HOME SPUN : For More and More Parents, the Living Room May Be a Classroom

Times Staff Writer

When it was time for Francisco Quevedo to start his formal education, there was no question that he would carry on the family tradition by attending the same exclusive preparatory school that made scholars of his father, uncle and aunt.

The decision has borne rich fruit. About to turn 12, Francisco is well-versed in the classics and tests at the 12th-grade level. He has already been preadmitted, or qualified to matriculate, at two universities.

Francisco, like his elders, is receiving a classical education. He has studied Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," epic works usually reserved for high school or college. But Francisco's school is decidedly unconventional.

The classroom is a converted bedroom in the Quevedo home in southern Orange County, and Francisco's teachers are his grandfather, Henry (Hank) Quevedo, and grandmother, Alice Quevedo.

Francisco's classmates are his younger sisters, Mariel, 7, and Victoria, 8.

The girls, like their brother, also are testing higher--at the sixth- and seventh-grade levels, respectively--than their peers in conventional classrooms.

Hank also firmly guided the educations of all five of his own children. But although his grandchildren are being taught exclusively at home, his children were taught both in traditional classrooms and the familial setting.

From kindergarten on, Hank negotiated with public and private schools to determine his children's curriculum. He set up contracts with teachers, and if school programs strayed from the agreements--which, Hank said, they often did--he didn't hesitate to pull the children out of the classroom and teach them at home after negotiating an independent study arrangement with the schools. And sometimes he worked nights so he could teach during the day.

Hank's success with his own children could be a harbinger for his grandchildren. Ed, the 31-year-old father of Francisco, Mariel and Victoria, graduated magna cum laude from UCLA and works for a Newport Beach law firm. Steven Michael, 28, also a lawyer with a Newport Beach firm, graduated summa cum laude and first in his department at Princeton University. Susan, 25, followed her brother Steven at Princeton and also graduated with honors.

Although the achievements of the Quevedos are unusual in either a traditional or unorthodox academic setting, Francisco and his sisters are among a growing number of children in Orange County--at least 1,200, according to the county's Community Home Education Program--who are being taught reading, writing and arithmetic by their parents.

Fred Fernandez, a consultant for the state Department of Education who has been following the home-school movement in California for five years, estimates that there are 2,300 home schools with four or fewer pupils in California. A more realistic figure, however, is probably twice that because many parents don't bother to file any kind of registration with the state, he said.

Based on a 1985 study, anywhere from 125,000 to 260,000 children nationwide are being schooled at home, according to Patricia Lines, a research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education. Recent evidence, however, suggests that today the number of home students is closer to 500,000, she says.

Not even the most fervent advocates of home schooling, which demands an enormous commitment of time and energy from parents, believe that it will ever replace public schools. But the growth in home schooling points up a growing frustration with the local as well as the national education system.

Religious motives rank high among people who choose to teach their children at home. But so does a concern over drugs and violence on school campuses, said Red Balfour, who heads the Community Home Education Program, which provides instructional materials for home schooling. "I've never had a family tell me that Jesus told them to do (home schooling)," Balfour said. He noted, however, that a strong fundamentalist Christian ethic influences the home-school movement in Orange County.

So does a desire for closer family ties.

"You're dealing with people who want to spend more time with their children," Lines said. "There is a strong cohesive desire to have a close family, (not just by the parents but) on the part of the children, too."

Not all parents, however, have altruistic motives. Fernandez notes that some families who register as private schools do no teaching but are merely using their children as cheap labor to work in family businesses or on farms, or to baby-sit.

Many parents approach home schooling with the best of intentions but soon find they are overwhelmed by the demands on their time and teaching talents, said Alan Trudell, a spokesman for the Garden Grove Unified School District, the second largest in Orange County.

"The child suffers when parents bite off more than they can chew," Trudell said.

The argument school officials probably most often make against home schooling is that it doesn't give children a chance to develop social skills.

"We feel it's very important for a child to develop his personality away from home as well," Trudell said. In a school setting, among peers, a child learns to challenge and defend beliefs and develops leadership skills, he said.

Nonsense, counters Hank Quevedo. Children learn best by emulating older role models and can only pick up negative habits from their peers, he contends.

"I defy anyone to show me better socially adjusted children (than my own)," he added.

Hank, 53, himself a product of traditional schooling, has worked at various times as an education consultant, an aide to former President Richard M. Nixon and as president of D-Q University, an American Indian college near Davis. He is a harsh critic of modern education, public or private, and uses the Socratic method of teaching, built around reading and discussion.

Hank maintains that the institutional classroom setting is structured so that the wonder and excitement of learning is dulled as children are forced to sit and listen. "Schools are about teaching and children are about learning, and it's only chance that the twain shall meet," he said.

The small but growing number of families who are turning their backs on the traditional education system in part prompted the county this year to establish the Community Home Education Program headed by Balfour, who for three years ran a similar program in San Diego County.

Enrollment in Orange County's program has reached more than 200, said Balfour, and his office receives at least five inquiries a day from interested parents. The program is structured for grades kindergarten through eighth, excluding high school-age children, who have other options, such as independent study.

Under the program, parents are provided lesson plans, books and even a tutor if they need help in a subject. Parents also form an advisory board that helps evaluate program material.

The program is funded through a cash-back arrangement with the state based on attendance. The funds--an annual allotment of about $2,600 per child--would be lost if the children were not enrolled in a county-sanctioned program. (Balfour estimates that 75% of his students have never been enrolled in a public or private school.)

