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Blazing the education trail

In a changing academic landscape, one family builds a homeschooling program from the ground up

Posted: February 1, 2014 10:45 p.m.
Updated: February 1, 2014 10:45 p.m.
The Cespedes family, from left, Vicki, Jan, Giana, Ivana, Briana and Belicia, stands for a portrait at their home in Canyon Country. The Cespedes family, from left, Vicki, Jan, Giana, Ivana, Briana and Belicia, stands for a portrait at their home in Canyon Country.
The Cespedes family, from left, Vicki, Jan, Giana, Ivana, Briana and Belicia, stands for a portrait at their home in Canyon Country.

Vicki Cespedes sat in a leather chair in her family’s living room in Canyon Country, her four daughters perched in a circle around her.

“Mastery became the goal -- not just the grade,” Vicki said, explaining the philosophy behind her girls’ education. “If they could demonstrate mastery, they could move on.”

Abandoning the traditional approach for something radically different tends to earn them looks of disbelief, they said.

By throwing convention out the window, however, the Cespedes found something that works best for their family.

They examined the purpose of education under their own lens. And they overlooked no alternative education tool as a possible piece to complete their program.

In the end, they drew up an ever-changing homeschooling program that bends and shifts to the girls’ interests and strengths as they explore the world of education and the careers of their dreams.

And they are on their way to achieving all their goals.

Ivana, 17, is working toward her master’s degree in nutrition.

Belicia, 16, took her first attempt at the CPA exam last month.

Briana, 15, completed credits for her bachelor’s degree last Wednesday.

Giana, 13, graduated high school two years ago.

Though the pace has been fast, each girl slows down once she finds her area of expertise, with the intention of becoming excellent in her field, Vicki said.

“No one is the same,” Ivana said. “Working at your own pace provides motivation and confidence in your abilities.”

An inspired approach

When the girls were young, their mother, Vicki, decided that teaching mastery and self-motivation was more important than the grade.

“We study one subject at time,” Belicia said.

Instead of taking multiple classes at once, like most curriculum dictates, the Cespedes daughters complete one course at a time, working through the material at her own pace.

“It was really motivating,” Vicki said. “They could accelerate or slow down if they wanted.”

High school

The program worked so well that Ivana and Belicia began to gain momentum in their early years.

They completed their courses, mailing in the work to their homeschooling program and earning credit much faster than their public-school peers.

Ahead of the game, the two sisters tested out of junior high, demonstrating the proficiency to move onto a high-school level homeschooling program.

Finding a high school that would accept an almost-11-year-old, however, proved difficult.

“I remember writing ‘almost 11’ on my applications,” Belicia said with a laugh, mocking an 11-year-old’s scrawl by scribbling in the air.

Belicia, entering as the youngest student in the school, and Ivana were accepted to the American School of Correspondence, a regionally accredited distance education school.

Founded in 1897, the American School now offers an alternative form of education for many child actors and homeschool families, Vicki said.

At the American School, the girls maintained their pace, possibly even quickening.

Belicia finished her high school requirements in about 10 months.

“I just wanted to get high school done,” Belicia said with a laugh. “I’ll learn in college.”

Their sisters soon followed.

Finishing high school in about two or three years, the four girls graduated anywhere from age 11 to 14, setting her own pace.

After high school, they wanted to continue at their own pace, again surpassing their peers and completing their education early.

So Vicki, striving to craft a program that fit her girls’ needs, went in search of another alternative education tool to match their goals.

Testing out

Building on their original single-subject method, the Cespedes added another layer.

At first, the girls had only vocational goals, aspiring to work for their father’s landscaping company one day.

“But we figured, we’re not going to start driving to work every day,” Belicia said, finding herself in the uncommon situation of making post-high school plans at age 13.

So they started exploring courses of interest at College of the Canyons.

“I was really scared my first day of class,” Giana said. At the time, she was 11 years old.

