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13500 bel-red road, suite 7a
bellevue, wa 98005




A Peek Inside: Homeschooling with the Zayas Family

Anne Dienzo

An Interview with the Zayas Family

Our first interview is with the Tracy Zayas, who lives on Seattle's Eastside with her husband and three daughters. Here, Tracy shares her family's homeschool experience...  

My husband and I grew up in Washington State on opposite sides of a two hour radius from Seattle.  We were both drawn to the Eastside after college, and due to my husband’s employment at Microsoft have been in the Bellevue area for over 15 years.  Our three wonderful daughters aged 10, 7, and our newest is under a year old.  We are a very active family and we have always enjoyed being involved in neighborhood events and our school communities.

This is our second year homeschooling our two eldest daughters in grades 2 and 4.  My oldest daughter started out in a private independent school in Bellevue.  Due to the cost of two kids in private school we decided to transition them both to our neighborhood elementary school when our middle child entered kindergarten.  After 1 year of public school, we decided to give homeschooling a try.

We always imagined our children would to go public school just like we did. We moved into a desirable school district with that intention.

Just a few years after my oldest daughter was born and we were looking into preschool options, I would have never thought homeschooling would have been a road we would have ventured down.  If asked, I would have given the response I have heard numerous others say, “I just don’t think I could do that!”  Our homeschooling journey was an unexpected one but it has brought our family balance, a community of like-minded families, and a sense that learning should not only be contained within four walls, five days a week.    

We always imagined our children would go to public school just like we did.  We moved into a desirable school district with that intention.  There wasn’t anything drastic about the public school system that pushed us to homeschool.  As our two daughters started to attend, they loved getting on the school bus and going to school with the neighborhood kids, the kids they had played with in the cul-de-sac for many summers.  They enjoyed the hot lunches and the after school program they attended twice a week had an amazing array of activities my kids enjoyed.  Their teachers seemed attentive and caring and the academics were meeting most of their needs.  The school’s PTA was run mostly by parents from our neighborhood so the school community seemed like an extension of the neighborhood.  

Then one day, my eldest daughter came home from school and begged me to homeschool her.  Her teacher was a retired homeschooling mother and both her boys were grown up and graduating college.  She had talked about her experience in the classroom and something about it seemed to call out to my daughter.  At first I dismissed it as I thought it would pass but as the year went on she became more insistent.  

When a very close friend in our neighborhood asked me if I would be willing to participate in a summer school trial with her and a third family, I decided to give homeschooling a try for the summer.  My friend was strongly considering homeschooling her two eldest daughters.  The girls were similar in age to ours and if all went well she would be homeschooling them the following year.  We all ended up getting together twice a week over the summer to teach science and history.  The third family and ourselves had every intention of returning to our neighborhood school in the fall.  After a summer of fun, learning, and following this family's journey to begin their first year of homeschooling it got down to the last two weeks before school.  My kids and my own curiosity were begging me to try it out.  After a LOT of deliberation we decided if there was ever a time to see if it would work, now would be it.  

My children have never looked back and for the most part neither have I, but there are moments when it can get tough.  When we started this journey we talked seriously as a family about how it wouldn’t be all fun and games.  We have talked about how we need to make sure we are all being responsible for our learning what is needed for us to be strong and healthy kids and adults.  My eldest daughter has really embraced it from the beginning and was almost always eager to listen and get to work.  My younger daughter has struggled a bit here and there but since the beginning of this year I can really tell she has realized that if she just gets her work done she has more time to do activities she chooses. 

We love that our kids are really able to take personal ownership over their learning.  I am teaching some subjects and we have curriculum for certain subjects but overall they are able to make choices about classes they are interested in and they know there is some personal responsibility for what they learn.  They are not in the backseat of their education, they are in the front passenger seat and sometimes they get to drive.  We love that they get to have real life experiences with people out in the community.  

