Since LEAVE SCHOOL: what teachers can’t tell you was finally published to print (Amazon / Barnes and Noble), I thought it was worth publishing my favorite chapter from the book, which shares four stories of teen-initiated zero-tuition self-directed learning centers.  If there is a brick in the wall that this book contributes to the working knowledge of the SDE community, I think this collection of stories represents it best.






Most books like this have a chapter dedicated to success stories from people who have implemented the ideas discussed in the book. Since the ideas in the previous chapter about teens starting their own zero-tuition learning centers are all new ideas that haven’t been implemented before, I thought I wouldn’t have any “success stories” to share here. I thought I’d have to publish a book presenting these ideas, wait five years for teens to have some time to create their own learning centers, and then I could come out with the second edition of the book to share all the amazing things teens did after reading the book.

It turns out, I was wrong. In order to find success stories of student-initiated self-directed learning centers, I needed to move beyond my own ego, and realize that some teens have already created their own centers without ever needing the assistance of my magical book.

These stories I’m going to share with you don’t follow the exact methods I’ve described, but they are similar, and offer concrete evidence that the idea of a student-initiated, zero-tuition self-directed learning center is possible.

I’m grateful to have found these stories, because they emphasize that you don’t need to follow the suggestions in this book exactly as they are written; you need to adapt these ideas to meet the specific needs of the individuals in your community. I don’t know you personally, I don’t know your interests, I don’t know your friends and peers, I don’t know your family, I don’t know your neighborhood, I don’t even know your name. There is a significant communication gap we must acknowledge between me presenting these ideas through a book to thousands (or millions) of teens around the world and what will actually work for each of you.

I hope hearing these stories will show you what is possible, but also won’t limit your vision only to these examples. Build off these ideas and create something new that suits you.



The first story I learned about took place in 2010 in the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Sam Levin, a student at Monument Mountain High School, started the Independent Project, which he describes as a “student-run school-within-a-school”.

Sam had some experience in leading self-directed projects from a previous project he started as a freshman, called Project Sprout, where he and his peers created a student-run garden at their school to provide food to the cafeterias in the school district.237 By the time Sam graduated, there were fifty teens working to grow a half-acre of vegetables that provided food to three cafeterias in his district, three days a week.

Sam described in a TEDx Talk how his student-run garden inspired him to start his student-run school:

I saw kids waking up at 6 in the morning to harvest potatoes. I saw kids getting in the garden at 8 am on a Saturday even if they’d been out partying the night before. Even if they weren’t getting any payment, any credit in school, nothing. Yet at the same time, I saw the exact opposite in school. I saw people being unhappy, not engaged, not learning. I couldn’t reconcile the commitment and passion I saw in the garden with the lack of engagement and enthusiasm I saw in classrooms. I began to ask: why can’t kids wake up at 8 in the morning to read Kofka or do a science experiment? The difference came down to the fact that, in the garden, the kids were in charge….

One day I came home from school pretty exhausted, sat down at the dinner table with my mom and say “I’m sick of it. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t watch my friends not learning anything because there’s nothing to engage them. I can’t watch people be unhappy 6 hours a day, 180 days a year.” My mom, a little sick of my whining, said kind of offhandedly, “Why don’t you start your own school?” So I said, “OK, I will.”238

Creating a student-run program inside an actual public school is not an easy task, and Sam had to make several compromises in order to get it approved. That being said, Sam did pull it off, and it didn’t cost the students any money and they earned credits toward their diplomas. Sam found a supportive staff member to be their group’s “faculty advisor,” who give them more credibility and helped them navigate the politics of the situation.  Sam wrote about the challenging objections:

While I was trying to make my case, one of the teachers in the “absolutely not” camp was getting more and more frustrated. He was actually visibly red in the face. Finally, he blurted out, “It’s ridiculous to think that kids can be trusted to learn on their own!”239

But Sam persevered and the Curriculum Steering Committee approved a semester-long pilot program in a 6 to 3 vote. Then they got the School Committee, the principal, and the superintendent to approve it.

Compromising with people in power can result in stripping away the more radical aspects of a proposal, but Sam persisted, even having to deal with a teacher’s union representative who said that if they awarded credits to teens for classes that teachers didn’t teach, he’d have the whole union come after them to shut down their program.  The compromise was that:

…students would get a semester’s worth of credits. But they would be general credits, and they’d have to make up half an English credit and whatever other subjects they needed to graduate.240

You can see that even though the program was approved, there was some frustrating inflexibility that hindered this from being a completely independent program. This resulted in a very unique, self-directed semester learning experience, but not a full alternative to school. Another restriction because of subject- matter credits was that the program only made sense for juniors and seniors to participate, since freshman and sophomores had more fixed credit requirements. The sophomores also had to take statewide standardized tests which this program would interfere with.

Sam’s school-within-a-school was allowed to have a maximum of ten students. They created a 3-question application, and accepted all eight students who applied, including both A-students and students at risk of flunking out of school.

Finding a physical space for their school was challenging, even with support from their advisor. As Sam writes in his book, A School of Our Own:

We went through all this bureaucracy to get the school approved, they finally said ‘yes’, and then they had nowhere to put us. Throughout the summer Mr. Huron and I would call each other with ideas. “I’ve got it,” I’d say. “The auditorium!” “Already asked,” Mr. H would say. “Spring musical gets priority.” It became a joke between us. “We’ll go to school in the garden! And build fires in the winter! We’ll construct a tepee in the hallway.”

I thought Mr. Huron was making another joke when he finally told me where we could put the school. He called one day in August. “Well I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said. “The good news is that the school has offered us a space for the school that can be our own, and we can use it all day long without interruption.” “Awesome!” I said. What could be the bad news? “Well,” he said. “You’re not gonna like where it is.”