Her sisters, however, were there to support her. For most of their community college careers, the girls took classes together, forming a support system for the inevitable age interrogations from curious peers.

“We tried to not to bring it up,” Ivana said, with a sideways smile.

In the meantime, the sisters began acquiring college credit through the College-Level Examination Program, a credit through examination program by the College Board.

After studying the material, if she could pass the College Board CLEP exam, she would earn anywhere from three to 12 college credits in the subject. Those credits are then stored in a “bank” and can be used toward any college degree that accepts the program within 20 years, Belicia explained.

CLEP testing also helped save on tuition, as one test costs $80. The family agreed they’ve saved thousands compared to private or University of California schools.

Holing up in the Cespedes study cave, each girl took her turn with CLEP time, spending months rigorously studying to earn a degree.

At one point, Belicia took seven CLEP exams in one week, completing 100 units in tests overall, she said.

Most girls completed the majority of their special education through CLEP testing. Again, the goal was mastery in her chosen field, not simply achieving a grade in an entry-level course.

Once they figured tapped into their proficiencies, they took off with their specific career paths, Vicki said.

“By finishing early, we have the time to learn our crafts and actually start practicing them,” Belicia said.

Career jump start

All four girls were accepted to the Thomas Edison State College.

At age 17, Ivana is currently enrolled in a master’s program in health and nutrition education, with a holistic focus.

“It’s time for expertise,” she said. “I’m taking the time now to focus on my degree and on my field.”

If Ivana chooses to pursue education further, she could finish a doctorate program at age 22.

At age 16, Belicia was conferred for a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

Consumed by a love of numbers, she dreams of accounting for her father’s business before going out on her own.
Last month, she took the qualifying exam to become a certified public accountant. Though she doesn’t expect to pass the January exam, she is scheduled to retry this month.

“Generally, I hear it takes about four tries to pass,” she said.

If Belicia passes this year, she thinks she will be the youngest person to pass the exam at 17 years old, stealing the record from a 19-year-old, she said.

At age 15, Briana just completed the course credits for a bachelor’s degree in business marketing.

Though she wants to get her real estate license, she has to wait to take the exam until she’s 18. So she will learn the field while working for her dad’s company until she’s of age.

At age 13, Giana is a college student, majoring in American Sign Language and opting toward a more vocational path.

“I like hands-on things,” she said, communicating her passion through lively hand gestures.

In a chorus of thanks and praise, the girls attributed the speed and quality of their education to their mother’s plan.

“We figured this all out as we went along,” Ivana said.

“You don’t have to be a prodigy to do it,” Briana said.

Missing nothing

Though these girls met education benchmarks at an almost unbelievable pace, none expressed a feeling of missing out.

“We go to Cold Stone’s for ice cream every time we finish a course,” Briana said.

Throughout their years of study, they’ve taken up activities and sports, as well.

Whether it was piano, tennis or a daily field trip, the girls said they had something to look forward to each day.
“They had lots of slumber parties, too,” Vicki said. “We were always celebrating something.”

And the competition never grew too fierce.

Meeting eyes and exchanging smiles, the girls agreed through shrugs and nods they had developed a “friendly rivalry” over the years.

“Mostly,” a sister added, igniting a series of laughs that rippled through the room.

Trading sideways glances and short giggles, the girls always seemed on the same wavelength.

“I wanted to be like her since I was a baby,” Belicia said, pointing to Ivana and expressing her admiration as simple fact. “I wanted to be with her so bad that I caught up with her in school.”

“I was so mad,” Ivana said, sitting on the rug and hugging her knees a bit tighter but finishing with a smile.

But each person in the family had a role and responsibility in the success of the other members.

“Dad is the vision and the decision-maker,” Ivana said. “Mom puts it all together -- she’s the brain. Then we would just do it.”

Looking around, the girls and their parents quietly exchanged glances of gratitude -- they were proud of each other.

“Our parents taught us to be purposeful,” Briana said. “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change it.”


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