Jennifer Tash had the usual childhood complaints about her fourth-grade class: It was boring, the teacher was mean, and there was too much homework.
Her dad was concerned. "Both my kids weren't too excited about school. They'd come home with their heads down every day," said George Tash, who also has an 8-year-old son, Adam.
So Tash, whose own schoolboy memories weren't the best either, did what other parents might like to do but few can afford.
This fall, he hired a teacher and started what state officials say may be California's only elementary school owned and operated by a private company for the children of its employees. Held in a room in Tash's manufacturing plant in Moorpark, the school is free to the company's workers.
"Most people thought I was just kidding," said Tash, owner of G. T. Water Products. "But I'm of the nature that, if something isn't right, then change it, be innovative, try something else."
For the four students attending Tash's yet-unnamed elementary school, the experiment already appears to be a success.
"I like learning here better," said Martha Godinez, 12, who last year attended a public school in Northridge. Martha's mother works at the plant assembling rubber and metal devices used to unclog drains.
From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.--the same hours their parents put in at the factory--the students, ages 6 to 12, engage in schooling that follows few rules except that learning should be fun.
"I wanted the school to be non-structured and free-spirited," Tash said. "I want to just let the kids go and explore whatever hidden potentials that God has given them."
For teacher Brian Kearsey, formerly a Montessori School instructor in Thousand Oaks, the charge has been a challenge. "I try to balance out the fun and learning," said Kearsey, who is called Brian by his students.
One day, for instance, Kearsey was able to turn the traditionally unpopular subject of fractions into an attention-getter when one student had to change the tire on his bicycle. "The 7/16ths-inch wrench didn't work, so we tried the half-inch wrench and learned a bit about fractions," Kearsey said.
Last week, students painted a wall of the classroom black and then etched in the stars and planets of the solar system. "One of the kids was interested in space so we went with it," Kearsey explained.
Aside from the space mural, the rest of the room looks much like a typical class, with a chalkboard, work tables and shelves filled with books, paints, clay, crayons and paper. Samples of the students' artwork are tacked to bulletin boards, along with newspaper clippings of current events.
Less traditional perhaps are the television, videocassette player and overstuffed chairs in one corner of the room.
Missing, however, from this one-room school are the conventional tests and scheduling where subjects are taught at particular times each day, Kearsey said. Although each school day typically includes about two hours of academic lessons, "if the kids want to do something else, like an art project, then we do it," he said.
To operate a private elementary school in California, the owner is required only to submit an application declaring that regular attendance is required and that a curriculum for students exists, a spokesman for the state Department of Education said. There are no specific curriculum requirements or minimum teacher credentials, the spokesman added.
But, in any given week, subjects such as math, reading, spelling and science will be covered in one form or another, said Kearsey.
Beyond the academics, afternoon field trips, usually to a nearby 20-acre lemon orchard Tash owns, give the students a chance to play outside and participate in group projects such as building a tree house, he said.
Lunch and work breaks are coordinated to give students time with their parents if they wish.
Inez Bryson, a secretary, said she likes the idea of working in the same building where her son, Dante, 6, attends school. "I don't have to drive him to school and here he is getting a lot of individual attention," she said.
Bryson, who had previously worked at Moorpark City Hall, said she applied for the job at G. T. Water Products after seeing a classified advertisement that offered the free schooling along with the position. "I just couldn't believe it," she said.
Tash said he will spend a little less than $30,000 on his school this year. Besides benefiting his 25 employees, Tash said, he hopes the students can avoid duplicating his own unpleasant experiences.
Invented Drain Flusher
"I was not a very good student," said Tash, who first worked as a carpenter after graduating from San Fernando High School in 1959.
"I never considered myself stupid, I was always bright, but I just didn't take to the academic world and it's not that necessary. You just need good common sense and your wits about you to do just about anything you want."
All it took was one good idea for Tash to retire from carpentry 18 years ago. His idea became the Drain King, a rubber device that fits into drains. When attached to a garden hose, it forces pressurized water down the drains, clearing them of debris. Tash said he produces about 500,000 of the devices each year, earning about $2.5 million in annual sales.
His son, Adam, wants to own Dad's company when he grows up. But, for now, the 8-year-old says, space and playing are his favorite subjects.
"I just wish there were more kids here," he said, "so that they wouldn't have to go through the torture of regular school."