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.

For most parents with school-age children, the usual thing is to drop off the kids at a school. Schools have teachers, classrooms, textbooks—all the educational essentials.

But what if you were the teacher? What if, instead of hopping on a bus every weekday, your child simply walked into the living room to start her school day? It’s a reality for the parents of at least 7,000 students in Hawai‘i who are homeschooled.

Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Some parents homeschool for religious reasons, others because they can’t stand the thought of their kid in a Hawai‘i public school, still others because their child has special educational requirements. Whatever the reason, they’ve taken on the huge responsibility of educating their own children, with all the time and effort that entails.

In the process, they also set themselves up for a healthy amount of stereotyping. Homeschooling only became legal in all 50 states in 1993 and for many people, it still carries a whiff of the fringe. Homeschoolers? Those are religious zealots, right? Isolated kooks who run their houses on solar power?

But, it’s a phenomenon that’s steadily growing. The number of homeschooled students on record with the state Department of Education has jumped by 17 percent in the past three years. Something about it must work.

We wanted to find out more about what homeschooling is really like, so we spent some time with three families to learn about the realities of conducting class in your own living room—the day-to-day challenges, the rewards, and how well it’s working out for each of them.

The Guiles

Nicole Guiles homeschools her three daughters, Celeste, Tasha and Lulu.

Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Nicole and Martin Guiles started talking about homeschooling before the kids even arrived, while they were still dating. They knew they wanted a lot of children, and they knew they didn’t want to go the conventional education route.

Nicole describes their choice to homeschool as following God’s will, but she says she was also inspired by the 1948 book Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, which describes the authors’ adventures in raising 12 children.

“The father taught his kids to use a typewriter, he taught them astronomy by drawing stars on the ceiling,” Nicole remembers. “I was like, really, I could do that for my kids? I could keep them home and just inspire them? That was really cool.”

The Guiles went on to marry and have three daughters, Celeste, now 8, Tasha, 5, and Lulu, 3. When it came time for Celeste to begin school, they found that opting out of public school was simple.

Hawai‘i is one of the easier states in which to homeschool. Legally, the state DOE requires only that parents send in a notice of intent (called a 4140 form), and then check in with their local school principal annually to demonstrate academic progress. This is generally done either by taking the Hawai‘i State Assessment test or something equivalent in those grade levels required by law (currently third, fifth, eighth and 10th grades).

“I called up the school and said, Hey, I’m going to homeschool my kids, what do I need to do? And they sent me a packet with all sorts of information on homeschooling resources for parents, your rights as a homeschooler, support groups,” Nicole says. “And that was it.”



Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Today, the Guiles’ small Makiki apartment looks something like a realization of that early Cheaper by the Dozen dream. The living room is packed with children’s stories, well-thumbed workbooks, school supplies and toys. Tasha wanders through the place practicing her violin, and there are a few didgeridoos stacked in the corner, left over from a demonstration a few weeks ago.

There’s not much room for a dedicated study area. The girls do their schoolwork spread out on the floor of the living room, around a low table, or maybe on the sofa. Nicole assigns Celeste a spelling worksheet, but has to take a quick break to console Lulu, who has burst out crying across the room. They had taken a field trip that morning to the pumpkin patch at Aloun Farms, and now, just after lunch, could all probably use a nap.

Martin works full time at the Oceanography Department at UH Manoa, so Nicole handles almost all of the teaching duties. Her job is a daily juggling act, keeping each of the girls engaged and completing her assignments for the day, and herding them all to the many lessons and activities they’re enrolled in—ballet, P.E., field trips to museums. And then there are the regular responsibilities of running a household—shopping, laundry, cooking. No sick days here, no vacations.

She fits in schoolwork whenever possible—generally for a few hours in the afternoon, other times in the morning as part of a larger weekly class held by the local homeschooling co-op. She teaches the girls math and English every day, science on Tuesday, history and geography whenever she can manage it.

Nicole says she’s still learning the ropes. “It’s been a process, figuring out what works, what doesn’t,” she says. “And I don’t think that will stop. I enjoy it, but there is so much second-guessing, so much worrying about whether you’re doing the right thing, or doing it the right way. It takes a lot of faith to keep going.”

