Ben Esposti was a model student at Mercerville Elementary School in Hamilton. He made the honor roll consistently with As and Bs, and he was selected for the gifted and talented program for math.

But in middle school things changed, according to his mother, Linda. School became a nightmare not only for Ben but for the whole family, which includes his dad, a firefighter with the Hamilton Fire Company, and a younger brother who is eight years old and a student at Hamilton’s Klockner Elementary School.

“Ben started having trouble. Homework was always becoming an issue; there simply was too much, I feel,” says Esposti. “Ben struggled with that, and it upset the whole family. In public school you are given the same work even though you have different levels of kids. He got bored, and social issues started to come into play. He started not testing well. He started seeing his grades fall, and then he himself started not to care. He was only 13 years old. We decided there was plenty of time later in life as he got older for him to be this stressed; he certainly didn’t need it now.”

The family was in despair over Ben’s performance and his growing level of unhappiness. And then a friend told them about the Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC), a learning center that supports teenagers and their parents to use home schooling as “a means to design and pursue their ideal lives,” and provides an alternative to the traditional public school experience. PLC was initiating a pilot program for the 2010-’11 school year at the Paul Robeson Center in Princeton, and Ben wanted to be a part of it. (The school has just moved into larger space at All Saints’ Church, 16 All Saints’ Road in Princeton.)

“We had looked into private schools but the tuitions are very high,” says Esposti. “Ben has had a passion for computers and electronics since fifth grade. At his middle school he wasn’t getting very much to support that passion. At PLC they get the full spectrum of classes they need to graduate, and they get to focus on their strengths. Public schools want to show you what the kids are weak at doing, and we wanted him to focus on what he is good at because that’s what he’s going to do when he gets older.”

The Espostis enrolled Ben for his eighth grade year with an open mind, deciding that if it didn’t work out, he could always return to the public high school. But once they started him at PLC, they never looked back.

Joel Hammon, co-director of PLC and one of its founding members, will participate in a panel discussion, “Outside the Box: Educational Alternatives for Teenagers,” on Thursday, February 23, at West Windsor Library. He will be joined by other progressive educators including Tom Wilschutz of Solebury School, Robert Burkhardt of Eagle Rock School, and Barbara Rapaport of the New Jersey Homeschooling Association. The panel will be moderated by Jane Fremon of the Princeton Friends School.

PLC holds an open house on Sunday, February 25, 2 p.m., at the Paul Robeson Center.

“I can hardly put into words the difference I see, and not just in his level of maturity but his excitement and enthusiasm about learning,” says Esposti. “Ben wants to go to school every day. He loves school. I think he would spend more time there if he could. His teachers are his mentors too, and they are phenomenal.”

Esposti, a public school product herself, says she had a wonderful public school experience and graduated from Lawrence High School in 1980. She earned a degree in business management and organizational behavior from Rider University. She works as a part-time computer consultant for the New Jersey Society of Women Environmental Professionals and also serves as secretary to the PLC.

She believes that dedicated teachers are just one facet of the Princeton Learning Cooperative experience that turns teens onto learning and encourages them to explore avenues in their lives that might not have been open to them in a traditional public school setting.

Hammon concurs. He says that PLC members share a belief that they can learn more and that their lives will improve without public school.

The state of New Jersey recognizes PLC students as home-schoolers. PLC currently has 12 students; the youngest is 10 years old, and the oldest is 17.

“Progressive schools don’t have rigid age delineations. Look at Montessori schools, where you may have kids of different ages in the same classroom. They are an example of schools that recognize that students may be at a different chronological age but at the same place intellectually,” says Hammon.

“We work with a wide range of kids who come to us for different reasons. Grade-wise they might be fine but they are bored to tears, and they are seeking the freedom and flexibility to do things they are truly interested in. We also have some kids who were not thriving in their schools, bored, or rebelling against structure and miserable. There might be social issues or learning differences that are not addressed. Just leaving that system is a huge thing.”

Hammon says the age range works well with the small number of students. “The learning is individualized, and we can do things that are appropriate for their levels of interest, desire, and potential. You get a lot more one on one, and there is a social aspect. We have been pleasantly surprised at how well the groups have meshed. We started with older kids and brought on the younger kids. If we got to an enrollment of 25, that would be nice; you don’t want to get so big that you start losing the personal connection.”