It was the coach’s office in the girls’ locker room.241

You can actually see inside their classroom in the video they created titled, “The Independent Project” on the Piers Pope YouTube channel.242

The first half of the school day was spent doing more traditional academic work in science, humanities, math, and English. The students would choose their own questions at the start of the week that they were interested in finding the answer to, then present to the group each week what they found in their research.

The second half of their school day was spent doing independent projects, they called “Individual Endeavors,” that would last all semester and result in a finished project. For example, one student aimed to write a novel, another to write a play, another to write a compilation of short stories, one did a research study into women’s trauma and recovery, one made a short film, one worked in the culinary arts, etc. I was really inspired by the way these teens appeared to work as a team, collaborating with one another, giving each other feedback; working toward their individual goals as a collective unit.

The school-within-a-school was student-run in a sense, that there were no teachers. But they did still have to answer to the school board and principal and superintendent.

While a part of my wants to criticize this program and say it wasn’t radical enough because they still ultimately had authority figures ruling over them, it was an amazing accomplishment that actually worked. This was a real thing, not just an idea. The school-within-a-school fulfilled the vision and goals that Sam set forth:

I made three assumptions when building my new school. The first assumption was that the school I wanted to build would be a reality….

My second assumption was that it was going to happen within the walls of my public high school. I’ve since talked to people who want to create an Independent Project, and they have asked me about starting charter schools or creating a homeschooling program, an after-school movement, or an online school. That never occurred to me. I wanted things to be better for my friends and classmates. So, in my mind, it was always going to be a part of my public school, and it was going to be available to everyone.

And finally, though I knew my school’s curriculum would look unlike anything in traditional school, I assumed that, physically, my school would look like any other. When I daydreamed about my senior year, I pictured a classroom with a chalkboard and a whiteboard and desks and posters on the wall.243

A natural benefit of having a school-within-a-school is that they didn’t have any issues with transportation. They also were able to still eat lunch with their friends, participate in sports teams, and get diplomas.

I contacted Sam Levin who is now getting his PhD in zoology from Oxford to ask about the current status of the Independent Project. Since he has not been a student there for years, he suggested I contact the faculty member who championed the project, Michael Powell, who is a guidance counselor at Monument Mountain High School. Michael told me the Independent Project has not run for the last two years, which means it lasted for about seven years.  Michael stated the reason it did not run:

We didn’t have a group of students who came forward wanting to do it and it is a program that needs to be student initiated.244




One example of an intentional learning community of self-directed teenagers is an Agile Learning Center in Asheville, North Carolina, that was started by teenage unschooler, Liam Nilsen. Their website describes Endor as:

…an intentional learning community as a self-sustaining organism, run by the participants, for the participants … “by the participants, for the participants” means that Endor cannot be something that someone does “to” you, or that you can “just” attend and experience. Endor ALC participants should be highly motivated and interested in creating this environment together.245

This idea of participants co-creating the space together sounds exactly like what I had in mind with my vision of a zero-tuition, student-initiated learning center. Endor operates as a cooperative by having the participants themselves manage the administrative duties related to finance, enrollment, and marketing. They use the Agile tools like a weekly “Change Up” meeting to make decisions and steer the direction of their community.

In an interview with Blake Boles on the Off-Trail Learning podcast, Liam describes what goes on at Endor:

It is not a school, it’s a learning center. It’s part workplace, part learning space, for high school aged self-directed learners… We make a schedule together each day and have different time slots and times and places for working on different things, and all participants direct their own time and choose their own projects… its more project-based and less class- based. Whereas school is kind of a marketplace for content, there’s classes and you can take those classes. Endor is more of a support place for self-directed learners who want to create things in their lives. The facilitators are not there to teach, but they’re there to help identify steps to take, remind people of deadline they’ve set for themselves, and help people find resources.246

At Endor, the participants are ages 14 to 20 and anyone under 16 must be legally registered as a homeschooler to comply with local laws. Endor ALC is legally registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and considers itself to be similar to the YMCA in that it is a community-based program that doesn’t offer any formal diplomas or certifications. Instead, Endor is simply a place for people to come together and work on things where there happen to be classes being offered, meeting rooms, copy machines, and other resources. Liam describes it as being like a “co-working space for teenagers.”247

Endor had various physical locations around Asheville, NC:

…in the fall of 2013 the project evolved into a daily popup program finding its home in various locations around downtown Asheville, including Mojo Co-working… In the fall of 2014, Endor opened a permanent location in a dance studio, expanded to take on more facilitators… In 2015, Endor moved across town to be a part of Open Space AVL, a community/project space.248

Endor is open three days a week from 10:00 – 2:00pm, and daily attendance is not required. Participants are free to come and go as they please, but they must sign in and out.

Endor charges $20/month to be a member, which means Endor technically doesn’t count as being zero- tuition.249 The $20/month membership fee is cheap enough, however, that participants could easily earn money through working to pay for their membership, which would provide a valuable learning experience.

Liam describes a really novel way that Endor participants earned money, through a social media game they created on Instagram called “Guess Asheville.” They would post photos of different businesses in the local area on their Instagram account without giving the location and the first one of their social media followers to guess correctly would win $1. The featured businesses would pay a small amount to be showcased in their Instagram feed.

At the time of the podcast interview four years ago (April 23, 2015), foreign-language learning was popular amongst the Endor participants. Many of the participants were actively working on learning Spanish using the free-software Duolingo and they would have a weekly “Spanish-only lunch” to practice their skills.

Though it’s worth adding that Liam said they never scheduled programs or classes during lunch, to ensure the community connections would build during that time. I thought this was a great example of an intentional effort at culture creation to facilitate bonding and connection.

At the end of each week, all the Endor participants write a weekly blog post about their experiences as a tool for self-reflection and also to pass on knowledge gained to future participants in the ALC. This weekly blog writing also helps teens to later on create a portfolio that documents what they’ve worked on when they apply to colleges or jobs.

