“Mom, Dad, can I stop going to school?”

IMG_1070by Lisa Cooley and Brendan Heidenreich

Those who are familiar with alternative education can find many stories of successful learning beyond school.  But many young people remain in forced-compliance, factory-model schools.

We’re adults who didn’t like school ourselves, and we feel compelled to respond to today’s unhappy students who want to take charge of their learning and lives.

As we researched and brainstormed ways to help, we found great promise in NorthStar Teens and the Liberated Learners centers based on their model.  North Star’s co-founder Ken Danford explains the model in his TEDx talk, School is Optional.  Ken helps families understand that leaving school need not be scary, and he provides a flexible program: voluntary attendance at a learning center, plus personal advisers who help participants pursue meaningful learning, making the most of their time and intelligence.

More and more people are launching Liberated Learners centers, but too many interested young people still don’t have access to them.  That’s why we developed Catalyst Learning Network.  It’s an online learning community inspired by Liberated Learners and by School-Survival.net, a support site for teens who hate being forced to go to school.

Surviving School

The first thing you read on School Survival is, “It’s OK to hate school. There is nothing wrong with you.” For teens, this is often surprising news. Some venture further into the site, and find a rich community of young people from all over the world who have one thing in common: they are all struggling to survive school.

Conversations in chat room and on discussion forums center on strategies for making it through each day (as well as gaming, music, and thoughts about life). Even when the site endures the occasional teen meltdowns and conflict, School Survival is a sanctuary.

But none of these teens will find a real solution to their daily boredom, pressure, and wasted time unless their parents agree to a way out of conventional schooling.

Voices of School Survival

Kira, 15, and Siren, 14, both want to be game developers and have their eye on a program at a nearby technical college.  They’re emotionally drained by school, and they struggle with meaningless assignments, but their parents have refused to consider alternatives.  We’re working with Kira and Siren to develop a plan for early college, learning beyond school, and helping their parents understand the viability of these life paths.

MurkScribe is 15. He is at a “therapeutic school,” because he refused to do schoolwork at his previous school.  He feels he has no control, no way to pursue what he loves to learn. He plays the piano as much as possible, but he battles with anxiety and depression. He is tired of withering away at school, but equally afraid of a harsh, soul-draining job. His parents, immigrants who value duty to family, insist that he complete school and get a good job.  We’re working with MurkScribe to make the most of his time, and helping him explore paths in life that he’ll find fulfilling.

Mo just turned 15. He is bright, curious and outgoing. He was in a “dark place,” but his mood leapt when he discovered School Survival. He wants to help fix education. “The problems are the constant grading and ranking, the one-size-fits-all model,” he says, “and the compulsory element. The only thing taught in school is how to follow orders.”  He’s interested in a life path that includes programming and bringing the visually-impaired products industry into the 21st century.  When he has approached his parents about alternatives to school, only conflict has resulted.  We’re working with Mo to propose an alternative to his family.

“Mom, Dad, can I stop going to school?”

This question is difficult for many young people to ask, and difficult for many parents to hear. Those who enjoyed school are perplexed by their kids’ lack of enthusiasm. Those who “hated school like everybody else” tell their kids to buck up and get through it. Very few are saying “Yes. I get it.  Let’s work out another plan for your learning.”

That’s why we developed Catalyst.  We work with students and parents to find a learning path for each learner. We help students coordinate their learning experiences; organize writing workshops and other classes; arrange for speakers; recruit mentors; help find in-person activities like work and internships; document achievements in “success portfolios;” and even create high school transcripts.

If you are a young person looking for a change, a parent looking for alternatives, or if you know of a family in that situation, Catalyst can help. And If you’d like to mentor a young person who has made the leap out of school, please contact us as well. Help us spread the word and create a world where no one is stuck in obsolete, forced-compliance, factory-model schools!

Lisa Cooley has been an advocate of self-directed learning on a local and  national level for ten years. She is a violin teacher, the mom of 2 teenagers, and serves on her local school board. She is a co-founder of Catalyst Learning Network.

Brendan Heidenreich dropped out of high school as soon as he found a way to convince his parents.  He last quit going to college in 2005, when he was majoring in psychology and found a richer learning experience on School Survival forums, where he helps participants work through problems, discover options, and connect with allies.  He is also a co-founder of Catalyst Learning Network.