In Los Angeles, a Tiny School Lets Young People Direct Their Own Education

Alcove Learning in the largely Latino Boyle Heights section of the City of Angels is a self-directed learning center for teens and tweens.

The exterior of Alcove Learning in Los Angeles. (Kerry McDonald)

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From the outside, the headquarters of Alcove Learning looks like any small home in the largely Latino Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. Flanked by similar houses and located among varied storefronts and restaurants, this self-directed learning center for teens and tweens offers young people the freedom to direct their own education. It is part of an expanding ecosystem of alternative educational models throughout the U.S. focused on individualized learning.

Alcove was co-founded in January 2020 by Alexis Burgess, a former philosophy professor who taught courses at Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles, and Claremont McKenna College before turning his attention to alternative education.

“So many of the kids I was encountering when teaching Intro to Philosophy felt a little rudderless to me,” Burgess told me in a recent interview. “They didn’t really know why they were at college at all… I think it’s a failure of the system. I think one of my Alcove kids recently described it as a ‘people mover.’ ”

Burgess began thinking more critically about his own “people mover” educational experience and that of his college students, while considering what he wanted for his own children’s education. He started reading about creative learning models and discovered North Star, a self-directed learning center in Massachusetts founded in 1996 by former public school teacher Kenneth Danford.

Burgess was hooked. He connected with Danford, and launched Alcove as part of the Liberated Learners microschool network that Danford and his colleague Joel Hammon created in 2013 to scale the North Star model, which prioritizes non-coercive, self-directed education.

At Alcove and other Liberated Learner-affiliated microschools across the country, young people attend optional classes throughout the week, choosing from part-time and full-time enrollment offerings. Most Alcove learners are legally considered homeschoolers, although some students enrolled in California virtual charter schools also attend Alcove as a complement to their learning programs.

Tuition is typically a fraction of the cost of traditional private schools, making it more financially accessible to more families. Alcove uses a “pay-what-you-can” tuition model, with some families paying nothing while others pay the full $1,600 monthly rate. The average Alcove family pays between $500 and $600 a month.

Alcove Learning co-founder ​​Alexis Burgess. (Kerry McDonald)

Burgess describes his microschool as an “unschool,” referring to an educational philosophy that jettisons adult-imposed curriculum and traditional schooling practices in favor of emergent, bottom-up, out-of-system learning tied to a young person’s curiosity and interests.

“There is no set curriculum,” Burgess said. “You can pursue your strengths at Alcove. You can pursue your weaknesses or growth areas. You can do whatever it is that you feel like doing. We’re going to make it up as we go along every semester.”

Class offerings this semester include math, French, political science, magic, psychology, debate, art, and more. It’s “education as improv,” Burgess said.

While programs similar to Alcove have been around for decades, interest in these models has accelerated in recent years, as families look for the personalization in education that they enjoy in other areas of their lives.

“When we started North Star in 1996, there were a few pioneering homeschoolers and unschoolers, and there was the Sudbury Valley School,” Danford said. “Now, I am meeting people every day who are interested in creating alternatives to conventional schooling, and these people sometimes show up with partners, teams and resources.”

With the expansion of school choice policies enabling education funding to go directly to families rather than school systems, self-directed schooling alternatives are poised for further growth. Nine states have adopted universal school choice programs, including Arizona, Florida, Utah, and West Virginia, which have implemented flexible education savings account programs that include schooling alternatives like Alcove.

Danford is focusing his attention on finding and facilitating founders in these choice-friendly states.

“I have become very interested in exploring public funding for educational alternatives, and am deeply engaged with how we can identify and support these founders and their interested families to build sustainable programs,” he said.

He is currently broadening the training and development services that Liberated Learners offers to prospective founders. He’s also growing his team to provide greater support to these entrepreneurs — many of whom are former public school teachers.

“For the most part, the people I meet are not businesspeople seeking a clever way to make money; in fact, most are willing to work for lower wages than they could earn in public schools,” Danford said. “These people have initiative, vision, and a need to find a different way to work with youth.”

Even in states like California that don’t have robust school choice policies, entrepreneurial parents and teachers are working to offer low-cost, learner-centered education options.

Not far from Alcove Learning, former teacher and school librarian Lizette Valles founded Ellemercito Academy in 2021 as an independent microschool with a focus on experiential learning and trauma-informed education. Just outside of Los Angeles, Danelle Foltz-Smith runs Acton Academy Venice Beach, part of the fast-growing Acton Academy network that now includes over 300 learner-driven microschools.

There is a groundswell of demand for new and different educational options, and entrepreneurial parents and educators everywhere are stepping up to create them. Philanthropic nonprofits like the VELA Education Fund provide grant funding and community support to many of these everyday entrepreneurs to help catalyze and cultivate their efforts.

“I think it’s beautiful what’s happening,” Burgess said, noting that Alcove’s little yellow house is now at capacity with 30 learners. He’s wondering about the possibility of leasing the house next door to meet continuing demand, and is optimistic about the growth of decentralized educational models both in Los Angeles and across the country.

“We’re seeing a large scale reorientation away from a top down, federal organization of schooling in the country to something much more bottom up, that was expedited by COVID and by the failures of No Child Left Behind,” Burgess said, referring to federal education policy that has shaped American education for the past two decades.

“We need something better,” he added. “The kids need something better urgently. And so I’m not ashamed anymore to be offering an alternative to the public system. I think we need microschools.”

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