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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

April 8, 2001 Sunday 
Just Sitting Around Thinking, or Not

AMHERST, Mass.  - As his peers made their way to fourth-period class a few blocks away, 14-year-old Joey Stylos was tearing a cardboard pizza box into smaller and smaller squares, pondering an afternoon of skiing sans snow. What was he really planning to do today?

"Just hanging out, basically," he said.

Hanging out is one option at Pathfinder, a nonprofit resource center for unschooling -- a radical version of home- schooling that shuns imposed curriculum. Another is attending an anatomy lecture or a literature class on crime and criminality, both of which were being offered that day.

As the Pathfinder pamphlet trumpets: "You don't have to go to school!"

If the center, founded in 1996 by two onetime teachers, is based on any particular model, it is that of a health club. Members, mostly teenagers, pay a $150 monthly fee and can make as much or as little use of courses as they want.

They can congregate with friends on the crash-pad-style furniture or participate in recent offerings like a reading circle, yoga, jazz ensemble or science or history course, taught by the directors or by graduate students from the University of Massachusetts nearby.

Courses attract 3 to 30 members. (The 3 show up for advanced math.)

Families are counseled on finding work and internships and on home- schooling, including drawing up plans for approval by school officials. Directors also provide guidance on college and help with applications; several former members are at Brown, Columbia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Pathfinder, which currently draws about 50 members from a 40-mile radius, was one of the first homeschooling resource centers in the country. It has become a model for many similar enterprises that have sprung up in response to the growing homeschooling movement, according to Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., and editor in chief of The Almanac of Education Choices. These centers are more like libraries than schools, with members encouraged to define their own educational objectives, even if that involves prolonged drifting.

Joshua Hornick, a former lawyer and science teacher, and Kenneth Danford, a social studies teacher, grew disillusioned with the way school "managed to dull kids' interest in learning," as Mr. Hornick put it, and quit their jobs at the Amherst Regional Middle School to start the Pathfinder Learning Center. They recently dropped the "Learning" to emphasize that it takes place everywhere. "We're looking at a whole new way of understanding adolescence," Mr. Hornick said.

The directors still struggle with what limits to impose. Last year, video games were banned as too addictive. But the directors accept -- some might say indulge -- a range of behavior and learning styles. Their philosophy presupposes that adolescents, left to their own devices and not force-fed academics, will gravitate to appropriate activities and that learning is an organic part of that process.

Marcy Jayne, 14, who left the seventh grade after two weeks ("The teachers were stupid"), recalls her early encounters with Pathfinder. Mr. Hornick, she wrote in the center's monthly newsletter, "mentioned that kids who are depressed might not do as well." She added: "At first this scared me because I am a sad person and have been since I can remember. School only made me sadder, angrier and more isolated."

She is now finishing her second year away from formal classes and has studied witchcraft, feminism, political activism and silkscreening. She has interned at a day care center ("They pampered the kids too much") and contributes to a monthly issues-oriented radio show, "Radio Active Youth," broadcast from the university. She and her grandmother, a retired drug-abuse counselor, are planning a slide presentation on an enthusiasm of Marcy's: body piercing.

"I am so glad to have a safe place to grow," Marcy wrote. "But I am not just growing, I am healing and mending my old wounds." What about math, science and literature? "If it was important to me," she said, "I'm sure I could do it."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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