Families & the Community

Calif. Charter Caters to Home-Schooled Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 30, 2013 8 min read
Parents, from left, Joshua Melendez, Ellen O'Brien, Johanna Mytko, Elizabeth Howard, Lisa Flumerflet, and Carleen Velez review curriculum and new school procedures during a parent-teacher conference day with kindergarten teacher Kelly Ann Sassone, right, at the Da Vinci Innovation Academy in suburban Los Angeles.
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It’s a truism that a child’s most important teacher is his or her parent, but one charter school here uses that mantra literally as a blueprint to reconnect one group of families that has become disengaged from public schools: home schoolers.

The Da Vinci Innovation Academy draws home-schooled students who live within a 90-minute drive of Los Angeles International Airport. The school, a partnership between the Da Vinci charter-management group and the Wiseburn school district, has developed intensive, connected parent-and-teacher professional development to help widely disparate students stay on the same page.

“There are 270 kids attending DVIA, and they all have very different programs because every parent is seeing their role a little bit differently,” said Tom R. Johnstone, Wiseburn’s superintendent.

The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that roughly 3 percent of all school-age American children, or 1.77 million, were home-schooled in 2011. As the practice becomes increasingly popular, more states are requiring districts to provide at least some educational services if parents request them.

The partnership between Wiseburn and Da Vinci offers one model for keeping home-schooling families connected to the larger district community and highlights a more holistic approach to getting parents involved in their children’s schooling. While parent cooperatives are becoming more commonplace, the Innovation Academy is rare as a full public school serving only home schoolers.

Emily Rainey delivers her speech on Presentation of Learning Day to her family, her teacher, and other parents and students at the Da Vinci Innovation Academy.

“Asking parents to volunteer twice a year for a fundraiser isn’t enough to connect them emotionally to their students’ learning,” said Laura B. Glasser, whose son Jacob attends Da Vinci. “Doing homework with my kid at public school was really about [both of us] doing the same paperwork in a different location. Here, family learning is about understanding multiple strategies. ... [The school] offers families multiple ways to understand their child’s education.”

Students attend in-school class two days a week, either in a Monday/Thursday or Tuesday/Friday cohort, though the school also offers a half day of fee-based electives on Wednesdays. For the rest of the week, children work with their parents on projects developed in partnership with the school’s teachers and aligned to the Common Core State Standards that most states have now adopted. Parents fill out a detailed “work journal” linking activities they do on home days to specific standards. A panel of teachers audits the journals every 20 days to ensure students are completing at least 20 days’ worth of learning.

From School to Home

“There are very blurred lines in your role as a teacher and in working with the parents,” said Korey Hlaudy, the mathematics teacher for Core 4, a class of combined 5th and 6th grades. “You have to be very engaged and interested in what’s going on at home to tap in and provide activities they can do and build on at home.”

Parents attend two days of training at the start of the fall semester, learning how to align what they do at home with what students learn in class. Throughout the year, they continue to attend workshops given by teachers and other home-schooling parents on topics from reading-comprehension strategies to occupational therapy. Teachers provide online videos and other materials to link school content to home lessons.

The 2,500-student Wiseburn public school system includes an odd patchwork of residential and industrial neighborhoods in and around Hawthorne, a community within the city of Los Angeles. For more than 20 years, the K-8 school system has wanted its own high school, but students instead were split among neighboring high school districts after 8th grade. In 2009, the local nonprofit Da Vinci charter-management group worked with the district to launch several high schools, but a quirk of California law forbids a K-8 district from sponsoring a high school charter without an accompanying K-8 charter school.

Da Vinci took more than a year to conduct community surveys and focus groups to find a niche for the lower-grades school, according to founding Principal Nicole T. Assisi. “The district was very open, but they also didn’t want a charter to compete with the existing schools,” she said. “It made finding a community need that much more important.”

The school population is about half white, and the rest is a mix of black students and those of Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern backgrounds. While under California charter law students can enroll from anywhere in the state, so far all hail from across the Los Angeles metro area.

Innovation Academy does not keep exact figures on its students’ eligibility since it does not provide meals. “When you think of home-schooling families, you think middle-class white, and that doesn’t end up being the model here,” said current Principal Michelle Rainey.

