December 6, 2011

The sun was burning the last of the morning fog from the skyline at the base of Richmond Heights, off San Pablo Avenue. A flock of ducks slowly formed up in a V, while along the path leading up to the Iwawaki home, a lone honey bee buzzed from flower to flower seemingly unaware it was well into fall. But the tranquility outside was not found in the frenzy of activity inside. Lucy, the family’s curious American bulldog, crunched her breakfast. Down the hall 9-year-old Judah and 8-year-old Cordelia darted in and out of the bathroom in a mixture of last night’s PJs and the day’s attire. Nicole, the mother, teacher and heart of the Iwawaki family, marched out the front door to unlock the car.

So much of their morning routine mirrored that of other families in the neighborhood. But these kids weren’t headed off to eight hours of structured education. They were headed to a Tuesday ukulele lesson.

This year, the Iwawaki family joined the growing number of families choosing to home school their children. Home school numbers have been on the rise since the resurgence of family-based education in the 1960s, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1.5 million school-aged children were home schooled in 2007. There are 50 children listed as attending home school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District .

Technically, the Iwawaki kids are enrolled in public school. They are home-schooled in practice because they are in an independent study program through the Families of Alameda for Multi-Cultural/Multi-Lingual Education (FAME) Public Charter School.

As the family piles into the car and drives off to ukulele lessons, Nicole talks about the decision to switch.

“I would classify us as evangelical Christan, but that’s not the reason we chose to home school,” she said putting on her turn signal.

“We’re home schooling because mom and dad don’t like the state of education and dad works in education,” Judah said from the back seat.

“It’s different what dad does,” Nicole said. “He feel like he makes a difference in the lives of kids here in Richmond.”
John Iwawaki is a teacher at De Jean Middle School.

“There’s a whole movement where all the learning is child-led, you don’t really use curriculum unless your child is asking for curriculum,” Nicole said. “There’s no testing or standards. The opposite end of the spectrum, from my understanding, is classical home schooling. Children learn Latin, a lot of focus on world history, play multiple instruments, learn multiple languages, very structured day. We’re somewhere in the middle.”

Judah is gifted with music. It was his idea to take up the ukulele, Nicole said.

“It seems like it’s effortless for him,” she said peeking at him over her shoulder.

“Well it’s not,” Judah replied clutching his ukulele.

Duane Wong plays 'Hey Jude' on the ukulele as his student Judah Iwawaki listens.

“Well you have to work at it.”

“Yes I do! But you’re saying I don’t have to put any effort in to it.”

Her explanation that some people take to learning instruments better than others was cut short by the family’s arrival at Music Works, a small music store in El Cerrito.

Duane Wong saw them pull up and unlocked the glass Music Works door.

Judah greeted Wong and headed back to the practice room to start a tuning exercise.

“This is one of my favorite songs,” Judah said spotting “Hey Jude” on the music stand.

As he and Wong played the melody together, Cordelia and Nicole studied on a bench just outside the practice room. Together they read paragraphs about bar codes aloud. First Nicole read a sentence, then Cordelia.

The workbook assignment was about learning to punctuate sentences.

“What do you need to have here?” Nicole asked.

“A comma.”

“You just need to remember when you have a list, how the commas are used,” Nicole said. “Do you like proofreading?”

“Kind of,” Cordelia said.

Cordelia is writing a book about  girl whose hamster goes missing. The book is an illustration of how a student’s natural interest can be cultivated into learning. It wasn’t originally part of her curriculum but the exercise gives Nicole an opportunity to apply lessons to what Cordelia is doing on her own outside the “classroom.”

Judah strummed the last cord of “Hey Jude” and started “Waltzing Matilda.”

Nicole took out a book of times tables. “You know them but you need to be fast like a metronome,” she said snapping a quick beat with her fingers.

The math lessons are based on Singapore’s math curriculum — the Asian nation routinely ranks tops in the worlds math performance. The approach — the flexibility to try it and the skills it can produce — is one of the reasons the Iwawakis decided to make the switch this year.

“We decided to give home schooling a one year shot,” Nicole said. “At the end of the year we’ll decide what we’ll do next year.”

“I like public school better,” Cordelia said.

Both children prefer public school, Nicole said, but she’s seeing more of the educational benefits and thinking of another year of home schooling.

“I feel confident that even if we didn’t teach anything formally this year that they’d still be fine if they went back to public school next year,” she said. “I’m leaning toward continuing this.”

In the car on the way home from music lessons, the family sometimes listens to audio books to get extra literature in. Recently they’ve been listening to Jason’s Gold, a story about the Klondike gold rush in Alaska, Canada and the Yukon.

The lesson resonates with the kids, who have also studied California’s Gold Rush. A major part of the fourth-grade public school curriculum is state history.

“We went to Sutter’s Fort because we were going on a tour of the Capitol building,” Nicole said. “Then we talked about the California Gold Rush. A few years ago we were at Sutter’s Mill panning for gold. So we can connect the dots.”

Nicole often combines their lessons because Judah and Cordelia are close in age and just a grade apart.

“They’re both top-of-the-class students,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we pulled them.”

There’s another reason, though, that she appreciates the ability to customize lessons: Cordelia is deaf.

“The class size was a concern,” Nicole said as she pulled into the driveway. “In a large group her voice becomes the loudest and the squeakiest in the room so she can hear over the din of other children. So when we thought of her going in to a class of 29 kids (up from 18 the previous year), that was very difficult.”

Cordelia was born deaf, which turned up in a screening mandated by the state. California started requiring the screenings in 2003 after finding that children with hearing loss were not being discovered until their second or third year.

