In January, Kristie Wheeler did something that's unthinkable to most parents.
Tired of battling with her children, 16-year-old Kathryn "Katy" Mushak and 13-year-old Kody Mushak, over school problems, she gave in to their deepest desires and allowed both to drop out.
"It was unreal," she says of her relationship with Kody. "From the time he woke up in the morning till the time he went to bed, we fought more than we discussed anything."
Kody admits that he was getting in trouble at Sabin Middle School for gabbing in class and talking back to his teachers. He wasn't doing his homework and was failing his classes. Katy, though easier on her mother, wasn't doing much better at a charter school, Colorado Springs Early Colleges. She had similar problems with mouthing off and was also failing many of her classes.
"You weren't going to tell me what I need to be learning and what I don't, and I was one to stand my ground on what I believe in," she says now, with a mischievous grin. "You're not going to tell me a different way, and you're not going to bad-mouth something in front of me. And I'm one of those people that don't put up with other people's crap, and the teachers didn't like it."
Since leaving school, Wheeler says, her children have transformed, especially Kody. These days he comes home and tells her about the bugs he found in the yard and researched on the Internet. After ignoring his Spanish work in school and failing the class, he's learning the language online of his own volition.
"Now he's nice," she says of her son. "He walks down the street with the girls downtown and, like, sings and talks to people. Are you kidding me? I couldn't get that child to come out of his room."
Technically, both children are now being home-schooled. But Wheeler still works — she isn't sitting at home with the pair going over algebra lessons. Instead, both teens spend many of their days at a quiet house near Shooks Run. There they while away the hours playing board games, gardening, wandering around outside, reading novels, watching movies, chatting with friends or exploring subjects that interest them at their leisure.
The house is the new headquarters of Proprius, "a self-directed learning community" (propriuslearning.org). Katy, Kody and the other three children who have signed up for the new program, which has a $400 monthly tuition, are under the supervision of "consultants" — adults who help them explore any concepts that might interest them, or perform trickier tasks like signing them up to take the GED or enrolling them in courses at Pikes Peak Community College.
The kids tend to learn through hands-on experiences, and by meeting with experts and mentors who can guide them. When Kody became interested in biology, for instance, he got help planting a garden. Katy, who is interested in herbs, plans to visit local apothecaries.
The staff notes that kids aren't required to have a diploma or GED to take community college courses — which most plan on doing — and many universities accept home-schoolers (requirements vary, but often acceptance is based on testing), so the students aren't necessarily limited in their ability to get a higher education. They can, in fact, be well on their way to a degree at age 18. Proponents of the approach also note that some companies are abandoning their focus on higher education, because a college education doesn't guarantee a new recruit will have the needed skills. Google, for instance, notes in its "How we hire" document, "We're less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think."
All that's encouraging, but it's worth noting that the kids at Proprius aren't required to go to college or ready themselves for an interview with Google. Actually, they aren't required to do anything. The whole concept on which Proprius is based — referred to as "unschooling" or "self-directed learning" — is that children shouldn't be forced to learn.
Allow children to do as they will, believers say, and they'll learn everything they need to, just as babies learn to walk and talk.
Around a while
People have been home schooling in their own fashion for a very long time.
In America, compulsory school attendance didn't exist anywhere until the 1850s, and many luminaries of the past — Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Florence Nightingale — were at least partially home-schooled. Thomas Edison's mother, a teacher, famously took him out of school after another teacher said he was difficult.
The concept of "unschooling," however, has roots in the 1960s and '70s, when Yale-educated author and teacher John Holt began writing books that lambasted the traditional education system and advocated for a home schooling model that put the child at the steering wheel. At the time, his arguments made him a minor celebrity. He had TV appearances and was a sought-after speaker.
An excerpt from his book Learning All the Time sums up his general take on education.
"[O]rganized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what and only because we teach them," he wrote. "This is not true. It is very close to one hundred percent false."
