These centers (sometimes called alternative schools) are places where you have permission to be a self-directed learner all-day long.

North Star

North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens (in Western Massachusetts) is an incredibly inspiring center that has become a model for many others. Watch the video and listen to the interview below with North Star co-founder Ken Danford.

 

The Liberated Learners Network is a coalition of centers inspired by North Star.

Liberated Learners affiliates:

Agile Learning Center model

Agile Learning Centers are micro-schools that leverage “agile” tools to support self-directed education. Listen to the interviews below with ALC co-founders Tomis Parker and Nancy Tilton, as well as Endor ALC founder Liam Nilsen.

Sudbury model

The Sudbury Valley School (in Framingham, Massachusetts) is the original “democratic free school” in the U.S., and a huge source of inspiration for many alternative educators.

 

Browse the full list of Sudbury-model schools in the U.S. and abroad (too long to list here).

Here’s a funny story from College Without High School about my deep admiration (while in college) of the Sudbury model:

Framingham, Massachusetts —The giant stone mansion looks just like the photographs. Children dash across sprawling green lawns under the New England spring sun. I walk a twisting asphalt footpath to the Sudbury Valley School: the first and largest US free school and the focus of two years of my independent study in college. The school’s founders agreed to let me visit, a privilege denied to virtually all outsiders in re- cent years. I should be basking in my fortune, but all I’m thinking is, Are they going to scream at me?

I suppose plagiarism isn’t the best way to say hello.

Earlier that year I decided to make the grandest college course reader (textbook made from photocopies) ever known to humanity. It was for Never Taught to Learn, an undergraduate education course that I had started. The reader, resembling royal parchment on its oversized and spiral-bound paper, included excerpts from every major unschooling-friendly author, including those of one of the founders of the Sudbury Valley School.

To produce this masterpiece, I did what every college professor does: photocopy directly from the author’s books to create my reader. With only 12 students in my tiny class, I assumed that some vague notion of academic freedom protected me from any potential legal qualms of photocopying, oh, 3/4 of one of the SVS books. That assumption was my big mistake.

Four weeks into the class I received an unsolicited e-mail from the one of the school’s founders with a single line of content: “Blake, I noticed that you’re using some of our books in your course reader. Would you please tell me exactly which books and how many pages you’re using?” Woops —I guess I shouldn’t have posted the course syllabus online. Defaulting to honesty as the best medicine, I wrote him back with the exact numbers.

The next day I received a scathing e-mail from another one of the school’s founders. She accused me (rightfully) of plagiarizing the school’s books and demanded royalties and an immediate apology. It was a slap to my face to realize that I’d committed intellectual theft, but I admitted my mistake, stayed up all night writing an apology letter and mailed it the next day with an $80 royalty check.

Slipped into the end of my apology letter I included a humble question. “I photocopied your books because I deeply admire your school,” I wrote, “and I would cherish the opportunity to see it in person.” It was a shot in the dark for an opportunity I assumed I’d already ruined.

To my utter surprise, I received a response by e-mail only a week later. The staff had read my letter, were touched and grudgingly decided to allow me a one-day visit. What authors, reporters and graduate students had consistently been denied — a full day visit to the country’s oldest free school — I had just been granted.

Three months later I found myself walking down that twisted asphalt path, circled by cartwheeling free schoolers, wondering if this was a booby trap. But I wasn’t executed in the dungeons of Sudbury Valley. I shook the founders’ hands and spent a fantastic day soaking up Sudbury’s unstructured, democratic school culture. I met my heroes and the experts of the free school movement.

But there are better ways to do it.

Independent & unaffiliated centers suggested by readers

AERO directory

The Alternative Education Resource Organization  (AERO) maintains a comprehensive global list of of alternative schools. “These schools and organizations generally have in common a learner-centered approach to education. Members include K-12 schools, colleges, homeschool resource centers, and other organizations.” The list includes Montessori, Waldorf, and other schools that may take a more traditional approach than the centers listed above.

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