Do you only accept children with disabilities?
We are open to all children that desire a different way to do school. We believe our model is well-suited for children with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities such as those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, low intellectual ability, ADHD, and anxiety. These children are likely to be left behind in the public school system due to the lack of resources. We will determine the level of support each child needs and work with your family to determine if our environment is suitable for your child.
What does “low-income” mean?
The average income a Gaston County household is around $40,000. We consider low income to be below that threshold. Research shows that students in these families are more likely to need support in academics, social and emotional skills, and general support. State and federal agencies use different requirements to determine if a family is eligible for free/reduced lunch or state vouchers. We are open to students from all types of families.
Are you a religious or charter school?
We are not a religious school. We are open to families of all (or no) faiths and strive to create an environment of respect between students. We operate out of a church and welcome volunteers who can speak on and engage with students about their beliefs.
We are a private school and do not receive funds from the state except those that are paid on behalf of a student using a school choice voucher.
What curriculum do you use?
We draw from real world and school-based resources to create a learning environment for our children based on their intentions.
How can I be sure my kids will learn the things they need to know?
If something is actually basic knowledge that you need in order to live successfully in this world, you can’t help but learn it. The “basics” will be captured in kids’ natural learning, which happens through living. We don’t need to force or trick them into learning something basic.
Basic knowledge and skills are defined by our current world. Whereas once it may have been basic to know how to saddle a horse, today it is basic to know how to open a web browser. The rich world environment in which we operate sets us up to prioritize knowledge and skills reliably and naturally based on our experiences.
Are there certain traditional subject areas that are a priority?
We don’t sort knowledge into subject areas, as doing so discourages learners from interdisciplinary thinking and exploring innovative applications they may invent. Learning isn’t about amassing data; it’s about making connections, deepening understanding, solving problems, creating, and sharing. Facilitators support students in exploring the relatedness and convergence of learning domains, both in school and in the world around us. Sorting or prioritizing traditional subjects is rarely useful from this perspective.
Are there certain levels of math that you try to achieve? Do you try to teach reading?
Children are naturally curious and capable. In a rich and stimulating environment, we don’t have to try to teach them anything: they teach themselves or ask (of each other and facilitators) to be taught. When they need math to play a video game, track sport statistics, bake muffins, budget for a trip, or otherwise navigate the world, they will learn it. When they need to read and write to create stories with their friends, manage their own blogs, use community tools (like kanbans) independently, find out what happens in the next Harry Potter book, decipher notes from friends, research dinosaurs, or otherwise navigate the world, they will learn it. Especially in an environment where facilitators model passionate learning and the community supports–rather than shames–students who learn at different paces, kids stay curious and eager to keep learning.
How do students prioritize their interests/goals?
In lots of ways. We don’t have priority-tracking mechanisms explicitly built into any of the tools we use. That said, students have hacked and adapted the tools, for example building “swim lanes” into their kanbans so they can prioritize their intentions. Sometimes they create new tools. Often they set personal goals that they’ve realized on their own or through conversations with facilitators. They prioritize activities that move them towards their goals, like most of us do when we want something, and they reflect often on how they are choosing to spend their time.
If you don’t make them take a variety of classes, how will they get exposed to new fields? Isn’t there a chance they’ll miss discovering a passion if they aren’t required to try new things?
Children today are swimming in a flood of information. They get exposed to a greater diversity of ideas, issues, cultures, facts, problems and opportunities in a month than most people got in their lifetimes just 50 years ago. A single Sunday New York Times contains more text than a literate person read in their lifetime 100 years ago.
Kids today carry in their hands devices with instantaneous access to almost the entire documented history of human knowledge. Then we tell them to put down their devices; we lock them in classrooms and spoon-feed them bits of information, isolated and out of context. We tell them that they need to memorize things they could look up in an instant. Then we grade them on whether they can regurgitate the current politically correct answers on a test. The assumption behind this question is upside down.
Traditional schooling cuts students off from the flow of information available to them and divides selections of that information into little boxes disconnected from their lives (English, Math, Social Studies, etc.), then presents this information as if students would never have encountered it otherwise. Knowledge is something holistic and integrated, and students are integrating it all the time — whether or not they’re in school.