Holt died in 1985, but his ideas continued on. Patrick Farenga was key in continuing his legacy. He took over Holt's company and kept his educational magazine running through 2001. He still manages websites and blogs dedicated to Holt's ideas.
Farenga and his wife, who live in Medford, Mass., brought up their own three daughters in the unschooling model, though each chose to attend public schools for periods. Each has grown up to pursue higher education, and Farenga believes they were more capable of discovering their career passions because they were treated as adults from an early age — forced to be self-motivated and -directed. He says he never worried if his kids simply wanted to do nothing for a while.
"How else are you going to find out what you are really interested in instead of performing for other people?" he asks in an Indy interview.
Asked if he thinks unschooling could be a little too experimental to try out on children, he notes that until the modern age, that's how all children learned. And even now, what core knowledge kids should be taught is still being debated.
"That's the experiment: the idea of taking all of our children and making them learn the same thing at the same time," he says. "And taking them out of life."
Which is not to say that he advocates everyone switching to unschooling.
"This is an option; I don't want the whole world to go this way," he says. "I'm not saying the whole world must convert to one schooling. No, I think the problem is the world's gone the other way. They want everybody to become standardized, homogenized, Common Core, do the march through school from womb to tomb."
But some say standards are exactly what we should embrace in order to ensure all kids are prepared. The National Parent Teacher Association, for instance, believes that home schools should meet the same educational standards as public schools. The National Education Association — a union of 3 million — also isn't a fan, saying home-schoolers should have to take all state tests; parents should pay a licensed teacher to instruct their kids; and all curriculum should be approved by state departments of education.
In an emailed statement, the organization states, "The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience."
Mary Snyder, the dean of the College of Education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says she also has doubts about the unschooling approach. On the one hand, she says, she understands why many parents are frustrated with an educational culture that's increasingly focused on standards and testing. (The testing culture is, indeed, a common source of complaint we heard from local unschooling advocates and children.) But, she says, unschooling can have major drawbacks.
In Snyder's own experience as a Montessori school principal, she noticed that some home-schooled children had trouble relating to their peers. Some had strange habits, developed at home, that made making friends difficult.
She also worries that kids allowed to learn whatever they want will miss out on a balanced education, never learn the grit it takes to tackle something difficult, and may never discover their true passion. She notes that many of her college students come in believing they know the career path they want to follow, but change their minds after taking required courses in unfamiliar subjects.
"The lights go on," she says.
She also believes that children need the structure that unschoolers eschew.
"I do believe that children need a certain degree of discipline, that's why they're children," she says. "They can't do whatever they want. We see the effects of some kids that have been allowed to run their own lives without any adult supervision. Some of them never learn to make the right choices, never make good choices, and they're self-centered. They don't learn the social skills they need to be successful."
Not a lot of data
Criticism aside, unschooling doesn't appear to be going away.
In addition to a healthy collection of books on the subject, the general idea has been trending on the popular mini-lecture series TED Talks. Over 30 million people have viewed two talks given by celebrated education expert and author Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., in 2006 and 2010. (According to the biography on his website, the former professor of education at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom works with governments and education systems in Europe, Asia and the United Kingdom, as well as international agencies, Fortune 500 companies and cultural organizations.) His lectures lambasted the traditional education system — and the testing culture in particular — and supported a freer style of learning.
Also popular is the TEDx talk given by Logan Laplante, a 13-year-old, self-directed home-schooler, titled, "This Is What Happens When a Kid Leaves Traditional Education." It has over 5 million views on YouTube.
Research appears to support at least parts of the concept. A 2002 study by James A. Middleton and Photini A. Spanias of Arizona State University, which summarized 20 years of research in the area of motivation in math education, found, among other things, that intrinsic motivation worked better than reward. Plenty of research has found that children engaged in hands-on learning retain information better.