She relies heavily on her local network of other homeschooling families, comparing notes on teaching techniques, time management and curricula, and sharing textbooks. The Internet, also, has been a tremendous boon.

“After they go to bed at night, I’ll be on Google,” Nicole says. “Celeste asks me about things, and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll research it and get back to her the next day.”

So far, the girls have been making good academic progress. Tasha is just starting first grade, and hasn’t yet taken an evaluation, but Celeste, now in third grade, has been performing well on her year-end SATs. There have been a few blind spots, however—specific bits of knowledge taught by the DOE’s curriculum that didn’t match up with what Nicole was teaching. She had been handling history chronologically, for example, whereas the DOE follows a unit-based schedule that tackles 20th-century events early.

“I need to dig a little more and find out exactly what’s on these tests,” she says. “I use test guides to prepare, but apparently they’re not always complete.”

For Celeste Guiles, classwork can happen just about anywhere.

Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

If not much of this sounds like fun, it’s balanced by moments of achievement, celebration and togetherness. Nicole says she and her husband couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. “Yes, our kids could be in school, and we could have two incomes, and we wouldn’t have to live here,” she says, glancing around their 480-square-foot apartment. “But it’s a choice we made, and it’s what works for our family.”

And when Celeste or Tasha or Lulu makes a breakthrough, Nicole is there to share it, and feels the pride of having made it possible. “When Celeste started to read, there’s nothing that could compare to the feeling of seeing your kid loving this book,” she says. “I taught her how to do that!”


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.”


10th grader Ben Buissink’s computer desk doubles as his classroom.

Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Carrie Hyman and Michael Tanenbaum

Music runs in the family: Michael Tanenbaum and son Ben often play together.

Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

For Carrie Hyman and Michael Tanenbaum, the decision to homeschool came relatively late in their son Ben Buissink’s academic career. He had been attending Niu Valley Middle School, and began running into problems keeping up with the rest of the seventh grade class due to learning disabilities.

They decided to pull Ben out of school for the second half of the school year, and have him tutored. The one-on-one focus helped: A math and science tutor from Honolulu Waldorf High School was able to raise Ben’s math skills from fourth- to seventh-grade level in just a few months, and the family decided to try Niu Valley again for eighth grade.

It didn’t go well. “They wanted to put him in all these special-ed classes, which I was resistant to, because he’s not getting a good education, they’re just dumbing him down,” says Carrie. “I didn’t feel that he was getting the attention he needed.” She says the then-head of the special-ed program at Niu Valley called her into his office and told her not to expect much from Ben.

The bad experience cemented their resolve, and Carrie and Michael committed to homeschool Ben through the four years of high school, instead of sending him to Kalani High.

The first semester of ninth grade, however, turned out to be a steep learning curve. “For the first few months, until probably November, Michael taught math, and I did everything else,” Carrie remembers. “I got totally burned out. Between working and teaching Ben, it was very hard. So we hired a few tutors to work with him.”

Today, the family’s ‘Āina-Haina home is a constantly bustling central command. Not only is Ben, now halfway through 10th grade, homeschooled, but both parents work from home, as well—Carrie as an acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese medicine and Michael as a composer and musician. There’s a regular flow of visitors through the place, including Ben’s four tutors—in science, math, English and Spanish—most of whom come twice a week. Add in piano lessons, Fed-Ex deliveries and business appointments for Michael and Carrie, and the days fill up quickly.

Ben’s main study area is in his bedroom, and he officially starts his schoolwork at 9 a.m. “We try to get four or five intellectually rich hours each day; that might take six to seven hours to accomplish, depending on the number of breaks, or how slowly he works,” says Michael.

The family relies on printed-out schedules to make sure each subject gets tackled in a timely manner, and both Michael and Carrie take breaks from their own work to keep tabs on Ben. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to leave his side,” says Michael. “But he’s really matured to the point where we can leave him for half-an-hour or an hour to do his own work.”

