Sapphire Srigley, now 16, was halfway through the ninth grade at Ewing High School in central New Jersey when she realized she wasn't cut out for "the social pressures and academic stress" of public education.
"English pushed it over the edge — they were constantly teaching things that were not pertinent to literature and that took away from what I was really interested in, which was French," said Sapphire. So she was thrilled to find a radical alternative: An unconventional program called the Bucks Learning Cooperative run out of an old white schoolhouse in Langhorne where a teen's interests set the curriculum.
Now in her third year, Sapphire still studies French but focuses on art history, interning on Wednesdays at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and even teaching a Western art course to other kids. Her passion for "self-directed learning" and distrust of traditional classrooms is shared by the two veteran teachers who have opened BLC.
"A lot of kids don't look at high school as a way to learn and grow – it's putting in time, a four-year sentence," said Joel Hammon, 39, who spent seven years at Neshaminy High School before teaming with Solesbury School's Paul Scutt to open the first of their alternative schools – the Princeton Learning Cooperative – in 2010.
Their "unschools" – including a third facility in Flemington, N.J. – are places where kids don't take tests, teachers don't take attendance, homework is optional and rare, and diplomas aren't handed out at the end. The co-op offers classes three days a week – students have off on Wednesdays and take field trips on Fridays – and the teacher is sometimes another student, or a volunteer expert from the community.
Advocates say what makes these free-range learning programs so unique is a commitment to education driven by the passion and energy of young learners, with adults on hand to gently steer them toward knowledge of things they truly care about. Students can take subjects as traditional as math or as unorthodox as learning about trains.
According to the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, there are a handful of "democratic schools" and learning cooperatives in the Philadelphia region, including the Philadelphia Free School in the city, Open Connections in Newtown Square, and the South Jersey Sudbury School in Medford.
Alliance board member Scott Noelle said he believes unschooling is growing but it's hard to keep track since much of it is going on in homes. He sees only positives and says research indicates that when "children are passionate about something they learn faster and more efficiently. It's really just humans were meant to learn in the sense that our species evolved without schools."
Learning cooperatives like BLC emerged from the home-schooling movement as a place where homeschooled kids could take a few specialized classes with others. In Pennsylvania homeschoolers must submit a plan with required subjects to the local superintendent and be reviewed annually by a certified teacher. In New Jersey, there is even less governance, requiring only that homeschoolers inform the local school board they are learning at home.
Hammon said the concept appeals to a range of students. "There are just a lot of kids that aren't thrilled with school," he said. "They're super bright but…they don't want the social part and they don't want to sit still. Or they're into something, whether it's theater, music, whatever, or they have a chronic medical condition." He also said a high percentage of students dealt with anxiety problems in bigger public schools.
Still, attracting students to an "unschool" has not been easy. The nonprofit Langhorne program, for example, is only at about half of its 30-student capacity. Tuition for the nonprofit program is set at $13,000 a year, but the school offers needs-based reductions for families who can't afford to pay the full amount. Students can attend from ages 12 to 18 or 19.
Raised in a family of teachers, Hammon said he started out with "a lot of idealistic ideas about the power of traditional schools to improve lives and make the world a better place" – but came to feel that most public high school kids were just going through the motions.
In the mid-2000s, Hammon learned of North Star: Self Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland, Mass., cofounded by Ken Danford in 1996.
"I was literally jumping out of my chair and doing a little dance in my office," he said. "This is how I imagined teaching and relating to young people." Hammon met Scutt a few years later. Inspired by North Star, the pair started a self-directed learning program.
On a recent day at their Langhorne facility, a half-dozen students sat on couches holding a lively discussion about whether this year's school trip should be to the Grand Canyon or Iceland, while upstairs Sapphire met with a mentor to discuss her schedule and 14-year-old Leah Hart of Morrisville worked in a math class with Scutt on quadratic equations.
Leah said she takes an eclectic mix of one-hour classes that range from the traditional, like math and biology, to more offbeat subjects – Hebrew, guitar lessons, a class on Dungeons and Dragons, and American history through film, where the students watch movies like Newsies then talk about the Industrial Revolution and unionization.
After experiencing "bullying and peer pressure" at a nearby charter school, Leah said she decided to try the Bucks Learning Cooperative when she and her mom met Scutt through his beekeeping class at Snipes. This program, she said, "is much nicer," adding that when it comes to homework, "if I don't want to do it I don't have to — but if I get homework I feel a little responsible to do it."
Students who develop a strong passion for a subject are encouraged to develop a course and teach others. Faith Treacy, 16, said she became so fascinated with Korean culture several years ago that she now heads a class with three other students, and has recently been learning the language over the internet.
"I mostly teach comparison to American culture vs. Korean culture," Faith said. "I look up online different topics that I want to teach." She said she'd love to eventually move to South Korea and become a translator but for now – like the majority of her peers at the Bucks Learning Cooperative – she has her sights set on college.
Hammon said the roughly 70 percent to 80 percent of students who are interested in college get there, by transitioning through community college, or obtaining a GED degree for schools that require a diploma. What they've learned when they get there, he said, is how to take charge of their own education.
"We get kids who are pretty shut down," Hammon said. "At first they're just sitting on the couch and watching cat videos" – but eventually they get drawn into the energy of self-directed learning. "What they're doing is recovering and realizing their life is their own."