Like all spaces, Endor wasn’t without conflict and challenges. For example, Liam mentioned that there were issues related to having guest presenters visit Endor to present their work. The conflict that arose is that teen Endor participants were expecting Liam, who was the lead facilitator, to be fully responsible for bringing in guest presenters, while Liam wanted the other teens to initiate this process with his support.

Another conflict Liam mentioned arose around video games. Some people felt distracted by the commotion of people enthusiastically playing video games in the space and they came to a consensus about how to include video gaming without it being a large distraction. The resolution may surprise you: the teens actually voted to ban playing computer games at Endor unless there was a specific community event like a tournament going on.  Liam shares:

One of the big things that came up during that discussion was, “Do you play computer games at home?” The answer was “yes”. So they asked, “Well, why are you doing that here, when this is your workplace to bring projects to fruition, when you can do that on your own at home?”250

Since rules are not set in stone, at the following week’s “Change Up” meeting, the rule was overturned. The discussion opened up about the larger issue that it seemed unfair to ban video games, while still having other equally addictive things be available like “going down the YouTube hole” or spending all day on Facebook. Ultimately, the teens reversed the ban on video games, and instead they agreed on making a general community effort, not a rule, to try and “not do things at Endor that they could easily do at home.”

You may be wondering how such a program got started. The origin story for Endor ALC actually arises from Not Back to School Camp.  Liam explains:

In 2009, 2010, and 2011, there were two separate sessions of Not Back to School Camp in Vermont, and there were four days in between those two sessions, where the campers were left to their own devices. Many people would go home to visit family for those days, but a lot of people traveled far and didn’t have a place to stay. I saw that as an opportunity to put together an event that ended up being the first Endor Unschooling Festival. I rented out this old Bed and Breakfast and held the first Endor Unschooling Festival in 2010. I got my mom and a friend of mine to help, I had just turned 16….

It went super well, we had about 45 campers that first year. The second year we did it again and we had about 55 participants… I met with Grace Llewellyn about what Endor would look like in the future because she was planning on merging the two camp sessions into one long session, and so there wouldn’t be a need for this unschooling festival in between them….

All the while, it had kind of been my dream since I was 14, to start a kind of self-directed learning center. Now that I’d had Endor setup and had this Facebook Page and a mailing list, it turned into a traveling event network…. For example, we had an Unschooling Day at Occupy Wall Street… a couple years later in the summer of 2013 I moved to Asheville and restarted Endor…. The first thing we did was hang out and figure out how to put unschoolers on the Moon… that’s why it’s called Endor.251

I contacted Liam who told me that he moved away from Asheville two years ago, and the other participants continued running Endor for a while, however, they ultimately disbanded, which means it lasted about 4-5 years.252





While Endor ALC was started by an existing unschooler, a project called the Purple Thistle Centre was initiated by a group of six teens aged 15-17 who were either in the public school system or attended an alternative school called Windsor House School.253

Officially launched in 2001, the Purple Thistle Centre operated out of Vancouver, Canada as a full “alternative to school community.”254

One of the co-founders, Keith Lennig, recalls:

When we first began planning Thistle, it was six really excited teenagers throwing ideas out, just kind of brainstorming, around the kitchen table at night. Everything that we talked about seemed very, very possible, on one hand, because there was an adult listening saying “I’m pretty sure I know how this shit works, I’m pretty sure I can do it, I’d like to show you guys how to do it so that you can do it.”… Thistle can be thought of somewhat like a library except instead of books, we stock people and opportunities and resources.255

The brave adult that Keith mentions is a neighborhood parent named Matt Hern. Matt had experience as a community organizer and supported their goals. When I connected Carla Bergman, the most recent director of Purple Thistle, to ask her what the visioning and startup process looked like, she described it:

The story goes something like this: Matt had [the teens] all write a letter stating what they’d like to do with their time, thinking about thriving, learning new skills and working with others…. The letters more or less were about learning art skills and writing (photography, painting, zine making, etc). Then Matt asked a few friends who had those skills if they would come in and mentor. They got a small grant from a local Foundation and rented a two bedroom kinda funky space and they started with photography, painting and writing/zine making,… and then it grew.256

In the documentary about Purple Thistle directed and produced by Carla Bergman and Corin Browne, called Common Notion, Matt Hern shares how his organizing process for a collective differs from that of a school:

What schools do a lot, and many institutions do, is they start with an idea about what the institution should behave like, and then they ask for participants to adapt to the institutional needs. And so I thought about the other way – what if we were to create an institution that would be flexible and would adapt to the participants needs and interests.257

There are very few rules governing the Thistle, as Matt describes:

We have three rules at Thistle: no drinking, no drugs, and don’t be an ass hole. We call it “no ass-holism” which is no sexism, no racism, no homophobia, clean up after yourself, and be nice to people. Essentially the whole thing is just be nice. People understand that instinctively.258

Thistle member Astra Taylor described what made Thistle special:

This concept of asking youth what they want, having freedom and self-determination, and then having this opportunity for rigor. Because if you asked me when I was 15 what I want, I’d have said: to hang out and to learn, and not be babysat.259

Astra Taylor continues:

So many alternative schools and free schools start with a pedagogy, or a philosophy of learning. So I liked this idea that the Thistle never had a blueprint or an idea of utopia, it’s always been this exercise that the people who are part of it getting to contribute, and make it what they want it to be. And that seems like the antithesis of schools’ worst aspects, where school is this rigid thing and you have to fit yourself into it.260

Located in the heart of the industrial area of Vancouver, the Thistle space was designed to accommodate all of their interests like “painting, writing, making films, building websites, sculpting, publishing zines, performing their poetry and spoken word, making comics.”261 Their space was part of a large warehouse called the Mergatroid that was converted into a multi-use facility filled with artists and other cooperatives and collectives.  As their website describes, the Purple Thistle was a:

2500 sq/ft resource centre that has a ton of supplies, tools, materials, classes and workshops, and it’s all free. There’s a library, bike fixing shop, computer lab, silkscreening room, animation facility and lots else. And maybe best of all, the whole thing is run by a youth collective that controls all the day to day operations and really runs the place.262

They describe Purple Thistle as a “youth run community centre for arts and activism.”263 The collective consisted of a group of 12 – 20 youth, who all were given a key to the space, and had a responsibility to keep the space open for one 3-hour shift each week. As Carla Bergman confirms, “[the youth] sincerely ran the day-to-day operations of the space.”264

They hold a weekly meeting on Mondays that is open to anyone. They make decisions about rules, rule enforcement, budgeting, programs, and allocation of resources, about how the space feels and runs.

