The rise of suicides among Loudoun County teens has resulted in vigilance among local school professionals and parents. Both Loudoun County Public Schools and private organizations, like the Ryan Bartel Foundation and A Place to Be, have been actively engaged in raising awareness about teen depression, anxiety, and suicide risk. According to the CDC, suicide remains the second leading cause of death among people age 15-34. Teens in increasing numbers are reporting depression and anxiety, and the number of students being diagnosed with anxiety disorders now numbers over 25%. Parents and mental health professionals who were once asking, “How can we help our kids manage the stress of being a teenage student?” are instead beginning to question “Is this stress necessary for our kids to become successful, contributing members of society?”
As Embark Center for Self-Directed Learning prepares to launch our program in Loudoun County, which provides an alternative for teens who wish to learn in the way that suits them best, new data has been released which suggests learning outside of school, while increasing personal well-being and independence, has no negative effect on long term educational or career outcomes. The article “What Happens to Self-Directed Learners?” published in Tipping Points: The Online Magazine from the Alliance for Self-Directed Learning, provides anecdotal evidence collected by NorthStar: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, which demonstrates there is nothing teens can do with a traditional high school diploma that they can’t do without one. In short, self-directed teens still have access to college and graduate school, professional careers, and entrepreneurship while experiencing increased satisfaction and mental health. NorthStar began supporting teens to thrive without school in 1996 and eventually inspired the Liberated Learners Network, a non-profit initiative that began as a collaboration of centers who wished to spread the NorthStar model that had yielded such inspirational results.
Embark Center for Self-Directed Learning, a member of the Liberated Learners Network, will open its doors to Loudoun County teens ages 12-18 in the fall of 2017. Embark will provide a host of academic, non-academic, and social supports to make the idea of leaving the traditional educational path and taking control of one’s own education a realistic option. Embark is not a school. It is a program which encompasses personal one-on-one mentoring relationships, personalized learning plans, and non-compulsory access to classes, workshops, and tutorials all designed to meet the unique interests of each member. The focus is on the individual’s strengths, needs, and goals, and members do not need to consider themselves “self-directed” in order to be a part of the community. We are also committed to welcoming all interested families regardless of their ability to pay full membership fees.”
Teens come to centers like Embark for a variety of reasons. Many never intended to choose an alternative educational path, but, for whatever reason, have found that traditional school did not work for them. Embark believes that helping teenagers figure out what seems interesting and worth doing right now, in their current lives, is the best way to help them develop the self-knowledge and experience needed to figure out what kind of life they want and what they need to do or learn in order to create that life. In other words, it’s the best preparation for their futures while helping them to be fulfilled in the present.