For instance, a 2009 study by Purdue University split eighth-graders into two groups. Half were taught about human impacts on water and water quality via traditional methods, and half were asked to build a water purification device. "In every area we tested, the students who were involved in a hands-on project learned more and demonstrated a deeper understanding of the issues than the traditional group," Melissa Dark, the then-assistant dean for strategic planning in Purdue's College of Technology, stated later.
That said, there's not a lot of data on the outcomes of unschooled children. One of the best sources on the subject is likely Ken Danford, who himself has given a TEDx talk on unschooling. In 1996, Danford left a career as an eighth-grade history teacher after being disillusioned by his students' negative attitudes toward learning. Together, he and a colleague co-founded North Star, a resource center for self-directed learners in Hadley, Mass.
Over the years, the center has hosted over 500 dropouts. North Star does offer a little more structure than Proprius. There are course offerings in various interest areas — Danford compares the center to a YMCA — and though no child is forced to take any of the classes, most do.
Danford stresses that the model doesn't work for every child. His own kids chose to go to a traditional school. But he says it's an important option for some kids who just can't stomach a structured environment, or perform better when allowed to direct their own course.
"Were not anti-school," he says. "We're just anti-being-trapped-in-school."
North Star has been spreading its message through seminars and consulting offered through liberatedlearnersinc.org. It was at one of those seminars in 2012 that Aubrey Fennewald learned enough about the concept to feel comfortable co-founding Proprius.
Not a school
Proprius was brought to life through a partnership between Fennewald, Raj Solanki and Charles Sjolander.
Solanki, who is now an English teacher at the alternative high school Community Prep School, had worked in alternative education before pursuing his master's degree. But it wasn't until he was pursuing that degree that he began to investigate the idea further. Looking at brain research, and at Holt's principles, Solanki says he concluded that "motivation determines and sustains and directs what people learn."
An educator, he came to believe, should be there to help guide a child along her chosen path, not pick the path. In fact, he says, he came to believe that he had succeeded in life not because of his formal education, but in spite of it.
"If you leave someone alone educationally, what has been found is people tend to seek structure," he says, "but they tend to seek the structure that furthers their goals."
He found a like mind in Fennewald, a longtime teacher and education administrator who previously worked at Community Prep School before becoming Proprius' director of outreach and development. She says that over a career of teaching, she always felt like something wasn't quite right. And though she too earned a master's degree, she says she didn't figure out what she wanted to do until she was in her 30s.
"It was through real life experiences that I was able to figure that out, not college," she says.
Sjolander, who's run his own JS Letterpress business out of his garage for 21 years, fit into the mix because he attended an "unschool" in California starting in fourth grade. The three got to know each other because they are all musicians involved with the Movement Arts Community Studio. Sjolander is now Proprius' business manager.
The trio combined their experiences to form Proprius in January, hoping to appeal to kids who don't fit into a traditional educational environment. They are currently applying for nonprofit status.
Proprius began in a small room in Cottonwood Center for the Arts, but quickly outgrew the space and moved to Sjolander's home. The Mushak children were the first to sign up; the program now has five students. Fennewald and Sjolander alternate as "consultants" or "student advisors" to the kids, and they say a few more families are considering "trying out" the school over the summer break.
All of this is possible because the state of Colorado has largely deregulated home schooling. The state does require that children ages 7 to 16 receive no fewer than 172 days of instruction per year, averaging four hours a day, and that all major subjects be taught. Children over age 11 do not have any national standardized test requirements, and no home-schooled child is required to take state assessment tests.
Proprius already has "partners" — businesses and organizations willing to serve as resources or host internships for the students — and a seven-member advisory board that includes Solanki, educator and entrepreneur Greg Cope, Pikes Peak Community College adjunct instructor Barbra Gibb, mental health counselor Alpha Gunn, architect David Armstrong, environmental educator and leadership development instructor Julie Francis, and nonprofit development manager Gregory Doan. All the board members, interestingly, have a master's degree or Ph.D.
