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Farewell to Friends
by Cyndy Rodgers
 
When Homeschooling families look for guidance in the task of educating their children, they have found a chorus of voices offering words of wisdom. Although some of these voices have come and gone, there are a few that have risen to the front of the choir. It is because their voices sing out, touching a chord in both our hearts and minds. Their insight has helped to make homeschooling the effective and meaningful educational option it is today. Sadly, yet gratefully, we say good-bye to two such voices. First, is Bonnie Williams, one of the gentle, child-friendly voices that are Oak Meadows. Bonnie passed away in August of this year.
 

Born in Media, Pennsylvania, January 14, 1942, Bonnie's intuitive nature coupled with her education in psychology, helped develop the philosophy behind Oak Meadow's program. This philosophy has impacted not only homeschool laws in California, but the way children learn all over the nation.

Bonnie was a mother of four children living in the beautiful town of Ojai, California. She and her husband Lawrence started what would eventually be Oak Meadows homeschool curriculum in 1975.

It actually started the year before, when Lawrence took a job at a small private high school in Ojai. When the Williams' own children began having problems in the local public school, Bonnie decided to teach her children at home. Lawrence would come home in the evening to share the teaching. Within a few weeks the Williams could see that homeschooling was a good choice for their children.

He says, "I would see all these children with learning problems during the day then see Bonnie working her magic at home. We began to think why should it just be us? Let's let others have this experience."

The core of this philosophy was Bonnie's belief that homeschooling was a meaningful way of life for both parent and child. Her husband of 29 years, Lawrence Williams, explains, "Bonnie believed the point of homeschooling was to build a deep transformative relationship in which the learning is more of a by-product."

Because of this belief, Oak Meadow's philosophy is to use as many creative resources as possible. Children are encouraged to paint, draw, build, or sing and dance so that learning is never dry. But Oak Meadow focuses on the parent as well, by showing parents how to build and maintain a fun, loving relationship while teaching.

Bonnie Williams called it "Heart-Centered Learning"

This philosophy has impacted many different educational institutions, where there is now a focus on learning styles, hands-on projects, and integrating art with language arts, math, history, and science. These ideas did not exist in mainstream education in the late 1970's. But then, neither did the support for homeschooling and Bonnie's impact is felt there as well.

Back in 1975, homeschooling was not a widely-chosen path and there were very few laws supporting it. While the Williams were building their business and home-educating their own children, they also had to help out many families struggling with the laws. Williams gives much credit to his wife.

He says, "Bonnie had a warm and generous heart, but also a warrior spirit. So in the early years we spent a good deal of time involved in the legal battles in getting homeschool approved in California."

He explains even with four kids and one of them a newborn. Bonnie would find the strength to fight the battles. It was their first encounter into California's 1975 crazy homeschooling rules that set them on the path that would be Oak Meadows.

Williams remembers, "Because homeschooling was so rare back then, we decided to call the California Department of Education to get an okay. He says, " I figured that with my Master's degree in education, it wouldn't be a problem. I can still remember the conversation as clearly as if it was yesterday. I was home for lunch when I made the call. Home schooling was virtually unknown at that time, so I was referred to the supervisor for private schools.

When I told him our plan, he asked just one question, "Do you have a California Teaching Credential?" "No," I replied, "but I have a Master's Degree in Education."
"Nope, that's not good enough," he said. I just couldn't accept this. There had to be a way. Not knowing what else to say, I asked, "Isn't there any way I can teach my own children?" "Well," he replied, "you could start a private school."

Start our own school? Unbelievable. I had to run that one by him again just to make sure I'd heard it right. "You mean I'm not qualified to teach my own children, but I'm qualified to teach a whole school full of children?" "Yep, that's right."
"And my children could be part of that school if I wanted them to be, right?" "Sure, if you wanted them to."

Williams was amazed. He says, "As I hung up, I stared out my window at the mountains in the distance, and my mind began exploding with possibilities. I told Bonnie what had happened, and her eyes widened as she saw the same possibilities I had just seen. Create our own school!" This is when Oak Meadows was born.

Williams explains "For the next hour, we ate lunch and talked excitedly, and the vision of Oak Meadows began to take shape: a school that would respect children as intelligent, sensitive human beings; a school in which learning would involve the whole child, and not just the intellect; a school where living and education were not separate realities, but an integrated whole."