The real question today should be: In this staggering flood of overexposure, how will my child learn to filter to what is important from the unimportant, to focus on their domains of passion, and to determine “good” information from “bad?” These are the important skills for a modern child…skills they won’t get from some school board doing the filtering for them.
How do they learn to operate in the “real world”?
By engaging with it…consistently. Our students recognize that the whole world is their classroom. They grocery shop for cooking project ingredients, spend time in local parks, call restaurants to ask about hours and shops to ask about inventory; they organize field trips around their interests, attend conferences and meet-ups, create entrepreneurial opportunities, and participate in community activities. They can do all these things and more on any given school day. In fact, they’re encouraged to.
How do they learn if you don’t teach them?
We do teach them, but they would learn even if we didn’t. Learning is natural and happening all the time. Babies learn to crawl, walk, and talk without being explicitly taught these things. They look at who and what exists in the world around them, copy and experiment with what they see, practice and learn the skills they need to grow in independence and connectivity to others.
In learning communities that value authenticity and collaboration, it’s inevitable that we’ll teach each other. Sometimes this happens through classes and workshops, sometimes through conversations and modeling. But it’s always happening.
What do Agile Learning Facilitator’s (ALFs) do?
Facilitators hold the space.
Facilitators support students in clarifying their intentions, getting connected to the resources they need, reflecting on their decisions, engaging with the community, and sharing their learning. They work to keep the space safe, legal, and respectful. They collaborate with students to develop a powerfully positive culture. Facilitators model clear communication, collaboration, and authenticity. They embody our Agile Roots, and they are grounded in trust.
You just let kids do whatever they want?
Yes and no. Our communities have very clear expectations and boundaries that the children agree to in order to participate at an ALC. These include productively engaging with the group process, respecting the space, and respecting each other. Pursuits must be safe and legal. We clean the messes we make and follow a simple conflict resolution process when those messes are relational. We collaborate to build positive cultural norms rather than lists of rules.
A maxim we reference when creating new structures is “maximum support with minimum interference.” Our students have a lot of freedom as they get clear about what they truly want to create for and of themselves. With clear boundaries and agreements, they also have the support they need to feel safe using that freedom to question, experiment, explore, and grow
What boundaries are there?
Our communities set boundaries to create safe, legal, and respectful environments. Students commit to uphold certain agreements to participate in an ALC; communities meet weekly to review cultural patterns and create new agreements together; parents may put limits on their students’ off-site travel permissions. To the extent that this question asks whether rules and limits on individual freedom exist, the answer is ‘yes.’
But what if we define “boundaries” more broadly than just as “rules”? Then this question becomes an interesting one about priorities and opportunities to practice 21st century skills that students will need to grow into empowered individuals. In environments where students don’t get a say in their work loads, levels of physical activity, or collaboration styles, they don’t have as many opportunities to practice recognizing, setting, or holding personal boundaries. We recognize that these are vital life skills; as such, ALFs are intentional in both modeling boundary management and supporting students doing the same.
Why are your schools age-mixed?
Segregating people into age cohorts, a practice that really only happens at school, limits their exposure to accessible role models and their opportunities to teach skills they’ve acquired. In an age-mixed environment, older students learn patience and compassion while supporting the younger students. Younger students watch and emulate older students. Everyone gets practice both teaching and learning from people with varying skill levels, learning styles, and attention spans. The results tend to be awe-inspiring.
What boundaries are there to protect younger kids from older kids’ media content in an age-mixed environment?
Segregating people into age cohorts, a practice that really only happens at school, limits their exposure to accessible role models and their opportunities to teach skills they’ve acquired. In an age-mixed environment, older students learn patience and compassion while supporting the younger students who they inspire.
In some ALCs, preteens and teens can request space from younger kids for private conversations. They also know to announce when a movie they’re watching is rated above PG, so that younger kids can decide whether or not to watch it. In other ALCs, preteens and teens have their own room, where they can have conversations and watch movies without worrying whether it’s appropriate for younger students. Other configurations will surely arise as communities and cultures evolve. Navigating students’ comfort with being exposed to or exposing other to various content happens through honest communication and creative problem solving in a specific ALC.