Their decision-making process was based on consensus, which is different than democracy. As the Purple Thistle website describes it:

The collective meets every Monday night at 7:00, and together we make all the decisions regarding the space, build the schedule, create projects and listen to what one another is up to. The Monday meetings are open to all and everyone who comes participates as an equal. We make decisions consensually and everything is open for discussion…. We eschew the tyranny of the majority in favor of compromise (we don’t vote, we decide together).265

The nature of collaboration as a group, was a common thread throughout the Thistle. As Carla Burgman says:

The DIY, do it yourself, ethos that’s been around for a long time was definitely something that’s attached to the Thistle and we definitely do that as well; we’re low to the ground, DIY, all the way. But it got me thinking about, one of the things we’ve been trying to do at the Thistle, is to think about collectivism, to think about working together.266

This community culture of Thistle is bound with friendship. As Thistle member, Sylvia McMadden, says:

I like to think the core of friendship is kindness and love, and those are the terms I would use to describe how we strive to be at the Thistle: kind and coming at things with love.267

While adults are involved in Thistle, they provide support where it’s needed and wanted, without getting in the way. Some adults are around as allies to sign permits on leases, get community support, work with the landlords, and navigate the world of grants. The adults also provide allyship and mentorship to youth.

Anyone is allowed to run a class if they want to, no special credential is required. Nobody has to attend any classes; it is completely voluntary. The word “class” is used loosely, as Carla Bergman describes them:

…they weren’t classes in the traditional sense. They were more like workshops, sign up and drop in. Often the youth themselves ran them. Depending on skill level, interest and budgets. Some were weekly, some were monthly, some were one offs. They were based off the interests of the youth involved.268

Everything at Thistle was made available for free, including classes, equipment, and supplies. Thistle operated legally as a non-profit under the umbrella of a larger non-profit organization called “Arts in Action”. This allowed them to apply for grants as a legal entity.269 They also state that most of their funding comes from the government. Carla provided some details about their funding strategies:

Early on Matt and others started a day time Skill Links program, which is a federally funded project. At first it was in publishing and then later in life skills and called Dream Seeds, for young women. This was very well funded (and the youth were paid as well as the mentors). This paid for the rent etc. Otherwise, we relied on a few core funders to keep it going. The city, foundations, and lots of donations and free time on the part of me and Matt and other adults, and of course the youth. The project did good work, was open and free to anyone to use it and so it built up a good reputation (lots of activist groups used it to make signs and banners for protests/marches, etc, as well as for meetings and gatherings). We also had a few community gardens and much else. Having a diversity of projects made it possible to leverage funding from a variety of funders. The key was to find core funding to cover the basic costs like rent. Project grants are good but they don’t cover infrastructure and the space wasn’t free to rent.270

The Purple Thistle Centre closed in January of 2015, after 15 years of operation. In a letter to the public, they assured everyone that there was no reason to despair about the closing, but rather a call to celebrate everything that was accomplished at the Thistle:

The Thistle was never meant to be an institution, but rather a space where folks could come together, meet and dream about doing something collaboratively and then do it! And overall, that’s what has happened.271

Specifically, they saw the closing of the Thistle as a success. Their work in youth liberation was largely successful and they made themselves irrelevant:

…we have witnessed a wellspring of youth projects starting up: from youth-run collectives, to cooperatives and art projects, and it’s been inspiring to see. At the same time, and partly as a result of this, we have seen the general involvement at the Thistle really lessen, which really makes a lot of sense to us… In other words, there’s lots going on, and a bunch of it isn’t happening at the Thistle.272

This is a great reminder that the ultimate goal of most social change movements is to be so successful that they make themselves irrelevant.

Founder Matt Hern offers advice to those looking to replicate their model:

It’s not a model that can be replicated…. It’s just one example. I love it when people come and see us and say, “I’m gonna start something of my own.” But what its gonna look like wherever you come from is tremendously different.273




One Stone is a non-profit organization in Boise, Idaho that promotes student voice and student leadership through creating meaningful, transformational opportunities for youth in their community. While One Stone was founded in 2008 by two parents, Joel and Teresa Poppen, its written into their bylaws that ⅔ of the board members are always students themselves.

One Stone began with a few youth-led after-school programs, like Two Birds, a creative digital marketing agency run by students that serves real clients in the real world and earns real money. They also run Project Good, which is a community service organization and the Solution Lab, which is a business incubator for businesses started by students.

In 2015, a 24-hour “think challenge” was organized by One Stone to generate unique ideas to solving a variety of problems in their community. One of the topics discussed was education. Inspired by this event, some of the youth began discussing the idea of creating their own school that extended the type of work they did in the after-school programs into an actual school.

To generate ideas, the One Stone youth group organized a second 24-hour “think challenge” that was focused entirely on education, attracting 150-200 people from the community to be part of the process of envisioning new models of schools. The executive director of the J.A. Kathryn Albertson Foundation was in attendance at this event and took a real interest in one of the models created by the “think challenge”.

