“This is not a school,” former school teacher Elisabeth Kennedy says, and technically, she’s right. Beacon Self-Directed Learning, the nonprofit center she helps run with Catherine Shannon and Catherine Fisher at the eastern end of Whalley Avenue, exists in the mostly uncharted space between traditional schooling and homeschooling. It’s the only place of its kind in Connecticut, a New Haven haven for teenagers around the state who, for any number of reasons, just don’t jibe with the s-word.
Here, students—or rather, “members”—are encouraged to create their own educational programs individually or in concert, following their passions in a supportive yet often freewheeling environment. The idea is to get young people excited about learning, and Beacon’s approach yields something both electric and eclectic. In addition to more conventional middle and high school topics, current classes, guided by adult mentors including handy “creative associate” Rodger Roundy, cover territory like self-defense, stop-motion animation and aquaponics.
As you may gather from that list, there’s a certain emphasis on doing. The aquaponics class, for instance, centers around a hands-on project—building a barrel-based system to grow vegetables. Crossover is encouraged, too: the vegetables the aquaponics system produces will be used to feed the stars of another class called “Wild Kingdom,” featuring animals like Grimm the friendly micro pig and Donut the bashful bunny.
Like Donut wedging herself into a corner beneath the center’s piano, Beacon is tucked between Music Haven and a Papa John’s, a couple blocks up from Broadway Island. The main community room has upholstered chairs and couches and a couple of big round tables, with student-made art and other items of interest, including a list of podcast recommendations courtesy of Roundy, hung up on white walls. Modeled after two other endeavors with reportedly compelling track records—North Star in Hadley, Massachusetts, and the Princeton Learning Cooperative in Princeton, New Jersey—Beacon, now in its second full year, serves kids who are legally designated homeschoolers, but who benefit from getting out of the house. Coming to Beacon between one and four days a week, Mondays through Thursdays, Fridays are left open on purpose, with a hopeful aim. “There’s a reason there’s a day off,” Shannon says, ticking off escalating ways she recommends members spend their time: “Go spend the day at the library. Go do an internship.” “Work a job,” Kennedy adds. “Start a business,” Shannon resumes. “Live your life,” Kennedy concludes.
There’s a clear sense that here, students, who can be as young as 11, are treated much like adults, which is another way of saying that even though many of the specific expectations you’d find in a typical school are left at the door, general expectations abound, as do extraordinary responsibilities. For example, members handle some of the clean-up duties for the space—remember, these are teenagers we’re talking about—and they even organize their own field trips, tasked with curating destinations and coordinating logistics, while staying within a budget.
And of course, they also take a good deal of responsibility for their own educations. Marlin, a 12-year-old from Bethany starting her second year at Beacon, has never been to a traditional school. Literally homeschooled before now, Beacon marks a big change. “I’ve made a lot of friends,” she says, remarking that it’s “a wonderful environment to learn your own way.” Writing, political geography, tai chi and Spanish topics fill her schedule. Meanwhile, she recently auditioned for a theater group performing two plays, Hamlet and A Marriage Proposal, and is picking up with a book club that started last year. The first book on the docket is the classic Southern tale of Scout, Atticus and Jem, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Emma, 16, also of Bethany, was a homeschooler, too, one who felt she needed more direction. Her interests include writing, cooking (this week she learned to make strawberry-coconut ice cream), photography (she likes to capture people and buildings), chemistry, sewing (she’s making soft green silky pajama pants) and world geography (her first class was on 9/11 and focused on the events leading up to it).
Jorge, 14, from East Haven, who holds the distinction of being the very first member at Beacon, says he’s “very happy, and feeling more comfortable than I’ve been in a very long time.” Before he felt closed-off, and now he feels opened-up. “I’m finding myself. I love drawing and making storyboards, learning voiceovers and exploring the dramatic arts.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, I attended a student-run community meeting, with a young man named Brendan in charge that day. He tossed a pink pig ball from student to student as they told first the lowest point of their week (getting up at 4:45 a.m. to swim, a brother who freaked out over his haircut, having to clean the house and mow the lawn) to the highest (going to the library, making an awesome commercial, going to Washington, DC, getting two four-month-old guinea pigs at Beacon, finishing a Halloween costume).
Beacon’s showrunners Kennedy, Shannon and Fisher have future high points they hope will come to pass, with a long wish list that includes more book shelves (and great books to stock them), folding chairs, digital cameras, musical instruments, tools, office supplies, easels and craft supplies. Highest of all on the list is people: more volunteers, especially to teach math, science or a foreign language, either for weekly sessions or one-off lectures.
Volunteers lacking conventional instructional methods or credentials need not be afraid to step forward. Teaching is less important than guiding. “They’ve been consumers, passive learners,” Shannon says of Beacon’s young members. “Here, we are helping them take charge.”
Beacon Self-Directed Learning
123 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims. Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image depicts, from left to right, Elisabeth Kennedy, Catherine Shannon and Catherine Fisher.