What if my child wants to just play video games all day long?
What if? They might improve their reading and spelling skills, practice problem solving, or exercise their creativity. They might learn to collaborate with others, develop the ability to track multiple moving objects more accurately, or practice reading maps. Maybe they’ll be inspired to study programming so they can design their own games. Or to attend indie game conferences and write reviews of games in development. Or become interested in a period of history or social justice issue that is explored through a game.
Where is this question actually coming from? Sometimes, a parent notices that their kid becomes cranky or easily frustrated after spending a large portion of the day playing a video game. In that case, it’s valuable for the parent to speak with the student, helping them recognize how their choices impact their mood. Sometimes the issue is that a parent feels like their tuition money is wasted unless their child tries one or two offerings each week. Sometimes the parent has anxiety about their own screen-use habits. Facilitators recognize that it’s important to help parents identify and voice their specific objections to their kids. The parents and students can then make agreements around screen use, which facilitators will not enforce but are glad to support both parties in keeping.
Will my child be competitive and prepared to go to college?
If that’s the direction that they choose.
We don’t yet have longitudinal data on ALCs, but we do have it on self-directed learning. Most of the kids who want to get into college do. Having alternative forms of record keeping and evaluation has not been an impediment for kids who want to go to college. In fact, there’s a proven advantage for people whose college applications can’t be tidily ranked by GPA and academic track: a human has to actually look at their portfolio. ALC students document their learning on sharable platforms, such as blogs and Kanbans. As a result, they typically find it easy to construct rich portfolios, and some already have created portfolios for their personal websites.
When a self-directed learner decides they want to go to college, they know why they want to go. Many students unquestioningly spend thousands of dollars and several years of their lives going through college because that’s what they think they’re “supposed” to do. Intentionally entering a learning environment to accomplish a specific purpose is more likely to bring about positive outcomes.
If a high school aged kid at an ALC wants to go to a college that requires traditional stuff, can ALC support that? What if they need transcripts or test prep?
If a student from a conventional high school wants to go to such a college, they have to sit in classes all day, get their homework done, and then somehow find time to solicit recommendation letters, go on interviews, craft their application, and prepare for the required tests.
If an ALC student declares the intention to attend such a college, they can schedule time during the day for work that moves them towards reaching their goal. As during any other project a student decides to take on, facilitators are available to provide support, resources, and coaching. So ALC students have more time to focus on writing personal essays and studying for SAT II’s, should that be what they decide to do.
ALC Students don’t receive transcripts, class rankings, or GPAs; however, they generate plenty of documentation about their learning (Kanbans, Trello boards, Blog posts, etc.) as part of the daily and weekly cycles our communities practice. Generating portfolios and transcripts from this data isn’t difficult, and some students have already done so successfully. That said, there are exponentially few, if any, schools that don’t allow for a human review process and absolutely require grades. State colleges are generally less open to descriptive and non-traditional assessments than private colleges, but the desirability of a promising student with a captivating portfolio shouldn’t be underestimated.
Special needs students: How do you meet their needs?
On the one hand, due to the amount of self-possession ALC students are expected to demonstrate and limits on our resources as non-state-funded schools, we don’t currently meet the needs of all types of kids. On the other hand, certain learning differences don’t show up as problematic in our schools.
A student who needs constant supervision or individual attention is probably not a good fit for an ALC. Staff are always open to collaborating with parents, learning tools or communicating with therapists parents find, in the interest of supporting a student. We also know that adults with ADHD, for example, usually learn to choose jobs that are active, changing, and stimulating rather than jobs that require sitting and writing for hours on end. They know their strengths and challenges and then pick corresponding kinds of environments…and thrive. Kids in school aren’t typically given the chance to make such choices; no matter their energy and attention levels, they are expected to all do the same thing–sit, listen, and write–all day. At ALCs, students are encouraged to pay attention to their patterns and work styles, and they’re supported in making choices accordingly. As a result, they learn to adapt, to maximize chances to play up their strengths, rather than feeling shamed for and fixating on their limitations. The result is that they keep their confidence and grow their capacities, often even undoing patterns of disempowering self-talk and antagonism of writing/math/speaking that they built up in other settings.
