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There was a lot of talk at ALF Weekend about visioning. What is the ALC project? What kind of growth do we want? Where? How fast? Why? Who wants to be doing what? What would our mission statement for the network sound like (if it’s different from those of schools…but what are those)?

The questions came from an underlying wondering: with so many ALFs in so many places, do we share a vision?

@sarataleff started a group document to track various people’s responses to these questions and try to tease out the common thread. @abram asked me, after a conversation with Sara, about visioning ALC as in the business of offering alternative schooling, which leads to questions about what our relationships to other kinds of schools. Valid, since ALC-NYC is a school and we often talk about our philosophy in terms of comparison to other approaches to schooling. But I cringed, because a schooling-focused vision of ALC potential isn’t what I’m ultimately working to achieve.

Shortly after, a parent emailed the ALC-NYC finances group, unknowingly laying out points of a conversation staff had been playing with to varying degrees since ALF Summer. He was pointing to the need to develop a plan to grow and grow sustainably. What, he wondered, was our vision for ALC-NYC?

Both conversations–the network level one and ALC-NYC level one–will definitely be fascinating, ongoing, and significant in determining the future of both entities. Where I have time and energy, I plan to weigh in on both. That said, after talking with Abe and Bear last week, I realized that it may be worthwhile to write out my present ideas, if only to practice articulating them so I can do so more concisely in the [increasingly frequent] discussions.

Network Vision, aka: What is it and what is it for?

In ALC-NYC, the philosophy behind Agile Learning Centers is expressed through an entity that is, as Abe said, an alternative school. We run a school. We take attendance, serve young people of an age where the law requires that they be enrolled in some program of “schooling,” track immunization data, talk about graduation around the age of 17-18, and file lots of paperwork with the DOE.

But the ideas we make our decisions from–trusting each other and the power of relationships, that learning is natural and constant, that self-directed and experiential learning is most powerful, etc.–the “roots and branches” we publish on our website, don’t only apply to humans between the ages of six and eighteen. And building communities based on these principles doesn’t only serve school-aged humans or lead to the establishment of schools.

Right now, people are making ALC schools because…that’s where the need is. I, as a legal adult, can choose to pursue education at home, through work, at school, in meet-ups, or in any of a huge number of possible settings. Or not. A fourteen-year-old, on the other hand, can only choose between kinds of schools. And they can only choose in as much as their parents are supportive of their choosing anything other than the public school or private school that they want.

And I’m glad we’re convening schools. I’m so glad that ALC is an option so that kids have a place to self-direct their days in community. I don’t need to go into detail about why playing with kids is one of the most assured ways to change the future. It’s cool, what we do. I love it. It’s just not where my network vision begins or ends.

In looking for the source of my vision, I poked at definitions. School, for example. What is it and what is it for? It’s that place the government requires adults send family members between ages five and eighteen (approximately). It’s purpose has changed over the years, but it includes providing a non-work, non-street (ie trouble-making) place for young people to be supervised while their parents work, acculturating cohorts of young people so they identify with a particular mythology (nationalistic, STEM, here’s-how-you-relate-to-authority, religious, etc.), exposing students to each topic on the common core checklist, and administering tests/labels to help sort society. I won’t get into class replication or Ilych’s theory about disempowering dissidents; suffice it to say that people have other theories about what school is and what it’s for, beyond what is useful to us here.

ALC isn’t about schooling. We think more about mentoring and guiding than supervising, and we reject the mandatory teaching of isolated subjects or the call to reduce children to piles of statistics. However alternative our schools may be, they don’t set out to be schools so they can perform schooling. They are schools, almost as a disguise, to give kids a place to escape schooling into a richer, more supportive setting, in spite of legalities restricting what kinds of places they can spend their days in.

We get away with it, because Schooling-y schools have for a long time tended to a myth which is now nearly unquestioned in our culture: schools are for learning. A place of learning and education (for kids between ages x and y, where there are intentionally selected adults in loco parentis) is a school. Thanks to this fantastic definition, ALCs can have nothing to do with schooling and yet be schools. Which is really convenient, but also means that the vision for ALCs can’t be elicited solely from our definition of “school.”

So let’s play with other definitions, like “learning” and “education.” We use those words a lot. “Learning” is a dynamic word pointing to the process by which we modify our knowledge and skills. We learn new things. Learn things we knew better. Learn that everything we read in that last article was fictitious, so we should negate it and practice discrimination in choosing our sources. But I’m getting ahead of myself…”Learning” is one of the ways we modify our brain structures, which is happening in response to everything and everyone we experience, according to that sweet CrashCourse video InterALC Psychology watched last week. And our brains are plastic for much of our lifespan (depending on how we care for them). So “learning,” to quote an Agile Root, is natural and happening all the time. The process of learning is tied to education. Education is very similar to learning: it’s what we focus our attention on, what experiences we expose ourselves to, what we pick up from the models around us. Sometimes “education” is the sum of our learning (to this point). Other times, it’s the pursuit of learning. We use the word a few different ways. You can google the etymology, but more interesting to me is that “education” started out as a midwife’s term meaning “to be present at the birth of.” So while the words are mostly similar, “learning” focuses on the personal process, while “education” focuses on the engagement with an other that leads to learning, intentionally or not. And I…I get to be the educator…the one who is present at the birth of the learner to their possibility. I get to be the witness (and sometimes the dula…?).

