This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of Bucks County Living magazine.

Multicolored leaves cover the lawn outside the plain, 12-room former Quaker schoolhouse building on West Maple Avenue in Langhorne. On a crisp fall Monday morning, six teenagers are clustered around a wooden table upstairs in a small, carpeted room with large windows. They’re watching the 1962 film “Jason and the Argonauts” for their History of Animation class.

Michael Schoengold, a tall boy in a Pink Floyd shirt, sits on the floor in the corner, checking his phone. Eventually he kneels and props up his head on the table to see the screen. Across from him, Leah Hart fidgets to the point where her chair is leaned over and she’s almost sitting on the floor. At the head of the table, Nat Witschi is scrunched up with his feet near the top of the table with a hat slung low over his eyes.

When the movie ends, teacher and mentor Eileen Smyth starts a discussion. How long did it take one student to complete a 30-second stop-motion project? How long do we think the three-minute fight scene with skeletons in the movie took, then? When stop motion is done with real people, what’s it called? That’s right, pixilation.

Then she sits, listening as the conversation becomes kinetic with free association. You should check out this comic book series about the Greek gods. Was Hercules a man or a god (someone checks their phone; he was the strongest of all mortals)? Hart grabs a “Wallace and Gromit” DVD to check the year and who animated it Someone floats a random question about sailors in ancient Greece.

Witschi says the animation in “Jason and the Argonauts” wasn’t that good, and Shoengold chides him: “Why do you have to be so judgemental?” He probably doesn’t realize how loud his voice gets, especially when he’s exaggerating for comedic effect. He stands and points at his classmate, who’s still trying to talk. “You’re always so judgy, man.”

His buddy laughs and continues: The actors were clearly striking a few inches away from their animated enemies. Shoenfield runs out of steam and sits back down.

The conversation lulls for a moment and Smyth suggests maybe it’s not that the animation wasn’t good, but we’re used to it being better now. For comparison, she brings up the “Mona Lisa” on the laptop screen to compare the brownish hues to how Impressionists later improved their understanding of the colors of shadows.

Someone else brings up a YouTube video of people in stop motion — pixilation! — and talks about how it was made. Toward the end of the hour-long class, the students decide next week they’ll make their own stop-motion short.

Just another school day? Sort of.

This is the first class of the week for a handful of the 11 students currently enrolled at the Bucks County Learning Cooperative. It’s a self-directed learning environment: the students decide what they want to learn about and when they’ll do so. They might be assigned homework, but it’s optional. It’s optional even to show up.

Each student meets privately with their mentor at least once a week to talk about what they’re doing, and the group gets together weekly to make decisions about upcoming projects and events. The staff also meets with the students and their families a few times a year to talk about how things are going. And, students work with community volunteers who each teach an hour a week in their field of expertise. Other than that, unless someone has the potential to hurt themselves or others, the grown-ups mostly stay out of their way.

It’s an “anchoring” for the teenagers, explained mentor Paul Scutt. “We don’t tell them what to do, we just keep them on track,” he explained before the visit. “We’re here to reignite an interest in learning.”

The group takes inspiration from the like-minded North Star School in Massachusetts, and the Bucks location in an outgrowth of the Princeton Learning Cooperative, which Scutt co-founded five years ago. Both locations take students aged 13 to 19 and run on a traditional school calendar. The tuition is on a sliding scale and the cooperatives, designated as 501(c)3 nonprofits, don’t discriminate against ability to pay.

As Princeton approached 30 students, the group opened a second location to maintain a sense of community that the teenagers could take ownership of, rather than take on more people. Now, in just its second year, and the first in a permanent location, the Bucks Cooperative is already a third of the way to capacity.

The thinking is that teenagers, even the ones who don’t do well in school and especially those who do but are bored doing it, want to learn. Given the right environment —  eliminating the compulsory aspect or negative occurrences like bullying, and empowering the students to make their own choices — they’ll thrive.

That’s how the film class became part of the curriculum. Witschi, an aspiring filmmaker wanted to explore the topic. Other kids joined in. They drew a timeline of history that stretches across a wall, since films could cover any time period, and began choosing movies from the silent era through today. In just the last few weeks they’ve created their own flipbook animations and build a zoetrope while exploring pre-film animation techniques.

And they’re allowed to wear hats and look at their phones Normal teenage stuff like fidgeting or even some friendly teasing doesn’t stop just because class is in session.

“Those are natural interactions. If I squash them, they’ll feel alienated and get off-topic. We want them to be happy in class,” explained Smyth. And, she noted, the gambit pays off.

“I’ve been surprised by the sophisticated level of discussion we’ve had,” she continued. She recalled a heated debate about “which academic discipline should be accorded the most authority when assessing pre-civilization economics: economics, anthropology or archeology?”

The students, with some guidance from Smyth, formed the question and discussed the topic themselves. “I felt like I was on a college panel,” she said.

Smyth spent years picking on those little things, like hats in class or gum chewing, while teaching everywhere from Trenton and New York to Europe and Asia. It’s exhausting and frustrating, for the students and the teachers.