At the beginning of this journey I knew that it would not work for our family to sit at home all day and for me to be the only source of knowledge and experience for my kids.  We are an active family who enjoys being social and engaged in our community.  Once we decided to homeschool I had already found so many resources online and out in the community. 

We are part of a wonderful secular and diverse homeschool co-op which provides diverse enrichment class offerings in art, sciences, history, geography, literature, language, math, theater,  physical education, animal encounters with real animals and more.  We attend this two full days a week and our kids absolutely adore their classes, teachers, and friends they have made there.  Since I am required to be on-site during their classes, they provide a nice “family room” area for parents to convene and create community.  I think I have benefitted from this as much as the girls have and we have made so many wonderful family friends.  

Once a week they attend Wilderness Awareness School, which is a nature program out in Duvall.  They are outside all day long, rain or shine.  Our girls get to learn about surviving in the wilderness, knife and fire skills, ancient arts, plant identification, and most important they get to be a part of a larger community of teachers, parents, and children that have respect for the world and themselves.   

These are only two special programs we are involved with but there are so many more opportunities out there in this area.  When we started homeschooling I thought one of the benefits would be an abundance of time.  I thought we would have time to do a lot of projects, games, and field trips.  I would say that we don’t have that much free time.  We are gone from the house three solid days and so on the other two days we have to fit in academics.  Sometimes we have to catch up on math on the weekends and over breaks.  We read and do workbook work in the car on the way to and from Co-op.  We also listen to books on tape and watch educational videos on Wilderness days.  

The requirements in a nutshell:
You must file a “Declaration of Intent” to the district Superintendent each year if your child is over 8 years old.
You must have your child tested each year.  No one else receives a copy of the test results but you must maintain the records.
You must teach the required 11 subjects but they are flexible on how those are taught: reading, writing, spelling, language, math, science, social studies, history, health, occupational education, plus art and music appreciation.
You must maintain vaccination and other records.
You must have 45 quarter units of college level credits, attend a parent qualifying course, or work with a certified teacher at least one hour per week.

When we started out, I spent a lot of time researching online for curriculum for math, writing, spelling, and language.  I also visited a local homeschooling store which sells second hand curriculum.  Attending the Washington Homeschool Conference where many curriculums were sold and marketed was helpful.  

Twice a week for science and history, we get together with our good friends and neighbors we started homeschooling with.  During the summer we planned out our science curriculum following a schedule recommended by a well known homeschool book called “The Well Trained Mind”.  This year we are studying Earth Sciences, last year we studied the body systems.  We gathered books, videos, field trip ideas, project/experiment ideas and created a spreadsheet of our schedule for the year.  We meet weekly on Mondays after co-op. 

Our history curriculum uses a series of books called “A Story of the World”.  It starts in ancient times with the hunter-gatherers and follows major historical events one chapter at a time.  We get together on Tuesday afternoons at the library and read a chapter per week with families rotating who provides a coordinating activity to go with the reading.

During the spring to early summer we signed up for our co-op classes: art: glass, clay, design, theater; science: Lego robotics, general science, Animal Encounters, biology; history: Historical Kids & Ancient Civilizations; physical education: Oom Yung Doe (martial arts); music: choir.  

I purchased and researched math, writing/language, and spelling curriculums during the summer.  We currently use Singapore math by Primary Math, we purchased the teachers handbook, textbook, workbook, and the online version which includes tests.  Our spelling curriculum is called Spelling Power and it is a book you can use up to high school which includes spelling lists with activity cards.  We use a couple workbooks for writing.  One is called Six Trait Writing and one is Common Core grammar.   

Over the summer I had my eldest daughter run through an online writing program called Time 4 Writing.  They have a few different 8 week programs working directly online with certified teachers who give you feedback and grade your work.

I have very little work to do each week planning for the week ahead due to the fact that we use pre-made curriculums that are lesson based, we share the work and rotate lessons with other families, we did some of our planning over the summer and Co-op provides the rest.  

