Entering the national dialogue on education:Matthew, Ian and Felicia Cowden ~ Free Schooling.


For Kauai Magazine

April 7, 2012 | Posted by Limor


Life is the School
by Anne E. O’Malley, Photos by Keri Cooper

Felicia Alongi Cowden and her son, Ian Ikaika Cowden, have self-published a book through Amazon that makes school sound like fun! Called Life is the School… Love is the Lesson, it is a book about education—and so much more. It’s the kind of book you can pick up, read a short chunk and return another day to read some more.

It’s a story of their past year when just she and Ian were free schooling together. The book stems from a brain sprout she had, a program called Akamai Learning that she designed for Kapa‘a High School but that was never implemented. Instead, she implemented it in a program of free schooling for her two sons and micro groups of other North Shore children in a variety of combinations over a period of four years. Free schooling? Whazzat? “A form of home schooling where learning is natural and easy,” Cowden writes. She promotes the possibility of mixing independent learning programs within schools to combine the best of both worlds. Cowden says a big  motivation for starting with the whole Akamai deal was “the high incarceration rate of our wonderful youth. When I see how many high-potential kids end up adjudicated, that’s an indictment of our system—not the kids. “I wanted to teach kids financial literacy because most crime is poverty related. I wanted to introduce learning with a sense of  purpose.”  There was also the problem of inflexibility within the public schools, which Cowden bumped into while running surf shops on the North Shore for 18 years. In the business, she says she met extraordinary surfers with the opportunity to travel around the world. They were punished at school because of their absences. It happened to Andy Irons, she says, who wasn’t allowed to participate in his high school graduation. In response, Cowden says that some youth dropped out in favor of home schooling. “I went to the school, saying let’s do something, offer a blend of flexible learning so kids can do magnificent things in life as well as be part of their peer circles,” she says. This is a book that supports flexibility, gives some examples of it and at the same time, it’s a chronicle of her and Ian’s year together last year.

“The conversation is about the North Shore of Kaua‘i, but it is a message to the whole nation that shares this challenge,” says Cowden. Not your ordinary book, Life is the School… paints a portrait of diversity in people and in education. Jammed with color blocks of dialogue by Felicia, Ian and over 50 residents on the North Shore, we read stories of the home schooled, the never schooled, the privately schooled and the publicly schooled. Each has gratitude for finding his or her own path to becoming educated and speaks to the individuality of life paths and choices. It’s tough to put down—319 pages yank you into the life, for example, of world renowned surfer Laird Hamilton and his challenges with public schooling. You meet 13-year-old singer songwriter Madison, home-schooled half a day and the other half, working on her career. We meet an endless number of talented individuals, some emerging in their fields, others already established. From kalo farmers to a helicopter pilot; from a cultural educator to a public school science teacher—all speak to the diversity of their learning styles and needs and, basically, how they fed their souls. And perhaps Ian himself, whose dialogue runs through the book on many topics, is a prime study in the mix of public, private, free and home schooling.

Now a ninth grader at Island School, Ian is soaking up teen time with pals. Free schooled for three years—his brother, Matt, now at Island School, was there for two of them—his natural bent for music led him to determine his career path—he’s in a band with regular gigs. He has his own radio show, Inside the Amp with Ian Cowden each Saturday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. on KKCR. Free schooling, he made poi on Thursday mornings at Waipa, making friends in their ‘80s. “I respect them and they respect me,” he says. Now in a classroom, there’s no more scooching into an election booth with his mom, or attending county planning commissions, huge arenas for learning. As a budding cook drawing on over 150 edible plants from the “yarden” of their Kilauea home, Ian loved preparing dishes. He still knows how to grill a wicked Panini that he stuffs with lunchmeat, eggplant, basil, chives, oregano and rosemary picked from outside his door. Theirs is an enormous book, a compelling series of stories that chronicle a year and lifetimes in education. Says Felicia, “I feel humbled by the whole thing. I’m surprised and amazed at how much I learned and my child learned and how much better my life is for having taken this time with Ian. “A lot of people might think it’s about being bound to the house with a lot of books. But it’s not; it’s a fun adventure and that’s what this book tries to show.”

Cowden is a part of Kaua‘i Innovative Learning Network, a team of public, private and parochial school principals working toward finding stronger, broader methods of supporting students. She concludes, “I want to share this message  so that it becomes part of a national dialogue on education. I think it’s relative to anywhere.”


ForKauai online 

Office of the County Council - County of Kauaʻi

4396 Rice Street, Suite 209, Lihuʻe, Kauaʻi, HI 96766 

Office Phone: 808-241-4092 / Fax: 808-241-6349 

Cell Phone: 808-652-4363

Felicia Cowden Ohana

4191 Kilauea Road, Kilauea, HI 96754

Cell Phone: 808-652-4363