Written by Brenda Vellino, Compass parent.
Our family found Compass out of necessity. For all the years (JK – Gr 6) that our daughter Sarah had been
in the public school system, she struggled with feel- ing anxious, frustrated, and overwhelmed. Getting evening homework done was often a painful exercise marked by meltdowns, tears, bribery, and negotia- tion. Preparing for poster presentations was even worse. I frequently found myself questioning and lamenting fill in the blank rote learning assignments and the basic lack of imagination in approaches to teaching. This is not to say that this was true of every teacher or of every teacher all of the time. Teachers often meant well and did what they could to make learning – or at least the school environment – fun.
I think the school also did what it could with IEPs (individualized education programs) and accom- modations. As the daughter of three generations of school teachers and as a believer in the social good of universal public education, I remain somewhat protective of the system even if evidence tells me that a “one size fits all” approach means it is a broken system for some, and possibly quite a few, youth.
Our family’s breaking point was the transition to grade seven. Going to a new and larger school and moving from the comfort of a small school where familiar teachers, friends and environment cushioned the hard daily battle to endure proved to be too much. Sarah’s anxieties shot up and she just couldn’t push herself to go anymore. After a few one day tries at a few different schools, we heard about Compass through our older daughter’s friends, several of who were homeschooling and going to Compass.
We couldn’t believe the transformation in Sarah after just a few days: from hating and 3 dreading school, we saw her loving to go to Compass. At the end of the December holidays this year, she said, “I can’t wait for Monday to come when I get to see all my Compass friends.” She refers to Compass as another home. Incidentally, when I sometimes refer to Compass as part of the “unschooling” movement, she rejects this idea absolutely. “Compass is the meaning of what school should be,” she says.
The first thing that impressed her at Compass was that all the other youth – for their own reasons – were refugees from the public school system. Finally, she met other youth who didn’t fit into the system and were not only able to talk about it, but also offer each other understanding and support.
The second thing that impressed her was there was no forced learning: no mandatory subjects, no performance pressure, no man- datory assignments and no exams. She im- mediately plugged into all the science related classes like Cognitive Science, Animal Behaviour, and Criminal Psychology taught by some talented volunteers.
Interestingly, she sat in on visual arts classes for a year, watching and admiring the other youth draw and feeling worried about her imagined lack of ability in art. Finally she responded to gentle encouragement and now visual arts is her favourite class to participate in. Not only that, but she is currently interested in costume design for film and spends time drawing costumes and collecting an online scrapbook of costumes. Sarah has also flourished in the GLBT positive environment of Compass, where everyone is encouraged to be who they feel they are.
I have to confess to my early worried skepticism and my ongoing – now lessening – hesitation about Sarah being out of mainstream education while simultaneously feeling so happy to see our daughter happy, content, and at home at Compass.
Letting go of any mandatory curriculum or structured assignments has been hard for me. In the first week of meeting Abby and Andre, I said I feel like I am being asked to let go of everything I have understood schooling to be about, and yet I am not sure I have agreed with a lot of what school has been for both of our girls. I am worried that with no framework that challenges or pushes Sarah that she won’t be motivated to improve her basic writing or math abilities (which I see as life skills), as much as her brain is being challenged in her science classes and her artistic side is being nourished in art classes.
I get the message that I need to be patient and that the motivation will come when the need is there, but my experience as a university teacher seems to suggest that some types of skills need repetition and reinforcement in multiple forums. I have watched our other daughter (who also struggles with school and who is saved from the boredom of mandatory classes by being able to attend an arts high school) turn out to be an amazing writer partly because so many of her classes have compelled her to write journals, reviews, reports etc.
As Sarah’s brain matures and as she continues to find learning fun will she be motivated to pursue what it takes to get her to where she wants to be in life? Will my worries be unfounded? The jury is out, but for now I am working from the truth that “teens have the right to be happy” and grateful that Compass is a wonderful, healthy, supportive environment for exploratory learning that will get Sarah through these awkward early teen years.
We also witnessed her taking a big step out of her comfort zone to actually speak in front of strangers at a panel presentation at an alternative schooling con- ference. That was a wow moment for us. Sarah says this is because she is so comfortable when she’s with Compass people that she can do things that would ordinarily cause her stress.
In short, I am a somewhat reluctant but enthusiastic supporter of Compass. I am glad Compass is there for Sarah and all the other teen refugees from the public school system. I am grateful to Abby and Andre for their vision in creating Compass.