According to Balfour, to fulfill state education requirements, parents who teach their children at home must enroll in a public school program similar to his, sign up with a private school that has a home-school program, hire a credentialed tutor or file an affidavit with the county declaring themselves a private school--the most popular option--then keep a record of attendance.

Seven years ago, Libby Bordewich of Garden Grove was teaching in a private school in Oregon, "loving every minute of it." But she felt that she was missing out on being with her own children. So in 1982, she set up a classroom at home, pulled her children out of the private school they were attending and started teaching them herself. Elizabeth, now 18, is attending Cypress College but continues to sit in on two hours of daily instruction with her mother and 14-year-old brother, Nathan.

Libby, 36, says it wasn't so much dissatisfaction with traditional schools that prompted her to teach at home as it was knowing that her children were away eight to 10 hours daily. The family's religious beliefs, although not the prime motivator, played a strong role.

"We're Christians. We weren't happy that the children were not being taught creationism," Libby said.

Class is held in a small room just off the kitchen. Stacked on the bookshelves are the works of C.S. Lewis and Mark Twain along with Christian-oriented biographies of historic figures. The walls are decorated with a small American flag and posters bearing the text of the Bill of Rights, the Preamble to the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Libby and husband Gary view the family as a self-governing unit, and the theme carries over into teaching; civics lessons include volunteering at the office of Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and attending town hall forums.

The teaching material, which Libby said she researched over the years through trial and error, comes from a Christian university in Georgia. All the lesson plans, which cover a multitude of disciplines from science to composition to law, are woven around Scripture. But if Libby thinks she needs help teaching a subject, she calls in a tutor from the school district, she said.

Lessons start promptly at 8:30 a.m. They break for lunch, then continue on into the afternoon. Formal schooling ends around 2:30 p.m., when the children go to work on the family's home business, a cleaning service.

Socialization for her children has never been a problem, Libby said. Nathan, for instance, plays Little League baseball and Pop Warner football, and Elizabeth, an aspiring actress, has performed in children's theater.

In the evening, the family usually reads books; television watching is restricted. "We don't just go to school for six hours a day. This is a way of life for us," Libby said.

Home schooling seems to have paid off for Elizabeth, whose grade-point average at Cypress College is 3.48 on a 4.0 scale.

"I think my mom did a good job," Elizabeth says. But if she ever has children, she won't school them at home because she has other interests.

Elizabeth said she has no regrets about not having attended traditional classrooms but did get irritated at the inevitable "Where do you go to school?" questions asked by other children while she was growing up.

When other kids ask Nathan where he goes to school, "I just tell them I don't. They always tell me I'm lucky," he said.

Once Nathan had an opportunity to attend a private school with a friend for a week. "It was boring," he said.

Sometimes he misses "the sports and stuff," but otherwise "I don't feel like I'm missing out." The hardest part is spending so much time with the same people, he said.

The Quevedos share with the Bordewiches a strong emphasis on the value of family life--Hank, his wife, sons Steve and Ed and Ed's three children all live together, partly so teaching can start first thing in the morning. (The Quevedos also have a strong sense of privacy. Hank declined to be photographed for this article and asked that specifics about where the family lives not be included, explaining that some zealots of the home-school movement in the past have badgered him to represent their interests, which is the last thing he wants to do.)

But the similarities with the Bordewich family end there. The curriculum, developed by Hank, draws on what he considers the best minds of Western culture plus his American Indian heritage to instill an appreciation of the "mystical and magical" aspects of learning, especially in mathematics.

A school day starts at 8 a.m. The children are required each day to read a minimum of five newspapers. Then comes a period of discussing theoretical principles, followed by application of what the children have learned. For instance, when young Francisco planted dwarf melons in his home garden for a science project, the boy learned how to analyze the soil for nitrogen content and determine how wind velocity and differing angles of the sun affected growth.

A math project required that Francisco build a dining room table, and in an engineering lesson, the boy studied torque by taking apart and rebuilding car engines.

The girls made dresses for their dolls, but in the process they had to analyze the fabric for rag content and determine at what temperature rayons and acetates became uncomfortable to wear.

"It's all play," Hank said, grinning. It is precisely because learning is made to be fun that his grandchildren and their uncles and aunts before him have excelled, he said.

Steven Michael, who majored in philosophy at Princeton, credits his father--who is at ease discussing the principles of Ptolemy the way some men talk football scores--with helping him study the Greeks and medieval literature. When he did attend a traditional school, it was a disappointment, Steven said.

"Although I made good grades, I wasn't learning much," he said.

He said he was greatly discouraged by the lack of enthusiasm for learning among his classmates at Princeton. If he ever has children, he definitely wants them to be schooled at home.

Tracking the number of children who are being taught at home is tough because many families, fearful of legal repercussions, simply go underground. (The Bordewiches file an affidavit as a home school, and the Quevedos are enrolled in the county's home-school program.) Measuring the results of home schooling is even more difficult because under California law, testing isn't required.

But the small amount of data that is starting to turn up shows that children who are schooled at home consistently test higher than their peers, according to government analyst Lines. The reasons remain a subject of debate.

Some speculate that the one-on-one attention--tantamount to having a private tutor--is a great advantage. Others speculate that children of parents who care enough to devote the time and energy to teaching them will excel anyway.

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