Madison Browning, 8, spent a recent school day coloring, playing on swings at a park and whirling to Japanese string music at a cozy dance studio. Caedyn Curto, 13, studied biblical scripture at his family's kitchen table before tackling decimals, completing a biology test and revising a journalism essay.
The Browning and Curto families, both of whom live in the South Bay, have embraced very different styles of education. But they now find themselves on the same side of a battle to continue teaching their children at home in the face of an appellate court ruling that home schooling in California must be conducted by credentialed instructors.
The February court decision is not being enforced pending appeals. The 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed last week to rehear the case in June, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to support new legislation allowing home schooling if the decision is not reversed. Meanwhile, the ruling has forged a rare alliance of religious and secular home schoolers.
Religious families like the Curtos remain a significant bloc, but other motives have grown increasingly visible. The state's estimated 166,000 home schoolers include students from affluent suburban families who can live on one income, children who hope to hone an athletic talent or artistic passion and those who, like the Brownings, shun traditional education for a more child-centric approach.
Before she had children, Michelle Browning of Torrance, who has a bachelor's degree in early childhood education, taught at elementary schools for four years. But she didn't like the insistence on conformity that she saw.
After meeting home schooling parents, Browning began to think about educating her children herself.
The 41-year-old, mother of Madison and Makenzie, 6, broached the idea with her husband, Brandon, who was skeptical. He had fond memories of his school days in New Jersey and wanted a similar experience for his daughters.
"I'm traditional . . . especially when it comes to things that worked for me in the past," the 37-year-old law enforcement official said of his initial reluctance.
Browning persisted, ultimately persuading her skeptical husband to let her try home schooling on a month-by-month basis.
Browning had first heard of "unschooling," which shuns regimented lessons, when her first daughter was born. She questioned how children could learn the basics without instruction. But by the time Madison was 2, she knew her letters and numbers because of her own inquisitiveness.
"I decided to let it unfold and take a back seat and let her take the lead," Browning said.
On a recent morning at the family's tidy Torrance home, the girls arose late. By the time they were eating breakfast, their peers in traditional schools had already been in class for more than an hour. During the meal, Madison led visitors to the backyard to meet her pet rabbit, Holly. Makenzie, sleepy from a late night of ballet practice, cuddled on her mother's lap.
Shortly before 10 a.m., they set off for a Redondo Beach community center for a twice-a-month geography lesson with other home schoolers. Children participated if they were interested in the day's topic, Mexico and Central America. Some were not and instead listened to iPods or text-messaged their friends.
The children gathered in a semicircle to hear about their peers' vacations to the region. Lily Diaz-Brown, 9, described touring a cathedral in bustling Mexico City.
"What's it like inside?" Madison asked.
Lily replied, "It looked a little dusty because it's really old."
The co-op class was started by fellow "unschooler" Loren Mavromati of Redondo Beach because of her son's interest in geography. Eighteen families take part. But this organization does not conflict with unschooling because the girls were given the option to participate, Browning said.
After the lesson, the girls took part in a dance class at a friend's home.
Though Browning doesn't follow a curriculum, she is familiar with state standards. In a traditional school, Madison would be learning about California missions, so the family plans to visit a mission.
"I know what the state standards are, but they don't govern our lives," she said.
Just as a child doesn't need to be taught to walk, she said, the girls' natural curiosity has led them to read and write.
They "just had a desire to communicate and it unfolded," she said.
The freewheeling nature of the Brownings' day is a sharp contrast with a day at the Curtos' home.
A thick blue plastic binder contains detailed lesson plans in Bible study, math, grammar, spelling, history, reading, science and art that mother Kym Curto creates every two weeks for Caedyn and his sister Chamberlain, 9.
Curto has two other children, 3-year-old McKeayn and 20-month-old McConaughey, whom she tends as she teaches her older children.
"It has its rough days. It's not all peaches and cream," said the slim 41-year-old. "Then there are days where you think, 'Wow, it was a good day! It worked!' "