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For home-school parents, classroom design is the subject du jour

November 11, 2011 |  8:08 am

Home School 1
Every weekday morning, 8-year-old Trevor Barrios puts on his uniform, takes his backpack and lunch box and sets off for school: the 900-square-foot converted guesthouse of his family's Ladera Ranch home. There, under the watchful eye of a tutor, Trevor settles down to three hours of math, science, history and language arts.

Home School 2Trevor's mother, Dru Barrios (pictured standing, above) consulted with an education expert who said her son — whose attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is partly why the family chose home schooling — would thrive in a space dedicated to learning. So in what used to be the guesthouse, a large portion of one wall is painted with white dry-erase paint, so it works as a gigantic wipe board, above. The space has a U-shaped teacher's desk, right, plus shelves stacked with books and a 60-inch television for screening educational DVDs. The cost of the conversion: about $2,000.

“We tried to make it fun and bright with lots of colors,” said Barrios, who added that sometimes Trevor is joined by other kids for his classes. A pool and grassy area in the back allow for swimming, soccer and basketball as part of his P.E. program.

As school funding difficulties drive more parents to consider alternatives to public education, those who venture down the home-schooling path quickly face decisions rooted in design: What should “school” look like? What physical form should the classroom take? Or should there be a classroom in the conventional sense at all?

Barrios is so committed to the idea of replicating a traditional school experience for her son that she has given her classroom a name: University School for Children, with uniforms, a logo and school IDs.

Home School 4“We strive for structure and routine,” she said. Although many home-schooling families steer clear of traditional-school conventions and operate under the theory that algebra problems might be best worked on while the child is, say, perched in a treehouse or sitting on the front lawn, others prefer to approximate a more schoolroom-like environment, down to the blackboard, teacher's desk and kids' cubby holes. (That's Barrios' classroom at right.)

“It seems there's a whole new group of us that I refer to as ‘contemporary home-schoolers,'” Barrios said.

Families sometimes resort to drastic measures to create a dedicated learning space. Bridget Lodge demolished a galley-style kitchen in her Garden Grove home to create a school setting. The house had to be extended into the backyard, with a brand-new kitchen built in.

“We ripped everything out — the double oven, the sink, everything,” Lodge said of her former kitchen space. “There was only a window left.” Two months and $10,000 later, the family had a place to educate three daughters — 9, 11 and 14, each with her own cubicle. That's where they start at 8 most mornings with a discussion of their artist of the month (perhaps Picasso or Beethoven), followed by studies that might include Greek and Roman history, Latin, theology, math or grammar. Each daughter is given a block of time for focused learning with their mother.

“Because we have no TV, there is so much more time to do the things that are important,” Lodge said. “Each girl gets two hours one-on-one with me. When one girl is with me, the other has independent work or play.”

Because of the myriad ways in which home schooling happens, including charter schools that provide home-study programs, precise numbers of families such as the Barrioses and Lodges are hard to pinpoint. But Brian Ray, who collects research on home schooling under the name National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore., estimates that about 2 million families across the U.S. have opted out of traditional schools. The HomeSchool Assn. of California, a nonprofit volunteer organization that is a resource for families exploring home-school options, puts the California figure between 60,000 and 200,000. The Los Angeles Unified School District has about 2,400 students enrolled in its City of Angels independent study program for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Burbank mom Tammy Takahashi takes an “unschooling” approach with her three children, ages 7 to 13. The classroom might be an art table at home, a recycling center or the beach. The inherent appeal of the approach is that the style of teaching can be tweaked to accommodate what works best for the student, said Takahashi, who has also written two books on home schooling.

“The majority of kids are more engaged and interested when they're able to learn in whatever fashion is best for them,” she said.

For most unschoolers, the lack of structure works to their advantage, allowing their kids to freely dip in and out of subjects and projects. It's all about finding lessons in daily life.

Karin Kachler of Eagle Rock has her 7-year-old daughter measure out recipes in the kitchen or calculate how many miles they have traveled in the car. “We'll do puzzles in bed for two hours or go out into the garden and research bugs,” Kachler said. “When we started, we didn't really have a plan. But this is how it has worked out for us.”

Home-school families are free to have a plan, or none at all. Edward Trimis, principal of the City of Angels program, said the department cannot dictate how families set up or run school at home. Those enrolled in City of Angels have to meet with a teacher at least once a week and complete 30 hours of studying, but if they want to write a paper at midnight and go bike riding all day, that's fine.

Students might be in the program for a number of reasons: Some might be professional musicians or athletes, or some may care for a family member. Or, as Takahashi said, the children's parents may simply believe that they can provide a better-tailored classroom.

“It's totally possible to be an unschooler and have structure, routine and an academic focus,” Takahashi said, indicating that critics of unschooling too often get wrapped up in the fact that the classroom doesn't take a traditional physical form. “Unschooling is an educational model. If parents aren't educating their children, they aren't unschooling.”

For Anna Giangregorio, mother of children ages 7 and 8, a structured space does help. She converted a guest bedroom into a classroom, and if she has visitors this holiday season, the white desks and red chairs will simply be stacked in the garage to make room for an air bed. Cards listing homonyms will remain tacked to the walls.

Giangregorio, a credentialed K-12 teacher who runs a weekly Spanish class for home schoolers, has experimented with a less structured approach.

“It didn't work for us,” she said. “I found they weren't learning the basics. Now, we do language arts and math every day. As a teacher, I need everything to be organized.”

-- Kavita Daswani

Home School 3
Austin Ghani smiles with an orange slice in his mouth during the lunch break inside the Barrios classroom, formerly a guesthouse.

Photos: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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