How do kids adjust coming from traditional schooling, or going back to it?
Kids, especially older ones, coming from traditional schooling usually have a “detox” period where they test their limits to be sure that they really aren’t going to be forced to do things or graded on their “performance.” When it turns out that there isn’t much to rebel against, boredom and positive peer pressure usually motivate them to start trying new things and engaging with the community.
Learning is always occurring. As a result, students coming from traditional schooling arrive having learned communication styles, value judgments, and assumptions about power dynamics (and their own capacities) that they then un-learn at ALC. Our students who choose to return to traditional schooling have experience communicating clearly, managing their time, and finding information/resources they need to achieve goals. They take these skills with them–along with the knowledge that they’re choosing to go for a reason. As a result, they usually transition smoothly.
What does a typical day at ALC look like?
When visiting different ALCs, you will find similarities in regards to children and adults empowered to create the culture around them, while also seeing different manifestations of specific tools or practices that grow from our Agile Roots. Below is a description of a typical day at ALC-NYC:
School is unlocked and students start arriving at least a half hour before the official start of the school day. They are encouraged to use this time to think about their intentions for the day and scrum, or schedule, any activities they need specific other people for. The day starts on time, with either a scheduling or intention sharing meeting.
The week starts with a schedule-coordinating meeting that we call Set-The-Week. All students and staff gather to determine days and times for offerings, workshops, trips, projects, and meetings that will take place during the week. These opportunities come from students, staff, parents, and community members.
From Set-The-Week on Mondays, or to start the day Tuesday through Friday, students gather in their “Spawn Points.” (Spawn Points are similar to homerooms.) The facilitator reminds them of the activities scheduled for the day while they update their kanbans. Students take on the roles of meeting facilitator and Trello (digital Kanban) keeper, starting the meeting and making sure each person gets a chance to share their intentions for the day. The meeting is usually ten to fifteen minutes; when it ends, everyone has heard each other’s plans—useful for sharing inspiration and scheduling—and had their intentions documented for checking-in with later.
Sometimes, the description for what happens between 10 am and 3 pm is best described simply as “magic.” It changes monthly, weekly, daily. The days are full of trips, classes, games, discussions, stories, creation, collaboration, and surprises. It’s all work and it’s all play. Check out any ALF blog or ALC social media site to see what kinds of things are going on.
In the afternoon, everyone participates in a quick school clean-up. They then move into the reflection-focused part of the day. Monday through Thursday, students return to their Spawn Points. They have a short meeting in which they check in on their intentions from the morning, document the things they did during the day, and reflect on whether they accomplished what they wanted to. On Fridays, a longer chunk of time is set aside for Community Blogging, during which students and staff write weekly posts for their personal blogs.
From afternoon Spawn Point or Blogging, we move to a shared space for a Gratitude Circle. Students typically take turns facilitating, and sharing can take many forms. Ending the day together gives us a final chance to connect and appreciate each other before we disperse into our separate evenings.
How do you deal with bullies?
In order to join an ALC community, every student signs a contract agreeing to treat themselves, the space, and others with respect. We take this agreement very seriously; breaches of it activate a process known as Culture Committee in which a group of staff and students dedicated building a safe and supportive community gather to decide how to address the problem. Sometimes, simply hearing from their peers motivates a student to change bullying behavior. Sometimes more creative or serious consequences are needed. A student who persistently chooses to break their contract will be asked to leave the community.
How will they learn self-discipline?
If you have experience with small children, you’ve probably seen them incredibly focused while persistently working towards a goal: stacking all the blocks, trying to reach the drinking fountain unassisted, mixing ingredients (including chocolate chips!) into cookie batter, brushing the cat’s fur, etc. When kids are intrinsically motivated to pursue a goal–be it a fort or independence or dessert–they typically practice self-discipline where necessary without being bribed or threatened by adults. And when the goal is their own rather than an adult-imposed one, achieving it establishes a correlation in their experience between self-discipline and satisfaction. They know and practice self-discipline; they get to learn that it has value.
