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Meet the Homeschoolers

An increasing number of Hawaii families are choosing to educate their children at home. We spoke with three of them to learn more about the realities of homeschooling.


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Dawn Mendiola watches over her children, Matisyn and Riley as they work through their exercises.

Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

The Mendiolas

Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Rodney and Dawn Mendiola, a Wahiawā couple, share a similar enthusiasm for homeschooling. Observant Christians, they chose this route as the best way to instill their daughter and son with their own morals and values.

Each school day begins in the living room with a prayer and a pledge to the American flag, and the first subject on the schedule is Bible class.

On the day we visited, Dawn worked with Riley, 4, on memorizing the Lord’s Prayer, while Matisyn, 8, read through part of a chapter from the New Testament.

After finishing the story, Matisyn summarized it verbally for her mother, to demonstrate that she’s understood what happened. Then it was time to move on to math.

Although they generally hold class sitting around a low coffee table surrounded by plastic bins of books and supplies, Dawn likes to maintain a regular schedule: four days a week, from 9 a.m. till 1 or 2 p.m. The environment, too, is quiet and studious (ideally, anyway). Matisyn asks for permission before grabbing a drink of water, and the two children work through their subjects in an orderly fashion: math, English, penmanship, history.

If one is done with a particular assignment, and Dawn is still working with the other, they’re often allowed to take a 10-minute break to relax or play Nintendo DS.

The Mendiolas use a Christian-based curriculum, including materials by A Beka, coursework created by Pensacola Christian College, but they do mix and match in order to tailor the schoolwork to fit Matisyn’s learning style. “For her, I select all the curriculum individually,” Dawn says. “She’s not really a workbook person. I try to do a lot of things verbally, because sitting all day doing workbooks is not going to work for her.”

Both Matisyn and Riley are learning math via the Singapore method, which starts students out with concrete exercises before moving to pictorial and then abstract ones. Riley, for example, is learning addition by combining rows of colored blocks.

Here again, the use of a different curriculum leads to a mismatch when it comes to year-end testing. “Matisyn is a little behind in math, which hurts her on the test, because by third grade you should be multiplying bigger numbers,” says Dawn. “But it’s OK, because I’ve read that although they don’t learn on the same schedule as the schools do, it evens out in the end.”

This theory of evening out in the end seems to hold true in a larger sense for homeschoolers, even if they are using a different curriculum. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for homeschooling issues, for example, home-educated students typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic-achievement tests.

Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

In another departure from the DOE’s standards, the Mendiola’s school year doesn’t coincide with the common fall-through-spring schedule. Instead, they begin their academic calendar in January, and wrap up near the end of the year, depending on how fast Matisyn progresses. This year, they tried to finish by August, but that turned out to be too aggressive a schedule.

The non-standard school year is designed to synch up with the one followed by their local homeschool co-op. Every other week, Dawn and her children meet up with a group of about 10 families from around Central O‘ahu to study together for three hours. The class covers a single topic for a year, a different one each year. (Right now, the co-op is covering geography.)

Co-ops are a popular way to pool resources for homeschooling families—each parent will take a turn teaching and overseeing activities for the rest of the children. They can be based on a common curriculum, by church affiliation, or simply by neighborhood.

When combined with support groups such as the Hawai‘i Homeschool ‘Ohana and umbrella organizations such as the Hawai‘i Homeschool Association and the Christian Homeschools of Hawai‘i—there ends up being quite an active community available to families educating at home.

Social isolation, a common concern of homeschooling skeptics, turns out to be a non-issue for most families, says Dawn. “It’s the first thing that people who don’t know about homeschooling will ask,” she says. “But we have our co-op, the kids play sports, there are field trips. And because they’re around adults and kids of all ages, my daughter is able to have a conversation with adults, without feeling uncomfortable or inferior.”

In fact, it’s the togetherness that can be a challenge. When you’re both a mom and a teacher, you end up spending every waking hour with your children. “Sometimes my husband will take them, and I’ll take a break,” she says. “Because otherwise I’m with them 24/7, and it can be a little much.”

Dawn says she also struggles sometimes to switch between her teaching mode and her mothering one once the designated school time is over. “When we’re in the car and I ask Matisyn a question, and she can’t answer it, I think, don’t you know it?! We just learned it today,” she says. “When I should just relax and review the material with her later.”

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