A new way of learning

Bucks Learning Cooperative is giving teens the chance to take control of their education

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

A school with weekly field trips, zero desks and classes that are completely optional…seems like a fantasy, right? At Bucks Learning Cooperative in Langhorne, this is the reality for a group of teens who are able to choose when, where and how they learn, all while getting real-world exposure to their dream careers.

Life lessons: Teens at the Bucks Learning Cooperative can discuss their passions with an assigned mentor and take non-traditional classes such as stained glass and Korean. PHOTO: Bucks Learning Cooperative

In 2010, Joel Hammon and Paul Scutt had a vision. Hammon, who previously taught at Neshaminy High School, and Scutt, who has 25 years experience teaching across Europe and Africa, saw a common trend among many of their students. Though they were doing exceptionally well in their classes, the teens didn’t like the traditional school environment. They didn’t feel challenged and in turn would lash out at family and friends.

“They were bright but bored to death,” Hammon said.

The two educators wanted to create a place where the teens would still be learning but have control over how their time was spent. Thus, Princeton Learning Cooperative was formed in 2010, with Bucks Learning Cooperative following right behind in 2014.

Before attending BLC, most teens tried out the traditional high school experience and found it wasn’t for them. Immediately after enrolling, they are paired with a mentor whom they meet with on a weekly basis. Together, they discuss and evaluate the teens’ passions and goals, and what steps are needed to achieve them.

Sometimes their ambitions are a little out-of-the-box but BLC finds creative ways to still help the teen. One student had a strong interest in blacksmithing, so his mentor was able to get him in touch with a retired local blacksmith.

“Every opportunity in the community is available to them,” Hammon said.

Another student dreamed of being a costume designer. Through BLC, she was able to take private sewing lessons and even taught a class to her peers. Because of her hands-on experience, she won a national award for the designs she created and was accepted to the University of Chicago.

“The kids want to learn but they’re treated like elementary students,” said BLC instructor Eileen Smyth. “We treat them like fledging adults.”

Classes are offered at BLC four days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but are not mandatory. The teens have the option to take all or none, and can choose from traditional subjects like math and history to non-traditional topics like stained glass and Korean. Most of the classes they take are based on their goals and future career plans. If someone wants to open a business, they would study marketing and accounting rather than chemistry and history.

If the teen isn’t thrilled about a subject that is vital to their goals, they’re able to meet requirements in ways that don’t look like school. For example, to fulfill an English requirement, one teen published original stories online and did one-on-one tutoring with local authors.

With so much flexibility in their studies, many might wonder how these teens are meeting the educational requirements set by the state. According to Hammon, all teens at BLC are legal homeschoolers and in Pennsylvania, they must submit a plan of study. For the students at BLC, these plans rarely involve the parents sitting at the kitchen table with their teen doing homework. Rather, BLC mentors help to outline their studies with options of attending classes at the center, doing a self-study or interning.

Beyond creating a personalized education, the mentors and BLC staff assist with other transitional steps as the teens embark on their adult lives. Though they are a “non-traditional” student, many go on to college. According to Hammon, you don’t need a diploma from an official school to be accepted. Many take a few community college classes while still at BLC, and then transfer into a four-year college with credits and experience already under their belt.

“If school isn’t the thing lighting your fire, you don’t need to stay,” he said.

Currently, BLC has a capacity of 27 students, but it will never turn a teen away who has a need for its services, especially because of finances. According to Smyth, though they have a competitive enrollment cost with most private schools, they will work with all families to help get their teen on the right track.

Despite BLC being a new experience for both teens and their families, Hammon and Smyth have received nothing but positive feedback so far. The students are legitimately disappointed when they have a snow day, and band together to find extra projects to do. As for the parents, Smyth has heard one line time and again — “we have our kid back.”

Bucks Learning Cooperative is located at 315 W. Maple Ave., Langhorne. For information, visit buckslearningcooperative.org, email info@buckslearningcooperative.org or call 215–512–0707. ••