Asked about his involvement, Armstrong says he thought the concept might help kids find their passion.
"I went to Palmer [High School], and then I got a degree at Yale [University], but I didn't get an education," he says. "And learning about this, I was like, 'Oh, I wish that I had had that opportunity,' although I was the proverbial good student. What really underscored it for me is my son was also the good student, and at 40 years old, he still doesn't know what he wants to do. And it kind of breaks my heart."
Gunn has similar feelings. She says she was also highly influenced by her own three children — two of whom hate school — and by her young mental health patients who often struggle with a traditional educational environment.
"I guess the way I see it is, if we had to get to Denver, there's not one route," she says. "I could take [State Highway] 83, I could take [Interstate] 25, I could go I-70 depending on where I'm coming from. But I think what happens is we've always been told the only way to get to Denver, or get a job, is to get a high school diploma. And it's just not true."
A chill day
It's Tuesday afternoon at Proprius. Most of the kids have already taken naps.
Katy, 17-year-old Anna Fowler, and 14-year-old Aspen Sollenberger are hanging out on the couches. In between chatting, Aspen is drawing a wolf on her computer, Katy is reading a novel about a teenager who works for a lonely rock star, and Anna is watching a sitcom on Netflix. Kody and Sjolander are seated at the dining room table, playing the African counting game Mancala. Glass beads drum steadily against the wooden playing board.
The center's other student, 17-year-old Genevieve Moyé, is at her new job at Mountain Mama Natural Foods' bakery, busily assembling cheesecakes. She's hasn't come to the center much since landing the job a month ago. Kody, too, has been gone. He just returned from a turkey hunting trip with family — such trips used to get him in trouble for truancy when he was in public schools, but now are encouraged. With him absent, not much has been happening at the center for the past week.
"It's just kind of been a relaxed day, catching up, talking with everyone," Katy says.
Sjolander doesn't feel any urge to break up this chill fest. He notes that Mancala actually teaches math concepts and strategy, and thus finds it a good use of Kody's time. As for the girls, he's content to let them do what they want. By talking to each other, he says, they're performing an essential teenage function: finding their own identities by testing their beliefs and thoughts with their peers.
He's not worried that the kids haven't been spending much time pursuing their education or career goals. He says it's normal for students who switch to unschooling to have a cooling-off period when they do very little. In fact, when he began unschooling in fourth grade, he says, he did nothing but play outside for two years. At the time, he could read, but never did because it was a struggle. He says that changed.
"Somewhere at the end of two years, I pick up a book and words are just flowing," he says. "I mean, suddenly I started reading the classics. I read almost everything [Leo] Tolstoy ever wrote. You know War and Peace, Anna Karenina, all of his short stories. [John] Steinbeck, Ayn Rand, I just started reading everything. And looking back, I can see there was something that happened in that time playing outside, developmentally, for me."
Sjolander's brother also was unschooled. He's a software engineer. Sjolander says he has a classmate that's a nurse. Another is a baker. One works in the film department at a university.
The key, he says, is to allow the kids to read trashy novels and watch sitcoms until they simply get bored.
"I guarantee they will get bored," he says. "And that's when it really gets cool ... That means you're this close to doing something that you actually want to do. Something that you actually are passionate about. You know, you'll finally get beyond all the crap and you'll go, 'I've always wanted to...'"
Today, the kids actually do get bored and pull a NOVA board game off the shelf. The card game has science questions the player must answer correctly to advance. Did the World Trade Centers have their own ZIP code? Worldwide, do more city dwellers have access to safe water than ever before? Do grass lawns in the U.S. use more fertilizers than all the farm lands in India? Why is the valve on a bike pump hot after you use it?
Anna and Aspen, both shy, answer slowly and carefully. Kody and Katy bicker, yet Katy tends to indulge her younger brother, calling his answers correct if they come within range. Thus the boy is winning handily. And he's jubilant.
After one winning answer, he says, "I feel like a genius now!"