Hammon says the eventual goal is to start learning centers like PLC in other nearby communities, such as Newtown and Lambertville.

Hammon was raised in Napoleon, Ohio. His father was an eighth grade math teacher. His mother was a secretary at the same school. Not only did Hammon have his own father as a teacher in eighth grade, his father also coached him in football and basketball.

“I always liked school, and I assumed everybody did,” says Hammon. He and his wife, Kerry, who teaches biology and anatomy at Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania, have a three-year-old daughter. “My own experience with school made me idealistic about the possibilities, and I wanted to share my knowledge with kids and lead them to an even higher level of knowledge.”

He earned a degree in secondary education with minors in history and political science at Miami University in Ohio in 2000, and then taught for 11 years in both public and private schools.

In his very first years of teaching, his view of education changed. “I was teaching at an all-girls Catholic high school,” says Hammon, “and what I found was that most kids experience school as a series of hoops you have to jump through to get the grades you needed to get. I didn’t think it was meaningful.”

He said he was disheartened to see kids who refused to do things, and he could tell that their hearts were not into what they were learning. His sterling silver vision of teaching started to tarnish.

“I felt that my role was making kids who didn’t want to be there do things they didn’t want to do, and that’s not what I had imagined teaching would be,” Hammon says. “I wanted to be inspired, and I wanted my students to be inspired. From the conversations I was having and my own observations, I could tell that was not happening.”

And then one day he stumbled upon some literature about North Star, a center for community-based learning in Hadley, Massachusetts, that serves teenagers who want to pursue their education outside of traditional schooling. Founded in 1996 by two middle school teachers, the center serves as a model for PLC.

“I was reading about North Star, and I literally was jumping up and down in my office shouting ‘this is it,’” says Hammon. “I believed that the program was feeding the students’ interests and helping them do the things they wanted to do, something I wasn’t feeling like I was doing.”

In 2007 he took a road trip to visit North Star and confirmed his impressions. But his vision really started to take root when he met Paul Scutt, who would become PLC’s co-founder and co-director. Scutt, who is an avid outdoorsman with 25 years experience teaching in Europe, Africa, and the United states, was working as a beekeeper at Snipes Farm, a non-profit organic farm and education center in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, where Hammon was on the board of trustees.

Together, they launched the pilot program that would change Ben Esposti’s life and the lives of other teens they have served since then.

“The decision to start PLC was based on very pragmatic considerations that what we saw in traditional schools on a daily basis wasn’t working for a large number of kids, that outside of similarly structured private and charter schools they really had no other options,” says Hammon. “The track record of success North Star has had over the past 16 years proved that this model can work. It certainly was a big risk, but I don’t think we had any doubts that it would work.”

PLC, which had been leasing space at the Paul Robeson Center in Princeton, has just moved into a bigger space at All Saints Church, off Terhune Road in Princeton, which excites Hammon to no end.

“We have a large common room, dedicated classrooms, and an office. We have full use of a kitchen, lots of storage space, and we are surrounded by huge woods and grounds for outdoor education. It’s a very good move for us.”

The rent is $1,500 a month, which Hammon explains comes out of a total budget of $100,000. Unlike charter schools, PLC does not receive money from the school district. PLC is funded by fundraisers, donations, and tuition. Tuition is $12,000 for a full-time student and less for students who come only part-time or only for specific classes.

“We are committed to working with everybody, and we have never turned anyone away for financial reasons,” says Hammon. In addition to the rent, he says most of the budget goes for line items like insurance. There are only three core staff members: himself, Scutt, and Alison Snieckus of Plainsboro, who leads math and science classes and serves as vice president. She is also co-founder of E-Cubed, an organization of homeschooling families that organizes teen-led activities, and she homeschooled her own two sons, who are now college-age.

In addition, the PLC has a work-study arrangement with Princeton University. The federal work study program enables the university to pick up 75 percent of student workers’ wages. “So it works out to $2.75 an hour for us to hire a university student,” says Hammon. One Princeton student tutors math four hours a week, and the other gives a web design/java script tutorial and teaches introductory German.

Hammon says students use the library a lot and because there is so much information available on the Internet, textbooks are not used much. “To be honest they are deadly boring, and the kids hate them.”

