‘People like to learn. And it can be an exciting experience,” says Joel Hammon, co-founder and director of Princeton Learning Cooperative, a center that helps teenagers live and learn without school. The center supports teens as they create personalized education programs based on their interests, abilities, and goals.
Kids become members of PLC for a variety of reasons, Hammon says. Some have a strong academic ability but are bored and feel stifled; some kids learn differently and school just gets in the way; and some are being bullied or feel they don’t fit in.
Through mentoring, workshops, classes, and internships, PLC is committed to giving teens the same and even more opportunities as those attending high school. Just as important, PLC education is not just about preparing for a meaningful future, but for enjoying and being engaged with the present.
On Wednesday, February 3, Princeton Learning Cooperative will host a well-being panel for adolescents and their families at 7 p.m. at the Lawrenceville Public Library. The event features mental health professionals who will discuss behavioral strategies, self-acceptance, self-awareness, and adolescence as a rite of passage.
The panelists include Elinor Bashe, a psychologist with a private practice in Highland Park; Jane Martin, a licensed professional counselor, and a master’s level breath therapist with a private practice in Skillman; Mark Cooperberg, a psychologist and director of psychological services at Princeton Speech-Language and Learning Center; and Elizabeth Alberts, director of village counseling services in Lawrenceville. The event is free and open to the public.
PLC, explains Hammon, focuses on learning rather than schooling. At its best, schooling encourages learning, but it is very systematic, and it just doesn’t work for everyone. “Schooling didn’t float down from heaven. It is a historical artifact,” says Hammon.
Many people don’t realize that attending school is not mandatory in the U.S., he says. Although people might be aware of the alternative known as homeschooling, they often assume that home schoolers must learn in the home, and that what they learn must be a replication of lessons taught at traditional schools. Both of these assumptions are wrong. Home Schooling is simply the legal mechanism that allows kids to leave school and have the freedom and flexibility to build the kind of life that they want for themselves, says Hammon.
PLC opened in the fall of 2010 with five kids meeting in a small space at Princeton’s Arts Council building. Since then, teen membership has grown to 30 students, and the center is now located on the grounds of Princeton’s All Saints Church, but there is no religious affiliation with the church. The cooperative has a large common room and four classrooms, as well as a library and a workshop for woodworking and other building activities. The facility also includes a large lawn used for outdoor activities, as well as access to 142 acres of woods for hiking and studying biology and environmental science.
Hammon has had a love of learning ever since he was in grade school. Reared in Napolean, Ohio, his father was an eighth grade math teacher and his mother was a secretary at the same school. He excelled in grade school and high school and went on to earn a degree in secondary education with minors in history and political science from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Wanting to share the benefits of learning, he taught in both public and private schools for 11 years. But he grew increasingly dissatisfied as he realized that traditional schooling was just not serving many students. Hammon felt compassion for these kids and was particularly attracted to students who had an independent streak.
His frustration led him to search the Internet for alternatives to being a high school teacher, and that’s when he discovered North Star, a center for community-based learning in Hadley, Massachusetts, that serves teens 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 today.
“I was reading about North Star, and I literally was jumping up and down in my office shouting ‘this is it,’” Hammon says. “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 that I was doing.”
After visiting North Star, Hammon began the process of opening his own school in Princeton, based on North Star’s guiding principles:
Young people want to learn.
Learning happens everywhere.
It really is OK to leave school.
How people behave under one set of circumstances and assumptions does not predict how they will behave under a very different set of circumstances and assumptions. A student who doesn’t thrive in a classroom environment may become successful when allowed to learn through apprenticeships or in one-on-one tutorials. Structure communicates as powerfully as words — and often more powerfully.
As adults working with young people, we should mostly strive to “make possible” rather than “make sure.”
The best preparation for a meaningful and productive future is a meaningful and productive present.
Over the past six years, PLC has helped its teen members get accepted at more than 20 colleges and universities such as UMass Amherst, University of Vermont, University of North Texas, and University of Montana, to name a few.
PLC typically offers between 20 to 32 classes and activities per day — Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday — and a field trip on Friday.
Some of the members’ most meaningful experiences involve internships, work, travel, and taking classes at local colleges.
One teen member interested in computers and engineering went to Tiger Labs and volunteered for the startup Wattvision, and also did an internship at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. Now he’s freelancing as a computer consultant making $50 to $60 per hour.
One of the members with a penchant for cooking has taken internships at local restaurants and is planning to take a food preparation course at Mercer County Community College. He has already started a small cooking service and has learned to maintain a business spreadsheet and create invoices.
One of Hammon’s students spent time with Princeton University biologists and emeritus professors Peter and Rosemary Grant at their lab. She also took a two-week trip to Ecuador on an environmental study, and has been accepted at Hampshire College in Massachusetts on a scholarship as an emerging scientist.
Several teen members are writing their own books and short stories and have met with local authors and learned about the publishing process.
Because Hammon believes that all teens should have an opportunity to learn without school, he and North Star co-founder Ken Danford founded Liberated Learners, an organization that offers consulting and training to people who want to create their own centers based on the North Star model. The Liberated Learners website has links to 14 centers in North America, and there are several groups worldwide who are either planning or considering the North Star model, and several affiliates doing similar work.
In addition to Hammon, PLC includes a staff of five, including two people who have been with the center since its early days, co-founder Paul Scutt, and staff me mber Alison Snieckus.
There are six members on the board of trustees and seven advisory board members, including North Star’s Ken Danford. There are 25 regular volunteers who work with teen members in the areas of writing, math, science, foreign language, theater arts, music, finance, engineering, environmental studies, physics, astronomy, genetics, first aid, electronics, and computer science.
Hammon lives in Langhorne, Pennsylvania with his wife Kerry who teaches high school biology and anatomy. They have two children, a boy, two years old, and a daughter who attends first grade at a public school. Hammon says his daughter loves school, adding that he and his wife are not dogmatic about it how their children receive their education. What is important for him is that kids are learning and are happy in whatever environment they are in.
Hammon believes that learning without school isn’t for everyone, but it should be available to any teen who desires or needs this model of learning to thrive.