Within four months of the “think challenge”, One Stone had received a 2 million dollar grant from the Foundation to open the One Stone Lab School: a student-led, tuition-free high school in Boise, Idado.274 As Wikipedia describes their high school:

The program is different from traditional school, as it has no grades, opting for a portfolio and narrative transcript evaluation instead. Another difference is that rather than teachers, they have coaches, which support student-driven learning. Currently, One Stone has 17 coaches, with 7 master’s degrees and 4 doctoral degrees.275

The coaches work with teens on project-based learning, and they use online instruction for traditional subject-matter like math.276 One Stone operates 5 days a week, and students participate in internships over the summer.277 As a private school, One Stone does not receive state money and is not be required to administer state achievement tests.278 There are no grades at One Stone, to demonstrate their work, they use a “growth-transcript” portfolio. I spoke with Dr. Caitlyn Scales, who is in charge of Strategy and Development at One Stone, for details about the portfolios, and she described them:

The Growth Transcript measures a student’s ability to apply their ever-growing competencies and dispositions in a range of contexts, beginning with familiar contexts that require significant coach and mentor support to complex, real-world contexts, where students demonstrate their ability to use their skills in a professional or community setting to lead and effect change. Assessment is rigorous and includes data taken from performance-based evaluations, coach observations and written feedback, peer-to-peer reviews, and self-evaluations. Growth levels are determined in collaboration with the coach, learner, and advisor using rubrics to assess student skills and dispositions.279

The students are issued a One Stone Diploma when they graduate, and there are no constraints imposed on their graduation requirements by the state.

I spoke with Caitlyn and she says that they’ve just expanded their school to include 9th graders and have over 120 students attending. The format of the classes and schedule changes constantly. As she says, “they are always in beta”.

For example, before the school year started, the teens all had a week-long session to discuss what they wanted to get from the current school year and brainstorm what that could look like. They decided to kick off the school year with a 3-week tech-free “deep dive” where they are all able to explore subjects intensively that interest them, rather than trying to juggle a schedule of seven different classes all at once. After the three weeks are over, they’ll shift gears to a new structure.

One Stone truly values youth empowerment and including youth in the real world as much as possible. They have many opportunities for teens to be engaged in their community, like the Design Lab, which they describe as:

…a project-based learning framework where students use design thinking to develop solutions to problems found in Boise and beyond. Students build a deep understanding of complex, interdisciplinary, real-world issues, while working with a partner organization or individual on relevant, long-term projects. The process requires primary and secondary research, extensive field work and community engagement, writing, professional communication, and other skills.280

One Stone students also have an opportunity to engage in a summer program, called the Summer Experience, where “students engage in a real-world internship, job shadow, or other professional or academic learning experience in a field of passion or personal interest.”281

One Stone isn’t just preparing youth for the real world, it is allowing them to engage directly with it. As one graduate of One Stone, Kate Simonds, recalls in her TEDx Talk with over 3 million views, titled “I am 17”:

Most teenagers depart their senior years with a diploma and an unfortunate sense of irrelevancy to the outside world. Any One Stone student has a different story. My three years with this fantastic organization saved me from the confusing mediocrity that was high school, and instead, exhibited the power and responsibility I have as a human being to make the world a better place. The empathy, leadership, and community service my teammates and I experienced granted us with both a lifetime of extraordinary memories and pertinent 21st century skills, not only preparing us for college but for the rest of our lives.282

Kate has an inspiring message for all teens:

Students, we’ve been respectfully asking for student voice for years. We’ve sat on representative seats at board meetings, we’ve protested standardized testing, but it hasn’t been enough, look where we are. We need to stop asking and we need to start demanding. More than student councils and board meetings and clubs and representative seats — we need to be trusted with more than setting up our parents iPads. Our ideas matter.283

Unlike the other success stories we’ve discussed, One Stone is still operating today. Their school is the focus of an upcoming documentary by Jon Long titled Rise: A New Generation, which documents their second year of operations.284



I saved the most promising and inspiring story for last. In my search for examples of youth-initiated self- directed learning centers, I reached out to Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization.285 Jerry is one of the elders of this movement, especially around democratic schools, and is the author of the book School’s Over: How to Have Freedom and Democracy in Education. I asked Jerry if he knew any examples throughout history of learning centers started by teens.

Jerry informed me that in the 1960’s, a group of students in Toronto, Canada initiated what became known as the SEED School, which still exists today, and was used as a template for designing 25 other publicly-funded alternative schools in Toronto. It almost seemed too good to be true.

I tried searching for information about SEED but all I could find was a Wikipedia article describing it:

The acronym ‘SEED’ originally stood for ‘Summer of Experience Exploration and Discovery’, and when it became a year-round school it was changed to ‘Shared Experience Exploration and Discovery’. Students interested in a particular subject, would gather other students, and together they would find a knowledgeable person to act as a teacher or catalyst, and meet regularly to learn. The groups met at various locations and times, including sometimes evenings and weekends. It was entirely up to the students how many and which subjects they studied, and when and where the groups would meet. A group studying Mass Media, for example, would meet in the evening in the Lowther Avenue home of CBC Radio Broadcasters Betty Tomlinson and Allan Anderson. The Vegan Lifestyles cooking course met and cooked in student homes with parents joining to eat the meals prepared by the students. A Japanese Studies group met at the University of Toronto. A few groups met at SEED’s own facilities.286

This very much sounded like what I envisioned and I wanted to know more about the origin story. How did such a program get started? Who were these teens? And what led them to create what became such a successful project?

The Wikipedia article left with more questions than answers and I had nowhere to go to answer them. Jerry Mintz introduced me to an educator and writer in Toronto, Debra O’Rourke, who was familiar with SEED. She told me a book was written about the founding of SEED, titled You can’t take a bathtub on the subway: A Personal History of SEED, but that it was out of print and hard to find.

