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Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens provides an alternative education

Rebecca Kirk

At the Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens, students are responsible for their own education, with a curriculum built on engagement, innovation, and respect. Katie Jones peeks behind the doors and spies a new, alternative model for school right here in Eastown.
On a snowy December afternoon, Tara and Thomas sit at a kitchen table, Thomas sketching, and Tara sipping a bowl of soup. Neither attends high school, which – funny enough – frees them up to do a lot of learning.
Thomas and Tara attend Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens, an alternative to school for those who aren't satisfied with their high school or middle school experience and want to take responsibility for their own education. The center opened this past July in a modest, nondescript brick building at 1324 Lake Drive in Eastown.
"I taught in public schools for several years, and I got to the point where I decided to find a way to educate kids in a way that made sense to me," says Rebecca Kirk, Executive Director of Open Doors.
Kirk describes seeing first and second graders arriving at school each day thrilled to have a chance to learn. But by the time these students had reached her class in the fifth grade, she says, they hated school.
"It occurred to me that they never get to satisfy their own curiosity, they just get to learn what somebody else tells them is important to learn. It does a lot of damage, I believe, and it’s not a very effective way of learning," says Kirk.
For the teens brave enough – or dissatisfied enough – to step out of middle school or high school, Open Doors provides an environment where they can discover themselves, their strengths, and their individual goals. The staff at Open Doors works with parents to help teens build their own curriculum based on things they enjoy, and on what type of learning suits them best.
"Maybe a math class every year would be good, but that math class could be getting a part-time job as a cashier, or deciding to be an entrepreneur and set up a budget, so they're learning practical math they might need," says Kirk.
More traditional classes offered include anything from French, to math, non-violent communication, college prep, and film studies. Open Doors members usually have several days of classes, but the center is closed on Wednesdays to allow them to participate in their communities – through internships, volunteering, or a part-time job.
When youth initiate their own learning and find meaning in the subject matter, they engage much more fully, and retain more material than when they are force-fed information, says Kirk. Teachers and educational theorists are currently discussing whether or not students even need to memorize something if they can now find the answer instantly on their smartphones or computers. 
"A mind shift is happening that says: education is not God, it really is a state-created thing. And we can take that back," says Kirk.
Before starting Open Doors, Kirk paid visits to many education centers, but none of them seemed to work optimally. Then, two years ago, she went to a center in Hadley, Massachusetts called North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens for a three-day visit.
Some teens attended North Star because of its accepting social environment, while some got straight A's in traditional school but felt bored and limited. Some had passions they felt unable to pursue while in school. Some had learning disabilities and weren't satisfied with the quality of help available.
"The thing that struck me about North Star is that everybody there was happy and engaged with what they were doing," said Kirk.
North Star's results inspired Kirk to base Open Doors on their model. In the short time Open Doors has been around, Kirk has already seen improvements in teens previously having great difficulty.
Tara and Thomas both attended high school before Open Doors, and Kirk describes their experience as "devastating in a lot of ways."
"Since they've been here, there has been an amazing shift in those two kids, because they're being respected," says Kirk.
When asked what she does at the center, Tara describes a week full of language, culture, and art classes. In her spare time, she plans to visit retirement homes to hear stories from the elderly, in the hopes of inspiring some artwork or poetry. She says she thrives in this warm and welcoming space.
"I'm definitely starting to get over my social anxiety," says Thomas.
Despite the potential for good, one concern parents might have is college. Open Doors does not award a diploma or certificate to its members, but most colleges do not require a high school diploma – just a transcript. Members of Open Doors occasionally audit a college class or two while enrolled in the program, but if a teen decides to go on to a traditional college experience, staff at Open Doors will help them put together a transcript.
Parents may also hesitate to enroll a student who is not a self-directed learner. Nothing is mandatory at Open Doors, so a teen could literally choose to sit on the couch in the lobby all day. But Kirk says these teens have potential, too: "Eventually, they will get bored. Once they're bored, you can move in and find out what they're interested in learning."
When these teens finally do decide to engage, it is on their own terms, which creates much more motivation. Kirk says many teens at North Star have already matured remarkably, more so than a peer at school. By becoming responsible for their own education, teens become more accountable and build their own character.
"I think this model is new and scary for people. It's more comfortable to feel like you're in something tried and true. But if, in the end, it doesn't get you where you want to be, why do it?" says parent Hilary Arthur.
"I think there's a lot more innovation in Grand Rapids than people realize. Would this be easier in another city? Maybe one that's bigger, maybe not,” says Arthur. “I think it just takes someone like Rebecca who is willing to look at things a little bit differently."
Open Doors is currently seeking passionate, open-minded people to share their skills with teens, as well as a few educational items. For more information on getting involved, visit their website.

Katie Jones is a professional idealist, film enthusiast, and freelance writer.

Photography by Adam Bird.
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