She was there as the public education system leaned more and more toward testing over enrichment and education, and finally called it quits when her principal told the staff not to answer any student questions if they didn’t pertain to the lesson plans.

“We were narrowing rather than broadening the students’ experience,” she said. “That’s when I knew I had to get out.”

In a perfect world, she said, places like the Learning Cooperative would fit alongside more traditional public and private schools to offer options for every student’s learning style. Unfortunately, it’s not the direction the country, with a “test-and-punish” mentality, is headed.

“I support public education but the culture of it needs to change. We have to decide whether or not we as a society want to continue toward a model like Southeast Asia, with testing and homework ‘till 11 at night or not,” she suggested.

Clearly, Smyth is leaning toward not, just like Scutt and also Joel Hammon. A former Neshaminy and Villa Joseph Marie teacher, Hammon helped co-found Princeton and handles administrative duties for both locations. It’s a liberating environment for the teachers just much as the kids, he said, pointing to dismal statistics on teacher retention in public and even traditional private schools.

And, he noted, one of the biggest myths about school is that you need to go to one in order to get into college.

At the Cooperative, the students register as home-schooled, and the staff helps them keep records of their educational plans and accomplishments. Many universities have admissions policies for homeschooled students with or without a GED. And, of course, real-world achievements like starting a small business or getting your work published — things Princeton students have done — go a long way, too.

“No doors are closed by not going to high school,” said Hammon.

In Princeton, the Cooperative has generated plenty of success stories over the past five years. There are measurable benchmarks like the boy who started out on his phone all day reading about photography who went on to win awards for his camera work. But just as important are realizations like a girl who discovered — before spending a lot of money on college courses — that she didn’t want to be a veterinarian after working alongside one.

“We don’t force kids to do what they don’t want to do, or what they’re not good at,” explained Scutt. It’s often what regular schools do, which, if you think about it, he posited, doesn’t really make sense” “You got a D in math, so do more math.”

But, even in such a free environment, many kids end up learning many of the traditional curriculum items. Scutt, for instance, teaches math at Bucks, but not everyone takes the subject, at least not directly.

One student only wanted to learn electronics repair and was paired with a master electrician. Soon, the chalkboard in the room they were using was filled with trigonometry and calculus equations needed to complete a project. “The professor applies it to whatever they were talking about at the time, and the student could see how important it was to understand it” said Scutt.

Of course, some kids still just take math.

“That room was Aardvark,” Hart explained as we left the film class. The next room is painted blue with similar large windows and another table in the center. “We named all the rooms. This one’s The T.A.R.D.I.S.,” she continued, referencing the TV show Dr. Who and the catchphrase they believe applies to the room: “It’s bigger on the inside.”

There’s no adult here yet; This may be the first time I’ve ever seen a kid fun off to fetch the math teacher.

Scutt enters and sits at the table with three students. His soft-spoken demeanor leads the dynamic here as they quietly draw graphs. When none of them can remember last week’s homework assignment, Scutt asks what they recall from the last session. They settle on an equation, then move to a blackboard in the hall to explore it. Eventually they end up in Aardvark playing a game that uses multiplication tables.

In another room upstairs, Wyatt Kim has set up his sewing machine and is working on his Halloween costume, a Renaissance-style peasant. “I know, it’s not the usual,” he laughed.

But later, the 17-year old will be working on pieces for Pennsbury Manor, where he volunteers creating and repairing period costumes as needed. It’s his first semester at the Cooperative; he would have been a junior this year.

Kim will earn regular high school credits and take SAT prep courses to help make college an option. But without traditional school and homework taking up most of his day, the aspiring costume designer also has time to take professional sewing lessons.

“I’ve known what I wanted to do for a very long time, and being put where I couldn’t do it just felt counterproductive,” he explained. “I was always doing fine as a student, but I didn’t like what it was doing to me.”

Downstairs, Smyth is now in a private mentoring session with a student. Another, Tyler Brennan, has just arrived and taken a seat in “The Nest,” the living room area where the group meets once a week for meetings, just to hang out. The 16-year old is a professional actor, travelling regularly to New York to help workshop new plays for students among other projects.

And, that’s all on a Monday morning. At noon, the classes break. Some kids go into town to get some food, some continue working on their own projects. A few others hang back and head outside with Scutt, who sips from a coffee cup. He chats with a student, then watches, and eventually joins, a leaf fight that erupts on the front lawn.

The scene, at noon on a school day, seems to be the summation of a free approach to learning. The teens, treated as “fledgling adults,” as Smyth refers to them, rather than kids, can opt to head out for a bite, keep working, or take a break. And, if they want, the “full-fledged adults” can take one with them.

“Studies show that teenagers respond better to responsibility,” she said. It may seem to run counter to common perception, but not to Smyth’s — and Scutt’s and Hammon’s — experience: “We find that if you trust a teenager, they’ll live up to that trust.”

For information, visit www.buckslearningcooperative.org

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