On days we do not attend Co-op or Wilderness School we start school at about 9-9:30.  We will take a break for lunch and on a good day, a couple others breaks are used for physical activity,  We usually end homeschooling about 4:00PM.  I alternate who is working with me on their math, reading, spelling and writing lessons.  Sometimes it ends up messy, but most of the time it works out well.  We try to plan for holiday breaks when our Co-op breaks, but we occasionally still have a loose math and reading schedule.

Our philosophy:  We want our kids to have a variety of experiences with people of all ages and diversities.  We feel the project based approach is a great way to allow independence, innovation, and problem solving.  Ultimately, we would like to be able to provide our children with more time to create large ongoing projects where they are able to make connections to the real world and share those things with our community.  In reality we are still in the process of working through the balance of how to fit that together and at the same time still get through the academic pressures we feel.  

I have found that teaching writing is difficult for me.  There are resources out there for homeschoolers, but it is so hard to know which philosophy should be taught.  The curriculums are sometimes time consuming and I feel like a classroom environment would be beneficial for things like peer reviews and proof reading.  I wish there were more supplemental resources in this area.

Homeschooling is a bit of a roller coaster.  There are days when things just go absolutely as planned and the kids impress you with their eagerness to learn and get through the material.  There are days when it is a struggle to keep the ball rolling and still be calm.  What I love is the opportunity for independence and the ability for their passions and interests to shine through.  My eldest daughter started reading a couple different series of fiction related to greek and roman mythology at the end of last year.  It was sparked by one history lesson and her interest and knowledge in this area has been amazing.  I have had a few of her teachers at Co-op and family friends mention to me how much she knows and they can really see her passion for the subject.  We have been able to tie her learning to our history, science, and literature lessons and there are all sorts of connections being made.  It is really fun to watch and experience that with her and it really was all driven by her.  I am not sure we would get that same opportunity and time to dedicate to her passion if we were in a traditional setting.

We have been able to take advantage of some wonderful programs in our area with some of the wonderful organizations out there.  Pacific Science Center, Animal Encounters, Jr First Lego League, Islandwood, Museum of Flight, Bellevue College Math and Science Department, Cedar River Water Shed, King County Waste Management, King County Forest Stewardship Program, Village Theater, Wilderness Awareness School, Point Defiance Zoo Career Day, Kangaroo Zoo, and just to name a few.  We have quite a few we are really looking forward to adding to our experiences in the next year or so, Mt. St. Helens Institute, Seahurst Environmental Science Center, Digipen homeschooling classes, Seattle Tilth, and a Stewardship Squad in the area.  There are so many opportunities our community offers and these experiences and field trips have really made our homeschooling experience rich.          

We document our learning a variety of ways.  We put together portfolios of their work, take photos and videos, and I also keep a spreadsheet of all the subjects and different events we have attended since fall into that portfolio.  

Last year my eldest took the Stanford standardized test through a certified homeschooling testing service.  Both of my children will be taking those at the end of this year.  We do check-ins with their reading comprehension regularly.  Math assessments are built into their curriculum. 

Three tips: 

1.  Decide what your goals are as a family.  Then design a program that works to meet those goals.  Revisit your goals each year and see if they have changed.  

2.  Find a community of parents, teachers, and children that you can collaborate with.  Our Co-op requires that parents stay on-site and most of them hang out in what is called a "family room".  As a parent this allows so many opportunities to find community, collaborate ideas, share ups and downs. I also find that working with other homeschooling families on lessons, like we do in history and science, breaks up the amount of work you have to do yourself.

3.  Don't feel like you need to do everything yourself.  If you hate math you should not be the one teaching that to your children.  There are so many resources out there in the Seattle area.  If something isn't working don't feel like you are married to an idea or curriculum.  

There are so many wonderful opportunities for learning in this area. 

Thank you so much Tracy!