Home schooling parents in California can apply to be considered an “independent private school,” but Ms. Rainey said more often they opt for their students to be considered “independent study,” allowing them to take part in hybrid programs like Innovation Academy, or individual classes and activities at local public schools, colleges, or museums.

Parents run the gamut in educational experience, too, she added: “Some say, ‘I’m a home schooler at heart; I want complete autonomy.’ We have others who say, ‘I’m not sure about this whole home-schooling thing, but I like the way you work with kids, so give me materials and hold my hand through this.’ ”

Students Mark Lucas, left, and Eric Smyrski await their turn during "Presentation of Learning Day" at the Da Vinci Innovation Academy. As part of the event, students don formal clothes to present a summary of what they have learned during the semester to parents, teachers, and fellow students.

Tasneem Sutarwala is one of the latter. “I didn’t even imagine I would ever home school,” she said.

She considered Da Vinci after her son Keon’s first public school closed because of poor academic performance. She became dissatisfied with a private school where, she said, “Keon did well, everything was checked off, but I could see something was off; he wasn’t pushed to take any risks.” She moved the boy to Innovation Academy and later his younger sister started kindergarten there, too.

A Son ‘Recovered’

Ms. Sutarwala’s family works closely both with teachers and more experienced mentor families on time management, lesson pacing, and other home-teaching issues that come up.

“It was a huge struggle and still is,” she said, “but now I know exactly what he knows and what he needs help with. Before, I never knew what he needed help with. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my son.”

With parents responsible for covering the bulk of core content, the school also has more time to focus on teaching students to apply what they learn in multiple subjects, and cultivate noncognitive skills such as decisionmaking and cooperation.

“Content is about 50 percent of what we do here, and in most schools, content is 95 percent of what they do,” Principal Rainey said.

It’s just before lunchtime, and Keon Sutarwala is preparing for an unusual fractions test.

Under a tent in the bright autumn sunlight, Core 4 students line two long tables filled with flour, sugar, chocolate, and other ingredients for chocolate chip cookies. They’re converting a recipe for six into one big enough for the whole class, plus teacher Mr. Hlaudy and two visitors.

The task gets progressively harder throughout class. Core 4 student Nicky Sion whizzes through a recipe worksheet, multiplying each ingredient by three. But his classmates balk, noting that they must share only a few ½- and ¼-cup measuring bowls, so every fraction problem must be simplified and then converted to the new units. Another team realizes there are no eggs and jumps online to find alternatives—mashed bananas and applesauce, in the end—and figures out the proper ratios for those as well.

At the end of class, each team spoons out the dough to be baked in a portable oven. The class will return after lunch to assess how well each batch turned out, and debrief the rest of the class on how the teams used the recipe and the ingredients at hand.

While each student turned in a separate worksheet outlining the conversion problems and how he or she solved them, the real test was in the tasting—it’s pretty easy to taste too much baking soda or see that oversized cookies don’t bake uniformly.

Making Connections

“We let the situation drive the mathematics,” Mr. Hlaudy said. “We’re trying to get them excited about why fractions matter. After the tasting, we talk about what this would mean in the real world. Would you hire a baker who did this? Often, [in typical classrooms] kids see these islands of content that don’t connect to something real and beautiful like baking.”

Projects like the cookie baking also help students who may be moving at very different speeds at home stay on the same page at school.

Mr. Hlaudy noted some students still struggle to add and subtract fractions, while Nicky multiplies and divides mixed fractions easily, but the group work and shifting-task rules force the boy to reflect and work with his teammates rather than simply racing for an answer.

“I grew up in and taught at traditional schools, and immersing yourself in something so different from what you’ve learned in your education school and everything you’ve learned in TFA—the learning curve is exponential,” said Mr. Hlaudy, who came to the school through Teach For America. “But it’s totally changed how I think of what education can be.”

In November, the community finally voted to unify the Wiseburn district, meaning that Da Vinci’s three charter high schools will become the official high schools of an expanded 3,700-student district as of July, including all of the existing K-8 schools, plus the charter high school and Innovation Academy. The home-schooling program will likely keep expanding, Superintendent Johnstone said. “We look at it as an integral part of our program now,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as L.A. School Bridges Home-School Gap


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