“She’s a classic example because I had a totally healthy pregnancy, totally health birth, no family history, nothing that would say lets test her,” Nicole said. “We didn’t know if she’d ever hear.”

Cordelia Iwawaki was born genetically deaf. A cochlear implant allows her to hear out of her right ear by artificially stimulating the inner ear area with electrical signals.

At ten months Cordelia had a cochlear implant that allows her to hear out of the right ear by artificially stimulating the inner ear area with electrical signals. The signals are then sent to the hearing nerve in her brain.

“She’s like bionic girl,” Nicole said smiling. “Her deafness has never stood in her way.”

Nicole turned off the car and the kids raced to the front door. Lucy the bulldog’s collar jingled with such excitement they could hear it through the door.

“Someone once said to me, ‘Oh, you have a deaf child, you can’t home school — it’s not fair to them,’” Nicole said. “But in hind sight, what was I afraid of? I’m giving her so many opportunities.”

Both parents have talked with Cordelia about having her second ear implanted, but she isn’t interested. She functions as a hearing child and the idea of another surgery doesn’t appeal to her.

“Cordelia, I want you to spit the gum out and get up at the piano,” Nicole said. “Twenty minutes of practice.”

Cordelia picked up a kitchen timer and headed to the living room, where she began to play “The First Noel.”

Another home schooling benefit for the Iwawakis is the way they can use the Web to satisfy the kids’ curiosity. They make time to learn on the web at least three times a week. is a site they visit regularly.

“They have cameras all around the different habitats,” Judah said. “If the elephants walk past it will show.”

“That might be Sissy or Winkie right now,” Cordelia said as an elephant walked buy on the screen. has its own curriculum for schoolchildren, “but we just visit casually,” Nicole said guiding the mouse with Cordelia and Judah on either side.

“They come from the circus and zoos,” Cordelia said.

“And poor treatment,” Judah said. “These are Asian.”

“How can you tell the difference?” Nicole said.

“Small ears,” he said.

When they had enough elephants for the day they visited The Guardian’s “24 hours in pictures” site.

“We stopped by to see Occupy Oakland,” Nicole said as Judah clicked from a protest picture in Nepal to an image of police officers detaining an activist in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“Mecca, Saudi Arabia,” he read clicking to the next image. “Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims pray at the grand musk-q.”

“Mosque,” Nicole corrected.

“Mecca is Islamic,” she said. “Remember we talked about that yesterday.”

Nicole meets with her Independent Study Teacher Maya Mosley once a month.

“Nicole was on top of it from the very beginning” Mosley said. “I gave her direction on choosing curriculum especially for math and English but she did all the research and comparing.”

IST is a credentialed teacher provided by FAME Public Charter School and the liaison between the school and Nicole.

“They follow California state content standards,” FAME Director of Special Programs Julie Mattoon said. “That guides the teacher and student on what the student should be studying.”

How Nicole goes about teaching the material is up to her and IST.

The charter school also keeps the academic record for the student’s progress and gives standards-based report cards.

“We take a sample of math, science, writing and social studies,” Nicole said. “She [Mosley] holds us accountable because we get funds to cover classes and curriculum,” Nicole said.

No money goes to the parent or student directly, but IST and the parent can purchase materials like workbooks and teacher guides. Although a religious curriculum is not discouraged, no funds are allocated for religious material.

Just before lunch, everyone (even Lucy) gathered around the kitchen table for the more structured part of the day. First on the list: a card game. Judah picked from a pile, drawing a card with the Latin word quinque. The game, “English from the roots up,” is a way of studying the roots of language.

“What does it mean Cordelia?” Nicole asked.

“Quin means five.”

“Are we going to do a sentence?” Judah asked.

“Yes, that’s fine,” Nicole said.

“My grandpa is a quinquagenarian,” Judah said.

“I’m going to write my grandma is a quinquagenarian,” Cordelia said.

“That won’t work, all your grand parents are in their 60s,” Nicole said.

“Someday you’ll be a quinquagenarian,” Cordelia said.

“Maybe we’ll have a quinquagenarian birthday party for me.”

“We can have a quinquiniql for you,” Judah said. “A five year celebration.”

Nicole and John Iwawaki say the home school experience is worth the sacrifices.

“You can raise kids who are bright and who know textbooks but just have no clue about how to navigate in the world,” Nicole said. “We want our kids to know how to buy a bus ticket. We try to hold loosely without being foolish. I think that adds to brainpower. Our learning doesn’t begin at 8:30 and end at 2:30. Those are our school hours but we do so much beyond that.”

While the kids miss friends and the social aspects of school, they see the value in a tailored education.

“The school didn’t have enough money to pay for really cool science projects,” Judah said. “We planted radishes in second grade but that is the closest thing to science I can remember.”

At home his experience is drastically different.

“I had a science birthday party,” he said. “We played with dry ice, we did the tornado in the bottle and played with food coloring in water.”

Both kids say they like the learning games, the opportunity to use the computer more, and the weekly field trips that can grow out of their interests.

They interact with with other children during after-school activities. Judah plays soccer; Cordelia is a gymnast, and they take swimming lessons together.

“I’m not someone who is like, ‘This is the only way,’” Nicole said. “I had a chance to do it and we made the adjustment to make it work for our family. I don’t think it’s for everyone.”

Nicole sent the kids off to play while she made lunch. There’s learning in every moment, she said.

The excitement in Judah and Cordelia’s voices, as they debated which game to play next, mirrored the most exciting part of the Iwawaki’s homeschooling experiment. The morning had started with a ukulele lesson — and now, as they rushed outside, the afternoon lay before them uncharted.

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