In my mind, this book held the secrets to the Universe. It reminded me of when my college classmate, Alec, and I launched our first startup company. Back then, we learned about an obscure book titled The Resonant Recognition Model that described a unique way in which light could be used to increase the activity of biomolecules. The book was out of print and only available in foreign countries. I remembered us tracking down a library in Boston, MA that had a copy and going to the library and photocopying every single page in that book so we could have a copy for ourselves. This type of research always makes me feel like some sort of Indiana Jones-type character who is actively digging to uncover the secrets of humanity.

Fortunately, Debra offered to photocopy me a copy of the book. A few days later, she emailed me to tell me that when she went to make the copy, she could not find her own copy of the book.

Almost a year later, I got an email from her telling me she found her copy, offered to make me a copy, and also offered to arrange for me to visit the modern-day SEED School in Toronto.

The adventure continued!

Almost another year passed before I was finally able to make it up to Toronto for a visit. I was able to speak further with Debra about the origins of SEED and also meet with their current Principal, Liam Rodrigues.

As I came to learn, there is an interesting debate between who actually “started” the SEED program. Basically, the adults claim they started it, while the youth claim they started it. It seems like, in a way, both are correct.

Here’s how I interpret the story, please forgive my nerdy enthusiasm for history.

Since SEED started in 1968, it’s important to first look at the context of what was happening in the 1960’s. At the time, there was tremendous political unrest with a great deal of activism, such as protests of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights and Feminist movements. Assassinations of President John Kennedy in 1963 and activist Malcolm X in 1965 were representative of the political times, and young people were becoming especially politically active and taking to the streets. The involvement of youth became particularly concerning to the public in 1967, during the famous “Summer of Love” in which young people descended on San Francisco and brought the hippie movement to the forefront of pop culture.

The summer of 1968 was looking like it may follow suit, as many political activities were going on at the start of the year, such as: a women’s march in Washington, DC against the Vietnam War; the North Vietnamese launching the Tet Offensive; a labor protest starting after two sanitation workers were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck; police officers at South Carolina State University opening fire and killing students protesting Vietnam; the American media becoming openly critical of the Vietnam War; the Kerner Commission concluding that American society was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal”; a group of 15,000 Latino students marching out of school in Los Angeles in demand of a better education; 500 New York University students protesting an event at their school where Dow Chemical (who produced the napalm chemical used in military weapons) was recruiting; hundreds of students taking over an administrative building in Howard University in Washington, DC in demand of a greater voice in student discipline and curriculum; a nationwide movement beginning for men to send back their draft cards; Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated, resulting in riots in over 100 cities nationwide, leaving 39 people dead, more than 2,600 injured and 21,000 arrested; college students taking over five buildings at Columbia University and holding the dean hostage while demanding the university cut ties to military research resulting in 700 arrests; the play “Hair” debuting on Broadway and bringing to the mainstream the ideas about sex, drugs, rock & roll, and war draft resistance; riots breaking out amongst 5,000 college students in Paris, France; nine antiwar activists raiding a government office in Maryland and burning files and draft cards in the parking lot using homemade napalm; Robert Kennedy being assassinated while campaigning to be the next president; and the Poor People’s Campaign rallying in Washington which attracted 50,000 participants calling for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom — all of this just in the first half of 1968.287

As the summer of 1968 approached, the politicians in the city of Toronto, Canada were concerned about what could happen if idle teens were roaming the city unsupervised all summer. It was with this political climate in mind, that the adults on the Board of Education created a summer program to engage high school age students during the summer of 1968.

The SEED program, though technically initiated by adults, was brought to life, molded, and operated by the teens who took complete ownership of the program, resembling the model of the famous Summerhill School in England that has inspired so many self-directed learning centers in the world.

The students reached out to a large network of facilitators to teach classes, who they called “catalysts”, which included university students, professors, community members, and well-known experts throughout the city. As one of the adult organizers of SEED, Murray Shukyn, writes in You can’t take a bathtub on the subway:

The kids were involved in all aspects of the program from public relations and recruiting students and catalysts to policy-making and timetabling, and they quickly developed their own rules and limitations on behavior to ensure that no criticism could be levelled against their program…. SEED belonged to the kids.288

It was important for SEED to be centrally located, to allow for easy access to classes and also to streamline communication. They started off in an empty space on the sixth floor of the Educational Centre, an administrative building of the Toronto Board of Education. Rather than confine the students to this space, it acted mainly as a central hub that functioned as a physical bulletin board for organizing people. They called this space, “SEED Central”.

Having a central headquarters with a bulletin board displaying all the day-to-day information about SEED operations was especially important given that SEED started in 1968 when there was no internet. It also helped to have a centrally-located headquarters to shorten the trip for SEED students and catalysts to meet up. As one SEED student, Alvin Snider, explained in an interview:

How far do you have to walk to get food, to get cigarettes, to acquire coffee in some fashion, to walk to the nearest hospital where your friend has just come out of the biology course held there? How far did he have to walk to get there? How far does the journalist have to travel, who is holding the journalism course? How far does the person have to come to you, or you to him, who is teaching French, Spanish, Lithuanian, or what have you? What about the kid who’s taking apart the automobile engine? How far does he have to go for that, and from there back to the bulletin board to see what’s happening the next day? There is no other way that he can find out but from the bulletin board.289

Anecdotes fill the pages of the “bathtub book” with stories of groups meeting with various catalysts throughout the city of Toronto.

