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Boston Globe 



March 14, 1999

AMHERST - Two former middle-school teachers are reaching out to young people in the Pioneer Valley with their message about education; It’s really OK to drop out of school; there is a rich world of opportunities waiting for youth ready and willing to take responsibility for their own education.

To help them along, Kenneth Danford, 33, and Joshua Hornick, 40, created the Pathfinder Learning Center. They have served more than 100 young people since opening three years ago. They currently have 45 members ranging in age from 14 to 18 who pay $150 a month in return for access to study groups, seminars, field trips, and assistance setting up internships and community service opportunities. Danford and Hornick also counsel families on education and help draft home-schooling plans that pass muster with local officials

Now they are recruiting. Their immediate goal is to increase membership until it levels off at about 70. Beyond that, they want to be a resource for others interested in setting up similar drop-in centers. “If we demonstrate that this works, it’s a model that should go national,” said Danford.

He knows many take a dim view of the “un-schooling” movement of which Pathfinder is a part. It is “very dicey to go around and tell kids to drop out of school,” said Danford. “We’re trying to take ourselves more seriously so we don’t have to think of ourselves as guerrillas.”

Hornick, a one-time Wall Street lawyer who left that profession to teach junior high and high school physics, stresses that the Pathfinder experiment is all about “trusting kids.” In both the public and the private schools in which he taught, Hornick felt like he was “part of a system which managed to dull kids’ interest in learning - that caused me great pain,” he said.

Mishy Lieblum, a 14-year-old who left school after seventh grade and is now a Pathfinder member, said a lot of her former classmates just “roll their eyes” and tell her she’s “throwing her life away” by not following the expected path. She is happy with her decision.

“School is, like, an unnecessary hassle, I don’t get much out of it, and it was taking a lot out of me,” she said. Now she spends most of her days at Pathfinder. Danford points out that in addition to other functions the learning center serves as a safe place for “un-schoolers” to congregated and find intellectual stimulation.

Like many of the members, Leiblum was influenced in her desire to leave school by Grace Llewellyn’s “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and get a Real Education.” Written in a style designed to appeal to teenagers, it argues against traditional education and promotes ideas for self-directed learning. Pathfinder is mentioned as a resource where members can access short-term classes in addition to numerous other services.

A look at Pathfinder’s March calendar shows a wide variety of offerings, including Friday afternoon yoga sessions (taught by a parent), an all-day hike on a Wednesday, Friday morning US history classes with Danford, and a series called “Exceptional Science Demos.” For these Hornick promises to “dig into his deep dark past for some of the most excellent or weird demonstrations he knows.” Topics will be “density, lightwave communication, presure, and states of matter,” he said.

A senior from nearby Hampshire College offers a weekly literature discussion group. “The Catcher in the Rye” was on the menu in early March. Creative writing, philosophy, media literacy, the study of herbs, women’s leadership, and a class in American Sign Language are all on the calendar.

In a seminar offered by Hornick, students are working their way through a book on a 19th-century French mathematician named Jean Fourier. A meeting in early March drew three students. On that day the focus on sound waves rapidly turned into an animated discussion on the pros and cons of science and technology. Mishy Leiblum wondered out loud whether technological progress is necessarily good. Luddites, the anti-technologists of the 19th century, entered the discussion, as well as arguments that market forces are making the advent of sophisticated voice recognition technology inevitable, and a prediction that computer keyboards will be all but obsolete in 10 years.

Besides taking many of the classes offered at Pathfinder, Leiblum tutors an autistic boy in arts and crafts once a week. She spends time volunteering with nonprofit organizations (most recently an animal shelter), reads “a ton of nonfiction,” such as newspapers as well as photography and darkroom magazines, and takes a Wednesday night dance class.

She said Hornick refers to the Fourier class as “mental push-ups” and she likes it because it makes her “think in a critical way.” Leiblum was always good in math and was in an accelerated class in seventh grade before leaving school.

Danford recently started a monthly newsletter called “Liberated Learners.” Each issue highlights the thoughts and accomplishments of two Pathfinder members along with comments from their parents. In a recent issue, Lesley Arak, whom Danford describes as a “classic underachiever” in his history classes when he taught at the middle school, writes of her varied experiences as an unschooler. Her recent urge for “a bit more structure” led her to enroll in algebra, literature, film and oceanography courses at Greenfield Community College. “Leaving school saved my life,” wrote Arak.

Even though many of the teenagers associated with Pathfinder are doing very impressive things, there are those Danford often refers to as “goofs.” During the three years Pathfinder has been in existence, his attitude toward members who come to the center primarily to sleep and play video games has shifted.

Early on, he viewed them in terms of needing to go through a “decompression” stage before they could begin learning without the treat of authority prodding them. The ethos of “trusting” teenagers to do what is right for them led him and Hornick to indulge almost any behavior that didn’t overtly threaten someone else.

Now they take a harder line. Video games, which Danford came to see as “highly addictive,” are banned. They also require parents to meet with the Pathfinder directors at least twice a year. There was some grumbling about the games ban, said Danford, but the prevalent reaction among members was that “it was about time.”

Pathfinder appeals mainly to four kinds of people, said Hornick, “independent minded nonconformists,” sons and daughters of “progressive parents” who encourage their children to seek an alternative education, teenagers for whom school is just not working and who feel “trapped and depressed,” and, finally, “pre-existing home-schoolers.”

Pathfinder draws the least from the last category. “They are not flocking to our doors,” said Hornick.

Danford likens the payment structure to that of a health club. For the monthly fee, members can partake in as much or as little of the activities as they choose. Danford and Hornick clearly don’t see themselves custodians of their members. Attendance is never taken.

The overhead to operate the center, the furnishings of which are reminiscent of a college crash pad, is about $25,000 a year, said Hornick. The library is sparse, but the University of Massachusetts is just a 10-minute walk away, and high-quality town library is even closer. If membership goals are met, each director will be able to take home a salary of $30,000. Those who can’t meet the fees are required to participate in fund-raising activities. Subscriptions and donations generated by the newsletter brought in $8,000 so far. Ads are being sold for a yearbook now in production. Pathfinder members also organized a “bake-a-thon” in which pledges were solicited to support the production of cookies and cakes they donated to a local soup kitchen. 

Danford, who taught for three years in urban public schools outside Washington, D.C., before moving to Amherst, said home, or “un-schooling” is not for everyone. Some Pathfinder members have returned to local public schools. “I’m delighted to have contributed to their educational process,” said Danford.

But he believes strongly that young people should have more say in constructing their education. A document on their Web site describes Pathfinder as “the first of its kind — a full-time, community -based, professionally staffed center (not school!) for teens who choose to live and learn without school.”

The point is, said Danford, “every community should have a Pathfinder, as opposed to every kid should be in a Pathfinder.”

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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