What is an alternative to school?


by Peter Bergson

We at AlternativesToSchool.com are well aware that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to self-directed learning is no more appropriate than it is for traditional schooling. As a result, we have chosen to present multiple options for families who are dissatisfied with the standardized model. Previous blog postings on this site have highlighted the three major categories of alternatives: homeschooling/unschooling, democratic schools and resource centers. I should like to extend the conversation by describing the center which I co-founded, which in some ways is a hybrid product that has been evolving ever since we started in 1978. It’s called Open Connections (OC).

OC began as a pre-school/kindergarten program serving youths ages 3-5. In many ways we reflected other “progressive” private school programs in that we presented a physical environment filled with both prepared materials (e.g., Cuisenaire rods, Montessori beads and cylinders) and raw materials (clay, art supplies, wood). The youths attended four mornings a week and were basically free to roam the 1000-square foot room and choose their activities, required only to do a measure of clean-up after each and to behave in ways consistent with respect for self and others. Two adults (my wife and myself) were there to offer suggestions and invite them to join us in games or projects with the understanding that they could always say “no, thanks”, and often did so. We also emphasized some practices (which I shall discuss in more detail soon) that we developed from our work in the area of creative group problem solving in the business world.

Within a very few years, parents began asking us to consider expanding into an elementary school so that they could continue with the Open Connections approach. We declined, not wanting to reinforce the basically full-time separation of youths from their families (6+ hours a day, 5 days a week) and, equally important ot us, not wanting to have to answer to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s curricular requirements, among others. “But what will you do with Amanda?” (our eldest, who was five), they asked. In short, we hoped to find a private school that would be a.) progressive and b.) open to part-time attendance. Didn’t happen.

Then, one day, the parent most desperate for us to expand came in to pick up her son with a huge grin on her face, calling out, “Eureka, eureka—I’ve found it! I know what we’re going to do!.” In her hand was a copy of Growing Without Schooling, the relatively new publication from John Holt that promoted unschooling. I immediately read it, then got on the phone and called their office, spoke with Pat Farenga and arranged for John to come down to do two presentations—one about How Children Fail and one a workshop for would-be homeschoolers. Immediately in my mind, the transformation from pre-K/K to homeschool resource center had begun.

Over the next fifteen years, we gradually expanded the ages of our clientele and began to add different programs based on their wishes and those of their parents. At the same time, we worked on amending the law regarding homeschooling, seeking to make it an automatic legal option instead of being at the discretion of one’s local superintendent. In the mid-‘80s, very few people had even heard of this path let alone were pursuing it, so a center that provided help to parents and a community for young people was a welcome commodity to the tiny minority in our upscale suburb of Philadelphia who hadn’t bought in to the education-as-competition paradigm. Still, our numbers grew, slowly but surely, until we have a core group of about almost 50 families, many of whom could imagine sticking with us through the high school years, assuming that we could find a way to continue to expand our offerings.

In 1998, we were approached by the parents of one of our five year olds regarding the possibility of expanding to a much larger campus, complete with many more resources (both material and human), that would attract families who might otherwise settle for a progressive private school (if they could afford it) but who would prefer a more self-directed (or, as I prefer to call it, a more natural) approach to education. After three years of planning, fund-raising, site-searching and continuous marketing, we did eventually open at a new location—on a luxurious 28-acre site that had been part of a much larger farm/estate, complete with two ponds, fields and a rather large stone farmhouse dating back to 1732 & 1932. Clearly we were blessed by have two major donors, both OC parents, who believed strongly in our mission. We have never been out of the woods financially (i.e., totally self-supporting), although we get closer every year and hope to arrive by 2018.

The OC community currently serves 160 youths, ages 4-18, the majority of whom attend either two or three days each week. (A few are toddlers who come once a week for a couple of hours only with a parent; a few older youths come one full day, and a few teens come four days.) Most days feature a selection of programs that run from 9:15-2:15, and youths enroll accordingly—say, for the Monday Open Program, or the Thursday Open Program (for 4-8 year olds); or one of the many Group Tutorials; or the Shaping Your Life program, which actually is a two-days-a-week program.

To find a community resource center near you, please click here.

The Open Program is conducted just like our original preschool/kindergarten program, so the youths have pretty much total choice as to how they spend their day(s), all 15-20 of them with four facilitators (staff and a teen intern). They may work in their woodshop, at the lab table or art area, or join in some puzzling activity as well as read, wander, play house or store, observe, enjoy the outside fields and creek and tire swing, or create any of a hundred other ways to use their time and the resources around them.

