Building My (Un)School, Part One

In a previous post I explored the idea of a year-long teenage rite-of-passage program, which was exciting but didn’t fulfill my desire for creating a truly long-term, annually repeating program. In this post I’ll explore ideas for building something more akin to a (un)school.

Surveying the Scene

What long-term schools and support programs already exist for self-directed teens, and what are their pros and cons? I see three general categories: free schools, community learning centers, and online guidance services.

The Sudbury Valley School (and Sudbury-model offshoots), Summerhill School (a boarding school in the U.K.), and other self-described “free schools” offer face-to-face communities of students and staff who believe in educational freedom. These schools typically operate on a democratic management model, granting every member an equal vote in deciding significant school matters. They offer a wide selection of classes and activities, none of which are mandatory. Tuition ranges from $7500-10,000+ per school year.

Community learning centers are like free schools but are less formal and often cater to home/unschoolers. North Star: Self Directed Learning for Teens and Princeton Learning Cooperative are examples. Participants are not required to attend every day (as they typically must at a free school), but they still receive the benefit of face-to-face community and a robust offering of classes and optional activities. Membership fees range based on attendance level; North Star charges between $2500-7500 for one to four days per week (per school year), respectively.

Online guidance services like Clonlara School (U.S.) and SelfDesign (Canada) offer consulting services (for both teens and parents) via phone, e-mail, and Skype. They provide assistance with documentation and portfolio creation, and each offers a la carte online high school courses (providing accredited units) at an additional cost. The base fee for teenagers ranges from $1000-2700 per school year.

I discussed these models with a small group of teens at Not Back to School Camp last week, and I largely agreed with their pro/con assessment:


  • Daily face-to-face contact with a long-term community (as with Sudbury, North Star)
  • Having a single dedicated advisor/mentor (as with Clonlara, SelfDesign)
  • Choosing from a wide variety of optional activities and classes (all models)


  • Costs too high (for Sudbury, North Star)
  • Too hard to find a school in your local area (again Sudbury, North Star)

In-Person vs. Online Programs

There seem to be a few basic trade-offs between online versus brick-and-mortar programs.

DISTANCE: If you build a brick-and-mortar school that recruits from a local area, you must either severely limit your enrollment numbers or accept students who aren’t a great fit for the school. If you run an online program, you can enroll lots of students (or a small group of perfect-match students).

FACE-TO-FACE: Local brick-and-mortar schools offer highly desirable daily face-to-face  interactions and community-building. Online programs typically don’t.

PRICE: Brick-and-mortar schools must pay for their brick-and-mortar, automatically increasing costs beyond desirable levels ($5000-10,000) for many families, especially those already home/unschooling. Online programs can offer much better prices and therefore attract more students.

STARTUP COSTS (TIME + MONEY): Creating an online/distance program is easier and less risky than searching for and obtaining a property on which to host a brick-and-mortar school.

What’s Really Important?

Each of the models described above has obvious advantages and disadvantages, so how should I choose which pieces to borrow from each? It’s time to inject my own goals and principles into the equation.

Here’s an excerpt from a list of principles that I composed yesterday:

  • The student must WANT to attend. Always.
  • Face to face is crucial, but distance enables a much larger community. Combine both!
  • Autonomy, mastery, and purpose can be organizing principles.
  • Learning to advocate for yourself and your education should be taught.
  • Long-term relationships matter; create them.
  • Documentation and portfolio-building are hard; teach them.
  • Connecting with quality mentors, internships, opportunities, etc. is hard; facilitate them.
  • Student-elected advisory committee: a great idea. (No parents allowed)
  • Have a focus/demographic [i.e. Don’t try to be everything to everyone.]
  • School sells deliberate practice. Where’s yours?
  • Lots of optional classes/seminars/activities led by lots of different people (e.g. college students): always popular.
  • John Taylor Gatto’s Nuts and Bolts chapter of The Underground History of American Education offers invaluable advice: keep schools small (less than a few hundred), integrate families, offer flex-time flex-scheduling flex-everything, and ensure that every staff person works directly with the students (no unnecessary “support staff”).

An Apology and a Vision

This post is awfully jumbly and less organized than my usual standard. Sorry about that. My hope is that by releasing this braindump to the world, I’ll receive some clarity.

To wrap up, here’s one sketch for a school/unschool/program for teenagers (ages 13-19) based upon my most recent notes. Tell me what you think.


  • A distance/online program (enrolling students across the U.S. and Canada) with significant face-to-face meetings (one big summer gathering for the everyone, plus smaller regional gatherings throughout the year). Runs from late September to early June.
  • Students join a regional advisor group (e.g. Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Southeast, Central, New England, etc.) led by a single dedicated advisor. Group size: 7-10 students + 1 advisor.
  • Students additionally elect a committee of two adults (in addition to advisor) to help guide their education…who cannot be parents. Advisors may consult with these committee members in order to better work with student.
  • Advisor groups meet online twice a month (using Skype or Google+ Hangout) to check-in with each other. Students also meet one-on-one with advisors once a month (online or in-person when possible).
  • The summer gathering (3 days in early June?) brings together new (incoming) students, current students, graduating students, families, and advisors. Fosters sense of larger community and purpose + introduces everyone.
  • Advisors organize and lead smaller, inexpensive regional gatherings (e.g. camping trip, sleepover, short trip). Fosters sense of local community and fulfills need for face-to-face interactions.


  • The program asks all students to continually work toward “Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose” (the three ingredients of self-motivation). Advisors help each student specifically define these factors. This allows advisors to work with students of widely varying interests and development levels.
  • Thanks to distance nature of program, students have freedom to pursue travel, community college, apprenticeships, and other time-intensive opportunities.
  • Regular documentation of efforts: all students maintain a public blog (with weekly updates) and simple online portfolio. Advisors guide students in documenting their work and challenges and effectively describing/marketing/advocating for themselves as self-directed learners.
  • Advisors and students participate in an online community (accessible to all other advisor groups) through which interesting online/offline resources, classes, and global opportunities are shared.
  • Advisors research and share local opportunities relevant to their specific geographic area (e.g. internships, volunteering)


  • Program is “Proudly Unaccredited”, purposefully avoiding the issuance of any grades, credits, units, etc. Instead, students build portfolios of real-life accomplishment, document their journeys in writing, and learn to advocate for their unique self-directed paths.
  • College admissions guidance provided via advisor or other program staff, as needed.
  • Advisors assist students in obtaining internships and jobs by writing letters of recommendation, assisting in search, etc.
  • “Graduating” students (need a better word for that…) may optionally join rite-of-passage ceremony held at summer gathering, presenting their portfolios/accomplishments to larger community.


  • $3000 for 9-month enrollment including summer + regional gathering attendance. Sibling & returning student discounts.
  • No need-based scholarships or sliding scales, but payment plans + extensive fund-raising guidance + work-trade opportunities @ gatherings.


  • Expand internationally…
  • Create brick-and-mortar homebase (a la Clonlara)…
  • What else? You tell me.


Want to join my discussion group for these ideas? See here.




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