Ben himself says he’s having a much better time learning at home than he did at Niu Valley. “I could do the work, just not as fast as the other kids,” he says. Now he feels better able to handle the challenges of high-school level work, and is planning to apply to the Julliard School when he graduates. (He’s already working on piano compositions to fulfill the school’s entrance audition requirements.)

Photos: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Ben says he does miss some of the social aspects of conventional high schools. “A lot of times I’ll only see my friends on the weekend, instead of every day like they get to hang out,” he says. “And it would be great to go to a school dance.”

All in all, however, homeschooling has proven to be a great solution. In the past year and a half, Ben’s parents have noticed that he’s become calmer and more confident.

It’s a testimonial that mirrors those made by the other two families we spent time with: that educating their children at home has made them blossom, given them composure and independence, allowed them to interact easily with adults. And for Ben, who began his homeschooling less than two years ago, his parents have witnessed an even more dramatic turnaround.

“He was so depressed,” Carrie says. “He used to say regularly, ‘I don’t know why you say I’m smart, Mom. I’m obviously not smart. I’m stupid.’ And he’s detoxed from that attitude this year, and likes to learn now. Not once has he said something like that.”


The state of homeschooling in Hawaii

When it comes to legal requirements for homeschooling, Hawai‘i turns out to be one of the more relaxed states in the U.S. None of the parents we spoke with had run into any hassles from the DOE about their choice to homeschool and, by all accounts, the state takes a hands-off approach to the entire issue.

But while the state DOE doesn’t hamper the efforts of homeschooling families, neither does it extend many resources to them. Hawai‘i is not one of the 18 states that require public schools to allow homeschoolers access to classes or sports.

However, this may change in the near future. DOE superintendent Pat Hamamoto testified in support of a bill introduced during the last legislative session (SB 2476) that would have given homeschool students the option to participate in sports, cheerleading, music, band, school clubs and other programs. The measure managed to pass the Education Committee, but died in the Finance Committee and has been carried over to the 2010 legislative session.

While the DOE has gotten behind it, the bill is not universally supported by Hawai‘i homeschoolers. June Mather, secretary of the Christian Homeschoolers of Hawai‘i (CHOH), says their organization prefers a clear divide between public school students and homeschooled ones. “Many of us prefer not to get into something like this, because it means that homeschool student’s records would have to be under scrutiny [for eligibility purposes],” she says. “We want as much freedom as possible in how we teach our children.”

Another issue that the CHOH has been concerned about, but hasn’t chosen to officially tackle, has been the fact that the DOE will not recognize high school credits from any homeschool program. There are a couple impacts of this policy: A homeschool student transferring to a local public high school would have to enroll as a freshman, even if he or she would normally be a junior or senior. And because homeschool high schoolers don’t get a diploma, they can’t apply to attend UH Mānoa without also earning a GED, or accruing at least 24 transferable credits at a UH community college. “It’s a roadblock for many students, because there’s still this stigma about the GED,” Mather says. “It takes time to earn the GED, and it’s not a reflection of four years of high school, so it’s a funny rule.”

Stacey Roberts, an associate professor at the UH College of Education, who did her dissertation on homeschooling and has followed the subject for years, contends that the DOE is actually too lax when it comes to policing families who homeschool. “The state has a compelling interest in the education of all children,” she says. “You can’t just say, if you’ve got a 4140 form to homeschool, you’re not our problem anymore. Which they basically do here in Hawai‘i, but they really shouldn’t.”

Roberts says that, because it’s up to each school to keep track of the students, because record keeping can be idiosyncratic, it’s easy for a homeschooled student to fall off the radar. “For the 7,000 that the DOE thinks are there, I’d say there are another couple of thousand at least that they don’t know about,” she says. Roberts says she has several personal friends who failed to notify the DOE of their plans to homeschool, without repercussion.

There are guidelines in place if a school principal has concerns about how a student is progressing. “A principal can start educational neglect proceedings if they think the student’s not getting any kind of education,” says Anna Viggiano, education specialist for the DOE’s gifted and talented program. “Then it would go to child protective services. It’s a long process, they have to document everything, but you could, in extreme cases, actually have a child taken away.”