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Lifestyle // Island Matters
Mufi Hannemann

‘Sofa So Good’ For Dysgraphia Student

When Braxton Kahawai of Kapolei was in the fourth grade, his mother, Fran, had reason to worry.

“His handwriting was atrocious. He doodled all over his homework and often gave me blank looks, and answered, ‘I don’t know’ to many of my pointed questions,” says Fran Villarmia-Kahawai.

Braxton agrees: “I didn’t notice anything was wrong, I just thought I had messy handwriting, and my teachers couldn’t read it so I had to always start over.”

Braxton’s illegible writing led to a series of challenges, including difficulties organizing his letters and numbers. The struggle grew immensely. “I couldn’t get good grades because I couldn’t organize my thoughts,” he recalls. He had a high IQ of about 130, yet it was clear there was a disconnect between his brain and what he was writing.

Braxton started off as a perfectly normal child.

“He did really well in school and on tests … but things changed in the fourth grade when his teachers’ comments were that he was not motivated enough, he needed improvement in studying and he had difficulties concentrating in school,” says Fran, a former UH Rainbow Wahine hoopster who coached the Aiea High School basketball team to its only state championship. She had no choice but to pull her son out of private school and enroll him in the public school system for one year, until he returned to private school again. “My husband and I were frustrated that Braxton’s grades fell and he was not completing assignments and projects.”

The frustration led to mother yelling at her struggling son to the point of grounding him for not improving his report cards. “However, after we got him tested and educated ourselves about a disorder he was struggling with, we started to be more sympathetic and tried to find the right fit for his needs.”

Braxton was diagnosed with dysgraphia at the tender age of 10. Turns out he was battling a lifelong learning disorder that affects his ability to write because he lacks a complex set of motor and information-processing skills.

Bad handwriting doesn’t mean a person has dysgraphia. Experts say the disorder is like having the ability to write like William Shakespeare, without the ability to put the words on paper. Other warning signs include: 1) Trouble with buttons and zippers, 2) Can’t learn to tie shoes, 3) Have low-level tolerance and feel high pressure when writing, 4) Dislikes coloring, 5) Inability to use silverware properly, 6) Has trouble connecting “the dots,” 7) Doesn’t like Legos or small blocks, and 8) Has strong verbal skills.

“We’ve learned that dysgraphia is just a different ‘wiring’ for our son, and that he has a different learning process than what we are used to. We believe dysgraphia has hindered Braxton’s improvement and that past teachers and coaches have mistaken his relaxed demeanor and blank looks for being lazy and unmotivated,” says Fran.

So, she needed to find a school to unlock the secrets to Braxton’s wiring. After years of frustration and trying to figure out what was wrong, Braxton’s family found the right educational fit at another private school, but this one was an alternative home-schooling program called Sofa-So-Good Preparatory and Learning Center in Kapolei.

The private setting was in the home of Linda Sofa, who in 2006 started the school with her husband, Faitala. Sofa-So-Good is aimed at educating kids, including gifted and talented as well as those with learning disabilities. The school’s mission is that each child reaches his or her individual grade potential by mastering that grade level’s curricula rather than promoting them at the end of the school year.

“Because we are an all-year-around school with 200 academic school days, students advance to the next grade level at any time during the school year. Once at the high-school level, some can graduate at age 16,” explains CEO/principal Linda Sofa.

She believes schools don’t test for mastery, so many students are socially promoted to the next grade when they’re not ready. “At that point, students get frustrated, they fall further behind and give up on school altogether.”

Linda was a schoolteacher for three decades and tutored many students. Her husband saw his wife work from a small room in their house after she came home from teaching high school.

“The number of tutoring students grew from only a few to more than 15 weekly, to the point that she had to give up her full-time teaching job. Parents began to ask my wife to teach their children full time, so we opened up our living room and she started a small school,” Faitala says. “We finally decided that it was time to enlarge our home to accommodate more students.”

So the Sofas threw out their sofas in exchange for four classrooms taking over most of the first floor of their two-story home.

Linda also serves as an instructor along with a staff of teachers and aides. Faitala oversees the kids during early morning drop-offs and leads worship services three times a week.

The need for Sofa-So-Good Preparatory stemmed from Linda’s frustration with the Hawaii school system. “I was appalled at the techniques used to teach young children to read, so I wrote a letter to inform the DOE superintendent that these techniques do not work,” she says.

One day, she found an elderly lady and a young man at her doorstep holding her letter. “She explained that she was one of the four deputy superintendents who oversaw the curricula in the state of Hawaii, and that my letter landed on her desk. She asked me if I would tutor her grandson in second grade who could not read.”

The child learned to read in six months, and left the public school to attend a private school. He is now at the University of Hawaii pursuing a career in communications. He has been accepted to a prestigious media school in Los Angeles and is working on the set of Hawaii Five-0.

It’s no wonder Braxton, who is now 14, enjoys his Sofa experience. He excels in geometry, economics, and science and today, he enjoys writing. “He is constantly writing essays and studying for tests. One of the good things about the Sofa school style is that Braxton is learning independence, identifying quality work and formulating good study habits, which were severely lacking before,” said Fran.

For more information about the school, which accepts students in grades K-12, email SofaSoGoodLearningCenter@gmail.com.

mufi@mufihannemann.com

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