Some examples: a group of eight youth interested in astronomy met at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in the evenings; fifty youth met for a group discussing politics, breaking up into various smaller groups that met three times per week; another catalyst hosted youth in the garden of her home and arranged trips to political institutions throughout the city including having the youth attend Toronto Board of Education meetings where the youth gave a public critique of their process; some youth attended group meetings at the lounge of Innis College; and some met at the International Student Centre of the University of Toronto.290

Some youth had more hands-on experiences: like visiting auto mechanics throughout Toronto; another group of youth visited a recording studio to learn about radio interviewing; a handful of catalysts met with students at the National Film Board to access a large library of films and get insights into how they were made; another catalyst worked with artistic youth interested in sculpture who met at a warehouse where they’d work on Styrofoam, wood, and plaster sculptures; youth interested in theater met with a catalyst at various rehearsal spaces throughout the city; a dozen youth interested in music collaborated with a pair of catalysts to host gatherings where they all played folk music and people danced; some youth interested in social change met with a couple catalysts throughout the city to discuss ways of alleviating poverty in the city; some youth interested in nature traveled with a catalyst to parts of the city like the zoo and Toronto Island; and many youth met in the homes of the catalysts teaching more conventional subjects like math, language, or computers. Some classes even began including adults as learners, such as the computer programming class. Similarly, as some teachers became students, some of the students also taught classes.291

While it may sound chaotic and scattered, things were organized quite seamlessly on the bulletin board at SEED Central, with simple group descriptions and guidelines such as these:


Meets every Thursday at 7:00pm with Greg Sass. We visited Yorkville, Rochdale, and Superschool. Thursday, July 24 we’re going to visit Digger House. See the bulletin board each week to see where to meet.  Discussion on each experience.


Interested in learning the language of the computer and feeding your own problems into a computer? Meet daily at 10:00am in the computer services classroom at the Education Centre with [catalysts] Kin Lee and Peter Chong.292

The presence of the students throughout the city all summer also acted as a way of promoting SEED. Students utilized all the resources of the city, people, buildings, equipment, and supplies, ultimately evolving into a learning network.  Murray Shukyn writes:

We were developing a community based not on geographical boundaries but on common interest. Each group became autonomous in decisions about content, direction, and timetabling; and contact with SEED Central provided information about other groups’ timetables so that conflicts could be avoided. In this way, SEED Central became a facilitator – collecting, organizing, and issuing information, and arranging for supplies and equipment as they were needed.293

It’s interesting to read the role of SEED Central, which seemed to operate almost like a modern-day internet forum, or Google Calendar. The authors of the book use the term “switchboard” and “clearing house”294 which are terms not so frequently used today. Essentially, it means there were people constantly on the phone organizing groups and planning sessions and coordinating locations and times and adult catalysts and teen learners. While a great deal of this could be operated via a digital platform, it can’t be understated that there is also a great value in the physical connections that youth made by having a central place to coordinate, meet, connect, and share experiences face-to-face.

SEED teens did not have trouble finding volunteers. They actively made phone calls reaching out to community members but also had an influx of phone calls from people who heard about SEED and offered to volunteer and help out. Remarkably, many of the volunteer catalysts enjoyed their experience so much that they continued to volunteer on an ongoing basis.

The culture of SEED was built on mutual respect between adults and youth. As Murray Shukyn writes:

Everyone was on a first-name basis. More significantly, both kids and volunteers shared in the privileges and responsibilities for their groups in SEED. Respect amongst individuals grew in response to the recognition of ability, knowledge, and experience. Respect developed rather than being imposed.295

SEED was a huge success in its first summer. In their second summer, SEED’s reputation had grown a lot, and there were issues as changes were made. As Alvin, one of the SEED students, explains:

When I left, [SEED] was following its original promise, but it had some very awkward difficulties to overcome. It was no longer in a central place. It had been given too much, too much room, and too much divided room, when all it needed was one central large room, somewhere in downtown Toronto, and three telephones. When I came back, there were small sets of people in each office. The only people I could actually speak to, who would speak back to me, were those people I had known before. In other words, I was stuck in a small social group and couldn’t get out of it no matter what I did.296

It seems like many of the problems arising in the second summer were, in part, because of the immense success they experienced in the first summer.  As two teens discussed in the “bathtub book”:

S: One of the things which I feel destroyed SEED was the media. The media came in. Did you see any of the programs on SEED, on television?

A: They were oriented toward people who were far different from people who were in the program.

S: Not only that, the thing which strikes me is that the people in the program were socialite people, eh? SEED started attracting people who could get on television. People who could have their name in a newspaper. I think that’s something which made it fall apart.297

The influx of new members who were not invested in the creation and success of SEED led to problems, as Diana Smith shares:

The people who came into SEED, afterwards, didn’t have any energy to really work on SEED. It was there for them. They somehow had this idea that it was there for them and it was going to keep going. What happened was that Murray kept it going, in the office. He was the only one doing it, and he was the only one who knew all the information. Eventually, it got to the point where he just took over, the way any administrator would. He found it too inefficient to consult other people. It just took more time, so he did it himself.298

Despite the challenges during the second summer, it was during the second summer when the teens expressed that they wanted SEED to continue throughout the school year as an alternative to school. As Murray writes:

The last few days of the summer program were most unusual. Rather than the usual joy at the end of term, depression was apparent in most of the groups. The kids did not want the program to stop, and felt it unfair that an artificial limitation should be imposed on this type of learning.299

The story continues on Wikipedia:

That fall the students obtained recognition from the University of Toronto, and requested the Board establish it as a high school to obtain core funding (for staff and space) and so that students could obtain high school diplomas. During that fall and winter, students ran SEED without any coordinators, using an office made available free by St. Thomas Anglican Church on Huron Street.300

As SEED formalized into an official school which would grant teens a diploma, bureaucracy crept in and guidelines, budgets, boundaries, and oversight became more formalized:

Official enrollment was capped at 100 students… Additional students could also attend but not earn high school credits/diplomas. Grades 9 to 13 were included… A budget of about $200,000 was approved. Murray Shukyn was the first coordinator. To meet the technical requirement of having a principal, and yet minimize costs, the Superintendent of Secondary Schools, A. L. Milloy, was appointed Principal, but he was not involved at the school. A small core group of four or five teachers were hired, most of whom were certified to teach in more than one high school subject, so that students, if they wished, could still take traditional subjects taught by certified teachers that would qualify for a high school diploma.301

Whether or not the school continued to be ‘student-run’ is debatable. Thought its stated that “The students ran the school, often dealing directly with the Board of Education…” it implies that they had to answer to authorities. Just as describing a principal as “running a school,” the principal is in charge and responsible for that school, but still has to answer to a superintendent (who in turn has to answer to a school board, who has to answer to voters in the community).