Connecting the potential of Agile Learning Centers to “learning” and “education” feels much more authentic to me than connecting it to “school.” The idea that we are about creating places of learning, where the education structures support self-direction and autonomy in community, sounds really right, and like an idea that has enormous potential–whether or not mandatory school-attendance gets abolished any time soon.

I see Agile Learning Centers as just that: community centers, designed to support human learning, and based on an approach to learning/community-organizing that emphasizes trust and support and…agility. Which means we should keep making schools. And preschools. And coworking spaces. And cafes. And libraries/research centers. And book clubs. And senior centers. And art centers. And collective houses. And eco-villages containing all the other kinds of ALCs. The possibilities seem limited only by our imaginations, and the potential of such places to change the world for the better simply by existing in it seems enormous. I envision organisms of communities networked to form an ecosystem that empowers people and shifts cultures. Much bigger than a handful of schools.

ALC-NYC Vision: Growing anything in NYC is like gardening in a terrarium.

When I showed up as a curious not-yet-volunteer at “The Agile Learning Center at Manhattan Free School,” I saw four white men in a room and I almost wrote the project off. I was already uncertain about any project mixing technology industry and education pop-phrases (high reactivity to STEM obsession) and was a little wary of Free Schools based on the lack of community and staff burnout I had noticed while interning at one.

In spite of my hesitation and skepticism, by the end of the information session I was signing up to volunteer at the school three mornings a week. Within months, it was clear that I had a shared vision with Ryan and Tomis: to grow the six-student, two-staff, financially desperate school into a thriving community with double the students, the ability to hire me, and financial stability.

A lot has happened since then, but here’s the present situation: We’re 15 students and growing. Ryan and I are full-time facilitators and full-time co-administrators/conductors (rather than “directors”) with Tomis, who still does bunches for ALC-NYC but is around less and less as he settles into married life in Charlotte. And now there are other ALFs in the city: @sarataleff has a littles program in far away Greenpoint, Drew is in and out with network/web stuff, Abe is running extended day, and Bear is testing the viability of being an ALC admissions ninja. Things are happening.

Space-wise, we’re present to our lack of gym/outdoor space, the distance between East Harlem and Greenpoint being a deterrent to increased age-mixing and a challenge for parents wanting to enroll kids at each ALC, and our inability to provide an adult co-working space for parents to hang in and students to find more role models in. If I’m being picky, I’d love that space to have room for a cafe and be open to neighborhood people.

And I want to upgrade our makerspace so it’s more accessible and versatile.

And I want to upgrade our library so it’s full of books kids want to read.

And I want to make sure certain Occupational Therapy toys are available, because sometimes you just need a weighted blanket to feel better.

Staff-wise, we need to do some reorganizing. Tomis wants to fully hand his role and duties over to someone New York based. Sara wants to be an administrator but needs gifted and trusted facilitators to take over her Cottonwood program first. With Ryan and I facili-admin-conducting, we’re feeling the need for another facilitator soon. ASAP if we keep wearing all the hats we’re wearing. Less urgently if we get to offload non-facilitation work to a new director or administrator first. Either way, we’re already aware that we can’t take on starting crowdfunding campaigns, running monthly potlucks, or upgrading our collaborative documentation of kids’ learning without support. And these are things we’d really like to do. We have some potential plans and some promising prospects, but finding the money to pay everyone a livable salary and lining up the people we have so all the shifts in work go smoothly…that’s more challenging. And some of our prospects aren’t quite ready. And some, we’re not sure where’s the best place for them. It’s a really fun, really challenging game, and the stakes aren’t too high yet…but it feels like they will be soon.

So my vision for ALC-NYC is for it to move into one building or a few neighboring spaces, so that the age-mixing can be expanded to include early learners and adults while making logistics easier for parents. I’d like the space to be well equipped and integrated into the neighborhood. I want a facilitator for Cottonwood so Sara can focus on running things there (or at both programs). And I want another facilitator for ALC-NYC, either so Ryan and I can be more supported in wearing our many hats, so the school can continue to grow, or so I can support facilitation while holding coherence for admin-ing/conducting/relationship-tending to take that off Ryan and x’s plates and let them focus on being kick-ass facilitators (until we can get people in directing/administrating, when I’d like to go back to facilitating…though with more support I could facilitate and community-build).

That’s a messy vision, blurred by wonderings about money and logistics (will anyone else be crazy enough to accept a job that’s constant–though wonderful–work, ok pay, and no healthcare?).

The clearer vision is simpler: I want a space big enough to integrate programs for different age groups. I want a supportive, diverse, thriving community (and tending it to be part of my workload). I want all staff in the positions they are reaching for now, and for new, talented ALFs to join us as we grow, so that everyone’s workload is reasonable. I want the school to be financially solvent, with the ability to add new staff as needed, pay existing staff fairly, and offer healthcare so we can attract more diverse adults (since it’s really only us young, childless, healthy, or covered-by-someone-else’s-plan people who will consider the jobs otherwise). I don’t really worry about the school growing; I trust that will happen…I’m more interested in how to make sure our growth is managed so that kids, families, and staff have the resources and support they need to keep building incredible, interconnected lives.




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