The Pathfinder Center used to have the word "learning" in its name. But cofounders Joshua Hornick and Kenneth Danford dropped it because they worried it might suggest learning only happens within the center's walls. It's a move that's indicative of their educational philosophy.
"One of the premises of Pathfinder is that everybody is interested in life - it's part of being human," says Mr. Danford. Pathfinder is one of the more established additions in a new homeschooling trend - homeschool resource centers. Popping up across the United States, they are perhaps more analogous to libraries than schools, because students can choose which parts they want to utilize.
Some are informal networks of families who share areas of expertise. Others, like Pathfinder or the Puget Sound Community School in Seattle, Wash., are more organized. Several districts have created publicly funded "schools" for homeschoolers that actually require a few attendance hours. Pathfinder is somewhat unusual in that it attracts families who tend to have no experience with homeschooling.
Danford and Mr. Hornick were both teachers at Amherst Middle School when they decided to leave and start Pathfinder five years ago. They were frustrated with a system they thought taught students more about beating the game than discovering their passions. Hornick says his principal motivation was to help kids get out of an environment that encouraged mediocrity. "I felt I was preparing them for something less than the magnificence life had to offer."
After exploring more-traditional routes like charter schools, they hit on the idea for the center while reading Grace Llewellyn's "Teenage Liberation Handbook," which encourages kids to leave school and take learning into their own hands.
Kids pay $1,500 a year to be members - the cost includes individualized consulting with families and access to the center's ever-changing repertoire of classes. No class is mandatory, and some of the 40 members use the center more as a social hangout than an academic resource.
In Hornick's "human body" course, teens experiment with hair strength. Later, he discusses amplitude equations with five students in "Fourier's math" - a rigorous look at the math of physics waves.
Hornick also teaches improvisational comedy and jazz, while Danford focuses on social studies. Volunteers teach the rest of the 20-odd courses, from creative writing to Greek philosophy.
The kids are clearly at varied levels of engagement, but casual conversations elicit interests in Plato, experimental theater, and women's studies.
Many members combine Pathfinder activities with outside pursuits, and members have gone on to attend Ivy Leagues, work in AmeriCorps, or run their own businesses. "When I get my interest up in something, it consumes all my time," says Ayla Bailey, a former Pathfinder member. "I can't even picture going to high school."
Danford is quick to point out that Pathfinder is not a panacea for troubled teens, it's about providing a viable alternative to school, often to families who would not try homeschooling otherwise.
To learn more: www.pathfindercenter.org
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