The birth of Oak meadows was not instantaneous. They were plagued with problems finding a location as well as the capital to keep the business running. Still, over the next few years, they held on to the ideals that were Oak Meadows as it finally evolved into a homeschool curriculum.

With some inspiration from Steiner's Waldorf school the Williams held tight to their vision of what education should look like. They believe learning must involve the whole child, so learning materials should not only help children learn to read, write, and think, but also to paint, draw, write poetry, play music, build things and learn through experience. The other components of the Oak Meadows philosophy are respect for a child's stage of development and recognition of his/her learning style. As children mature, Oak Meadow advocates students being involved in their communities and being of service to others. They also promote the development of a talent and leadership skills.

Williams credits his wife with educating families to the benefits these principles as well as building a supportive homeschool community. He says, "Bonnie had an intuitive sense that made mothers love her. She could cut to the core of an issue." He states she received hundreds of phone calls because of her natural ability to council people. Later in life, she used this intuition to become a homeopathic physician.

Of the four children and five grandchildren she leaves behind, some have continued in the works of Oak Meadows. Two of her children have also gown to homeschool their children.

Bonnie Williams used her wisdom and intuition as a mother, her commitment to her husband, and her dedication and fortitude to a vision that would reach out and help other families create a meaningful learning environment. Oak Meadows and that philosophy continue today. Her legacy is a gift to us all.

When it come to homeschooling teens and moving them toward college, many parents view these years with a bit of trepidation. Over the last few years we have had the reassuring voice of Cafi Cohen to calm us and show us the way. After years of helping tens of thousands of families move through these later years of education with ease, she is retiring to spend more time with her husband, Terry.

So we would like to pay tribute to Cafi and the contribution she has made to the homeschooling world.

You may know Cohen from her column on homeschooling older teens in Home Education Magazine, and her "Senior High" column for Homeschooling Today, and of course "Cafi's Commentary" here in The Link each issue. But she best known for her books What About College? How Homeschooling Leads To Admissions To The Best Colleges and Universities , her second book Homeschooling: The Teen Years and her most recent book Homeschoolers' College Admissions Handbook

These books have given parents the guidance they need to develop an education plan for their teens as well as generating a successful college admission package. Cohen began homeschooling in the late 1980's. Terrell, her husband, was a periodontist in the United States Air Force. This meant that the Cohen family were relocated a few times. Cohen's children had attended school in three other states: California, North Dakota, and Texas, and were losing interest.

She says, "Jeff was a seventh grader and Tamara a sixth grader at "the best middle school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The school in New Mexico, like the ones before it, promised to be simply another educational institution to which we would have to adjust. Jeff and Tamara, at that point, looked like kids who had everything going for them. Each had a full schedule of gifted and honors classes in addition to the typical roster of extracurricular activities. Both took piano lessons. They played on basketball and baseball teams and swam competitively in the summer. They got along well with their peers. When asked about school, both kids were likely to say, "It's okay," without elaborating. They didn't love it, didn't hate it."

Cohen says she was concerned that Jeff and Tamara did not view school more positively. She says, "I worried also about academics. Although both kids received good report cards, sometimes it seemed their abilities did not warrant the high grades. My straight-A's-in-math daughter would hesitate when I asked her to multiply six times seven. Jeff did not enjoy recreational reading. Neither child seemed to be on track to becoming a self-directed learner."

After hearing an interview with a homeschooling family on T.V. she decided to give it a try. Still hesitant and filled with questions about issues of socialization, legalities and transitioning them back into an educational facility later she did research.

Cohen found comfort in, David & Micki Colfax's Homeschooling For Excellence. She says, "Our hesitancy about home education completely disappeared after I spent two days - one for each child - observing everything in their government school classes." (Cohen feels the term "government school" is more appropriate term for public school.)

Over the years, the Cohens tried a variety of homeschooling methods, but when it came time for their eldest to think about college, Cohen thought about returning to a traditional high school. Her son convinced her otherwise and that was when she began to develop the necessary tools he would need to apply to college. It was through her own experiences and successes that Cohen decided to write a book to help other families facing the same challenges.

Cohen has brought her wit and humility to the subject. She has touched many parents with her honesty and "just do it" attitude. Because of Cohen, the intimidation a public institution can impose on families is reassured by her "they don't scare me" message. For all of this we thank Cafi Cohen for sharing. You will be missed, Cafi. - C.R.