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True North in Collinsville Offers Educational Alternative for Teens

February 19, 2016 Arts and Entertainment, Business, Community, Schools No Comments

Finn Begley, 15, of Canton and Robert Siegel, co-director of True North Teen Learning Alternative, check out the inner working of vintage camera equipment. Photo by John Fitts

Alternative Education Forum Set for Sunday

By John Fitts

COLLINSVILLE — For more than three years, Darrell Cookman and Robert Siegel talked about starting a teen education alternative.

Last fall, that dream became reality as Cookman, of Canton, and Siegel, a resident of New Hartford, opened the doors to “True North Teen Learning Alternative,” a “Montessori-Inspired, self-directed learning community” that currently has three teen “members.”

Here students are encouraged to pursue their own patterns rather than a specific number of requirements and classroom times.  There are focused guilds such as Artisan and Tech, classes and tutorials but also a flexible structure, four-day school week and no grades. Students and parents, teens and instructors work together in setting individualized curriculum in those areas or others. Additionally, True North can help teens explore potential interests, the two said.

“In an environment like this the student can be working on a project that really is what they’re passionate behind and they can get the English, the science, the history, the math associated with what they’re doing,” Siegel said. “So it’s not as clear-cut as a class but there’s purpose to their learning. It’s a bottom up approach, instead of a top-down approach.”

Educators and teens work together at True North Teen Learning Alternative. Contributed Photo

Educators and teens work together at True North Teen Learning Alternative.
Contributed Photo

True North is not an opposition to the traditional school method, added Cookman, whose own kids attend Canton Public Schools, but offers an alternative for teens who are not thriving.

“We think this is a pretty good alternative for a student that is not happy with the learning process,” Cookman said. “If they are good at things – or if they want to be good at things – that they should practice them and they should do those things and practice learning and overcoming challenges that they set for themselves and not that somebody else arbitrarily picks for them.”

“We were both inspired by this ability to inspire teenagers at their core and to be able to instruct in a way that does that without having to run through an administration that might want to put their twist on what they feel was required for the children to have,” Siegel added.

The setting, in the former Collins Company complex in Collinsville, is perfect, Cookman said.

Zach Mulcahy, 16, of Canton, shows the template for the guitar he is building at True North Teen Learning Alternative. Photo by John Fitts

“These kids are surrounded by experts in all kinds of fields and trades,” Cookman said. “They are a few steps away from expert woodworkers, photographers, videographers – business people. It’s a huge, huge campus of experts that they can communicate with, perhaps develop a relationship with, intern with, to find out and explore what it is that they want to do.”

Wile the facility is not accredited, Cookman and Siegel said there is nothing stopping teens in such programs from pursuing a GED, a career or trade, or college. In fact, the student that is truly inspired and has that crucial real-world experience can stand out on a college or work application, the two said.

Cookman has taught English and social studies high school level in both public and private school and spent the last few years as lead middle school teacher for Hunter Montessori School in New Hartford. Siegel, a mechanical engineer, is also a science and math teacher who taught science and mathematics at Hunter. The two have worked on this plan for the past three years or so.

However, kids who are educated in the Montessori system have few options after 8th grade, Cookman said. The high school years are often a challenge for homeschoolers and others who might fall behind in school or are not thriving in a traditional setting.

Darrell Cookman and Robert Siegel, co-founders of True North Teen Learning Alternative, talk at the Collinsville facility. Photo by John Fitts

Cookman said he was further inspired a group of friends who played music with his son.

“Almost universally all of them hated school,” Cookman said. “As a teacher I just thought I would love to have all these kids in a class because of all those reasons. They’re funny; they’re smart; they’re interesting; they’re intense; they’re passionate; they’re musical; they will work hard on stuff they care about.”

Siegel acknowledge that he was worried the kids would just want to play video games all day.

“They really don’t,” he said. “They are motivated to learn.”

This Sunday, True North will host an alternative education forum led by Ken Danford, executive director of North Star, a 20-year program that heavily inspired Cookman and Siegel. Danford will discuss Alternative Education, homeschool resources, do it yourself education and more. It takes place from 1 to 4 p.m.  From downtown Collinsville, use the footbridge beneath the Rail-to-Trail, to 95 Canal St. in the factory complex.

For more information on True North, philosophy, programs, tuition and more, visit http://www.truenorthteens.org.

Rae Polinsky, 15, of Harwinton, at True North Teen Learning Alternative. Photo by John Fitts

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