Since the state recognizes PLC students as homeschoolers, they don’t “graduate” with a traditional high school degree, and there is no set graduation ceremony. Because the program is still very young there is no track record of college admissions success, but Caroline Hartnack, one of PLC’s current students was just accepted at her first choice school, Union College.

As for minimum curriculum requirements, such as three years of math or three years of a foreign language that both public and private schools have, Hammon says there are no such requirements on their end, but they do have extensive planning with their students.

“We have a lot of conversations with our kids about where they want to go and what you need to get there,” he says. But often it’s the learning that takes place outside the classroom that is unique and life changing. For example, 12-year-old Jedediah Crowe just started volunteering at Princeton Community TV. “He helps out with interviews and filming. We have kids who are taking classes at Mercer County Community College for credit. There is a huge range of opportunity once you step out and look at the community.”

And Hammon says PLC helped Hartnack, 17, the student who is going to Union College, establish a writing internship at a website that encourages healthy eating and food for young women.

Another student, 15-year-old Max Collins, started rock climbing with Scutt, a rock-climbing enthusiast, and was hired as a part-time helper at Rockville Climbing on Whitehead Road in Trenton. “And because he’s also interested in food, he works at Cafe Blue Moose in New Hope, a youth-run restaurant,” says Hammon. “The guy who owns it is 19 and is the head chef, and he only hires young people. So Max goes and does prep work one day a week. He is not only learning about food and business and interacting with people, he is learning about real-life responsibilities, like being on time for work.”

A typical day for Max might look like this (and, says Hammon, may change when PLC moves to its new space): He rides to school with Hammon, who lives close by, arriving about 8:45 a.m. As Hammon opens up the school, Max checks his computer or reads. He has a pre-calculus/calculus class at 9 a.m., followed by physics at 10 a.m. At about 10:45, he works with one of PLC’s volunteers on various projects — something they have agreed upon based on Max’s interests, which started with the history of American popular music and has recently morphed into some writing.

He likes to go to a Chinese restaurant down the street for lunch, arriving back at PLC by noon for the community meeting. Hammon says: “This is where we get everyone who is at PLC that day to discuss issues pertaining to PLC. We try to rotate a student who leads the meeting each week, and Max is usually the person to generate agenda items. In our new space, we will have access to a kitchen for a cooking class, which Max has been helping to organize.” At 12:30 p.m. Max has a biology lab class.

On Tuesday nights he is at Rockville Climbing. He volunteers at the Bike Exchange in Trenton on Thursday nights and Saturdays. Other times he is working at Cafe Blue Moose.

Linda Esposti says that the opportunities that have opened up for her son Ben continue to astound her. “A woman who is an engineer came to talk to Ben one-on-one about opportunities in the field. This year Ben was elected by the students to be student representative to the PLC board. I feel he has a better education than any child of his age in Hamilton. He is going to be so much more prepared for the world and college. A lot of kids today go to school, they’re being told what they have to learn, and they have no idea what they’re interested in and what they need to do in life. If my son is happy, I am happy. The difference in him is unbelievable.”

“I walked away from a lot more money to do this,” says Hammon. “When I was teaching before, I could have been a good teacher or a bad teacher; there was no feedback mechanism. I feel like what we do here matters. It is entrepreneurial, and it is extremely rewarding. What is special is knowing all the stories of our students — where they come from, what they are doing now, and how they are growing. That process of maturing, figuring out what they want to do in life, and giving them the support to do that is incredibly rewarding.”

“Outside the Box: Educational Alternatives for Teenagers”, Princeton Learning Cooperative, West Windsor Library, North Post Road, West Windsor. Thursday, February 23, 7 p.m. Presented by a panel of progressive educators including Tom Wilschutz of Solebury School; Robert Burkhardt of Eagle Rock School; Joel Hammon of Princeton Learning Cooperative; and Barbara Rapaport of the New Jersey Homeschooling Association. Moderated by Jane Fremon of the Princeton Friends School. Free. 609-851-2522 or www.plcteens.org.

Also, Open House, Sunday, February 25, 2 p.m., Princeton Learning Cooperative, Paul Robeson Center, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. 609-851-2522 or www.princetonlearningcooperative.org.

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