The Group Tutorials are smaller groups—usually around 12 youths with two-to-three years of each other in age, such as 8-10 or 11-13, plus two adults—who work together to decide how to spend their days, with portions interjected by the adults. (For example, the lead facilitator may initiate a social game that further develops the ability to speak extemporaneously, or write about favorite experience or fantasy moment.) Much of the content is determined collaboratively by the youths and then individually, such as choosing to learn more about outer space and then deciding what one wants personally to explore, such as space travel, the solar system, extra-terrestrial life, etc. They then create, say, one-to-two-hour presentations, often experiential and perhaps accompanied by computer graphics. They also spend a lot of time working in pairs vs. in the full group, although morning “check-ins”, which can take up to an hour, often involve the kind of deep, full-group sharing that builds the sense of compassion and comaradarie can be the most important part of the OC experience for many youths. In the older groups, outside guests often add a strong measure of heightened expertise and introduce whole new worlds of knowledge for the youths to consider, such as the world of law, engineering, or medicine.

In an around the scheduled programs there are numerous opportunities for both free play and socializing in general as well as youth-directed adventures such as dances, spaghetti dinners and other fund-raisers, plays and music nights. There is also one day a month called Community Day, which is free both financially and in terms of choice of activities. Anyone who is enrolled in any program may come and hang out with friends, plan an activity, play games, join a discussion group (the parents have their own book club), or otherwise enjoy themselves. It is the height of self-direction at OC. It is also a time when parents, who are always free to be in the comfortable Gathering Space of our rennovated Barn, whether to socialize or do their own work on their personal computers, to get to know parents whose youths ordinarily don’t come to OC on the same days as theirs. This further develops the sense of community throught the whole campus.

Clearly, then, Open Connections is something quite different from, say, a democratic school, where youths come full time and are totally in charge of their time (except when serving on a judicial committee), and where the adults rarely, if ever, offer direction or even uninvited suggestions with regard to what a youth might do. This type of input is an important part of what our families are paying for: they have plenty of self-directed time the rest of the week; they come to OC in large part for this learner-friendly “structure”. If something is truly not to their liking, even after they have had opportunities to help shape it, they always have the option of saying “No thanks”, and they know that. This rarely happens, however, because of their involvement in the decision making and planning upfront.

One other aspect of Open Connections that I should like to emphasize is actually at the core of our pedagogy. We call it Process Consciousness. It comes from my previous career as a creative process consultant, where I worked with a firm that helped adults retrieve the kinds of creative problem-solving and innovation-promoting behaviors that they exhibited as toddlers but which are schooled out of most people living in our culture. We consciously attend to the ways that new ideas are generated and how to expand our natural capacity to do so. We also attend to the ways new ideas are generally negated in our culture, both within schools and out, and what people can do to overcome this highly negative attribute of our society. Specific techniques for generating novel ideas as well as ways to work with others to develop, rather than defend, them, are another part of our “process curriculum.” The phrase How-to generally replaces the more commonplace you can’t or yeah, but… at Open Connections, and as a result we hear over and over again what a positive and collaborative environment there is for everyone. This is not to say that conflict doesn’t occur, only that we provide a constructive, non-competitive way to resolve differences that serves as a life-long message for both the youth and their parents to live by if they so choose.

For me, the biggest challenge facing Open Connections currently is how to keep costs down (or better yet, reduce them). Ours is a plentiful environment that takes money to maintain and thrive. We do our best to make it possible for people of modest incomes to join, including an extensive bartering program that takes advantage of the skills as well as effort of our parent body. We also believe that life is, to a large extent, a matter of making choices based on one’s values, so when people say “that’s epensive”, they are often saying “I don’t value that to the extent that it cost you to produce it”, which of course is their right and their choice. Still, the lower our fees, the more people can consider making this choice. Toward that end, we continue to fundraise for our Friendship Fund which, we hope, will eventually kick out enough interest to offset more of the costs to moderate and low income families. (Of course, if vouchers were ever to become a reality, with no strings attached, that would be best of all, but I’m not likely to see that until we reach the Tipping Point and more people believe in natural learning.)

Anyone wishing to know more about Open Connections is welcome to visit our site, www.openconnections.org, and view the (ten-year-old) video. Or better still, come visit.

Peter Bergson is the father of four grown unschoolers who, with his wife, Susan Shilcock (since deceased) co-founded Open Connections, Inc., for the purpose of integrating the creative problem-solving body of knowledge from Synectics, Inc. into the world of education for young people and their parents. He continues to consult, chairs OC’s development committee, is working on a project to bring the OC approach to inner-city Philadelphia, works on his book and loves every minute with his six grand-ones, ages 4-8.