What do you mean by holding space?
When we hold space for another person, we make ourselves present to witness and support their journey, without judging and without attempting to control their path or outcomes.
How do you assess them without tests?
Our assessment is that each student is a capable and powerful human with value to add to the world.
How do we track student growth and progress? By developing authentic relationships in which we support their self-reflection and bear witness to their journeys. Students document their reflections and projects on their blogs, where both form and content illustrate the evolution of their thinking and skills.
What is ALC compared to Montessori, Reggio, Steiner/Waldorf, democratic free school, homeschooling, unschooling?
Montessori: Montessori schools and ALCs both practice age-mixing and supporting students in self-directing their learning. Montessori age-mixing involves grouping students who would typically be in three different “grades” into a cohort; ALC age-mixing is much broader, usually separating only very young students, sometimes only for meetings. Montessori students self-direct through a prescribed menu of subjects and concepts that changes based on the age range of the students; ALC students self-direct based on their interests, passions, and the opportunities they see in the world around them.
Reggio: The basic assumptions informing Reggio education are highly complementary to those informing ALC education. Reggio was created based on the belief that humans are born with many forms of expression–languages–available to them. Most forms of schooling only develop literacy in three of these languages: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Reggio seeks to provide acknowledgement of and opportunities to develop as many of these languages as possible through themed “explorations,” The Reggio model recognizes the environment as a powerful teacher; thus, Reggio schools are carefully designed with goals of sparking inspiration, encouraging curiosity, and facilitating interpersonal activities. ALC philosophy shares a view of the child as powerful, competent, and full of potential. We also share the recognition of the environment as a teacher and the emphasis on the importance of social relationships. We’re different in our emphasis on intentional culture creation, our documentation practices, and our structures for supporting student self-direction.
Steiner/Waldorf: The only real similarity between ALCs and Steiner/Waldorf schools is that both approach education holistically. Steiner/Waldorf schools advocate a single developmental trajectory for all children, and they introduce students to concepts in an order and manner dictated by this trajectory. ALCs expect students to have different learning journeys, and our staff aspire to support students in creating their own adventures.
Democratic Free School: ALCs are similar to Democratic Free Schools in that our students contribute to decision making at the school, direct their own learning, and participate in meetings. We’re different in that our students focus on creating culture rather than running the school, use structures to support intention-setting and reflection on their learning journeys, and explicitly aim to keep 90%+ of each day meeting free so students can focus on their learning. In some Free Schools, decision making is consensus based and adults strive to influence students’ learning journeys as minimally as possible. ALC decision-making more closely resembles the Quaker “sense of the meeting” than consensus, and our staff comfortably make suggestions, welcoming students to practice accepting and rejecting attempts to influence them.
Unschool: Unschooling always looks different, so it’s difficult to compare a “typical” unschooling experience to an ALC experience. Both Unschooling and Agile Learning relationships with learning come from trusting that the individual—adult or child—knows best how to design their education and should be supported in doing so. The difference is that unschoolers focus on their individual paths, while ALC students engage in active culture creation. The social component is foundational to Agile Learning: students learn from, inspire, negotiate, and collaborate with each other on a daily basis, enriching each other’s learning and challenging each other to constantly improve their social skills.
Homeschool: Homeschooling looks different from case to case, but it typically involves traditional subject areas and limited opportunities for social interaction. Students can set the pace of their studies, but their topics are still usually informed by state or parental standards. ALCs see students as self-directed learners in a world where all learning is interdisciplinary. Our students decide the pace and the content of their days. They also learn from, inspire, negotiate, and collaborate with each other on a daily basis, enriching each other’s learning and challenging each other to constantly improve their social skills. Since so much learning happens in interactions with others, the emphasis on creating opportunities for high quality interactions at ALCs is one of the main factors differentiating us from homeschooling environments.