So it could be argued that the adults started the SEED summer program, which was run by teens, and that it was the teens that started the actual SEED School. Regardless of how you want to view the early dynamics of its formation, what’s more important is to see that it worked and it worked well: SEED has continued to exist to this present day.

When I traveled to Toronto to take a tour of SEED, I have to confess, I was a bit disappointed. I’m not sure exactly what I expected to see, but when I compared it to my other experiences in visiting learning centers, it didn’t feel nearly as student-run as I envisioned.

I wasn’t trying to be confrontational with the current principal, Liam, or Debra who arranged the meeting, but I did piece together an explanation for the changes. I came to learn that, over time, a lot of the autonomy and self-directed aspects of SEED had slowly been stripped away from it. Keep in mind, that SEED started over 50 years ago and is a publicly funded school. It should not come as a large surprise that between becoming a formalized school and the evolution of time, it adapted. Instead of being an alternative to school, it developed into an alternative school.




I apologize for leaving you with what feels like an unhappy ending for most of these “success” stories. Of the examples given, only One Stone and SEED are still operating, and SEED seems to have slowly drifted from its truly student-driven origins.

The important message that I’m trying to convey to you is that this seemingly crazy idea of creating your own learning center is completely possible. As you’ve now heard in the stories of the school-within-a- school in Massachusetts, One Stone in Idaho, Endor ALC in Asheville, the Purple Thistle Centre in Vancouver, and SEED in Toronto, tuition-free, student-initiated self-directed learning centers have been created multiple times in multiple parts of the world in a variety of formats.

These stories are examples of what is possible. Author and community-builder Peter Block writes about the benefits and consequences of using examples of great communities throughout the world as our inspiration:

They give us hope and possibility. When seen as benchmarks, they make for good journalism, but benchmarking has an element of illusion built in. It implies that if I can see it there, I can create it here. The hard part of community building is that is is always a custom job. It is born of local people, with unique gifts, deciding what to create together in this place.302

I had no idea these examples of zero-tuition, student-initiated learning centers existed when I first began writing this book several years ago. Keep in mind that there are probably more examples which I did not come across in my research. Learning about their existence brings me incredible joy, and a slight sadness.

I feel joy because it provides evidence that this crazy idea can work! I feel some sadness because I must now come to accept the harsh reality that even the ideas presented in this book around creating your own student-initiated, zero-tuition self-directed learning center are not truly original. I haven’t really invented anything or come up with any new ideas. I’m much more of a cheerleader than an inventor. I accept that my job here is to take the incredible stories of other teens’ accomplishments and shout them from a mountaintop so they can be heard far and wide. And in writing this book, I hope to achieve just that.


As we wrap up, I want to help you zero in on what kind of fun self-directed projects you could work on. I don’t want you to feel restricted by this activity, so if you have your own ideas, run with them. This is more to help you brainstorm to come up with new ideas.

You’re going to do a “word association” activity, where you write down whatever comes to mind when I present a few prompts. Set a timer for 2.5 minutes for each prompt, and write down as many things as you can during that 2.5 minutes. It’s ok if you only come up with one idea, and equally ok if you have 20 ideas. Also, it’s perfectly ok if you repeat ideas for multiple prompts. Here are the prompts:

1) Skills you HAVE

2) Skills you WANT to have

3) Interests you HAVE

Note: recognize the difference between an interest and a skill. If you can say “I know how to…”, it is a skill. If you can only say “I know about…” it is an interest.

4) Interests you WANT to have.

5) Problems to solve: GLOBAL

6) Problems to solve: NATIONAL

7) Problems to solve: LOCAL

8) Problems to solve: PERSONAL

9) Bucket list of things you want to do before you die

10) Things I do for fun ALONE

11) Things I do for fun with OTHERS

12) Big questions you have

Next, I want you to take these different sections and start combining different items to create a new project. The most straightforward way to do this is to combine an interest and a skill. For example, I have a skill for stand-up comedy and am interested in mental health and education, so a lot of my stand-up comedy is about mental health and education. Since I have a skill for doing comedy and have some skills in making videos and have an interest in physics, I am working on making a physics sketch comedy show. Since I had a skill for video and computers, and I am interested in mental health activism, a few years ago I offered to livestream a protest to the internet. Since I am interested in becoming a better oil painter and I am interested in physics, I paint a lot of physics experiments.

This will lead to all sorts of fun projects which you can work on. If you want to take it a step further, you can combine your skills and interests with solving a real problem. For example, since I see that there is a huge problem with our education system, and I have skills with computers and performing, I created this book. Since I think teens reading this book will need support to actual create their own learning centers and I have a skill with building websites, I created the Peer Unschooling Network.

You can also look at your bucket list as a project in itself. If you dream of skydiving one day, why not set that as an immediate goal? There’s so much to learn from a technical perspective about skydiving, plus the personal development of overcoming your fears. Don’t under-value the educational value of these personal pursuits.

In the end, you really only need 1 or 2 ideas that you are super excited about to start moving forward. But it helps to first start with a huge list of ideas, and then start narrowing it down to which ones you will actually pursue. Keep in mind, that it’s perfectly fine to look at organizing a zero-tuition, self-directed learning center as a big project all in itself.

If you want some more examples of projects I’ve brainstormed up, you can check out a blog post I wrote with all my bucket list dream projects.305



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