A mother, teacher and former social worker is bringing a very different take on education to Loudoun County.
Starting this fall, Andrea Cubelo-McKay will open the Embark Center for Self-Directed Learning in downtown Leesburg. The center is a nonprofit organization, run by a board of directors, that lets students take the lead on their learning and vows to not turn any child away for his or her family’s inability to pay.
Cubelo-McKay refers to the young people already enrolled in the Embark Center as members, not students. And she’s intentional about calling it a resource center, not a school.
“We’re not a school,” she said. “We’re different.”
She describes the Embark Center more like a gym. Members, ages 13-19, can choose what they want to take from a course list. Most of the classes are designed for the students to drop in at any time. Students will have full access to Makersmith’s makerspace anytime to create nearly anything they can dream up. And if a student is interested in something that isn’t offered, say Japanese, Cubelo-McKay and the other educators on staff will find a way for him or her to learn about.
“Nothing at Embark is compulsory,” Cubelo-McKay said. “We’re really trying to model for them to find ways to meet their interests and desires. We’re getting away from this idea that learning must take place in this building between 9 and 5. We want them to know that learning is at your disposal all the time—everywhere—and this is how you access that.”
Cubelo-McKay is modeling the Embark Center after North Star, a self-directed learning center that was founded by a teacher in Massachusetts. It’s since drawn so much interest that there are now more than a dozen programs modeled on the North Star approach, and they are all members of an umbrella network, Liberated Learners. Embark will also be a part of that network.
Cubelo-McKay, armed with 10 years as a Montessori teacher, discovered North Star last fall after she had set out to find answers for her oldest daughter, Cate.
Cate, now 17 years old and set to graduate from Loudoun Valley High School next month, uses words like boring, nonsensical and repetitious to describe her public school experience. As a kid, she couldn’t understand why she was tasked with sitting in a desk most of the day and complete worksheets that did little to equip her for career paths she’s interested in, including art and photography. She had better experiences at Montessori private schools, where she grew independence, saw some success and built confidence.
“That helped me, but this is a step up from that,” Cate said of Embark Center, a concept she wishes her mother would have launched four years ago for her own sake. “This is for people who are not comfortable sitting in a desk for eight hours a day and doing busy work.”
What Cubelo-McKay discovered at North Star and at the several other similar resource centers in the Liberated Learners network, was students who had been given independence to lead their learning experience. About three-fourths of North Star graduates have gone on to four-year colleges, and others are launching their own businesses and going straight into the workforce.
It got Cubelo-McKay thinking how traditional school model says students must achieve “X”—a certain standard. “Who determines “X” and is that valid? Especially when we have kids’ entire well-being and sense of self resting on whether they’re achieving X,” she said. “I couldn’t buy it anymore.”
Cubelo-McKay says that Embark Center is for teens who are over traditional school. Some may have special education diagnosis, some may be in public schools’ gifted programs, and others who are not motivated simply by their teachers’ push to achieve good grades and go to a good college.
“Anytime I hear someone say ‘I hate school,’ I say, ‘I have good news for you. You have to check out Embark.’”
Embark Center charges membership fees, ranging from $4,900 for a one-day-per-week membership to $12,600 for a full-time membership. Teens who cannot pay will not be turned away.
Northstar students and Director Ken Danford will hold a Q&A panel discussion on self-directed learning 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, May 31 at Leesburg Junction, 215 Depot Court in Leesburg. Learn more at embarkcenter.org.