An education community under one roof

Matthew Ladner

Workspace takes a large step toward fulfilling the vision of Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman.

One struggles how exactly to describe Workspace, but a K-12 learning community/co-working space/business incubator is at least a start. Workspace occupies a red building in a rural Connecticut business park and has 130 K-12 courses taught mostly by parents, with a starting price of $3,500 per student and $1,500 per family for additional students. Many parents meanwhile run businesses from the co-working space in between having lunch with their kids (made in the Workspace kitchen and a far cry from the soybean burgers of my youth) and possibly teaching classes.

If you recall that feeling of restless boredom of “senioritis” that many students start feeling long before their senior year, you’ll envy the Workspace students autonomy in directing their own education and development. Workspace is the antithesis of factory-model schooling, approaching education like building a playlist of classes and experiences. The above sounds very similar to what I saw at Workspace, it’s just happening under a single roof. An Acton Academy micro-school operates in Workspace as one of many options.

Want to learn coding and robotics? Got you covered. How about 3-D printing? Yes, that too. Art — of course. Hit the bulletin board to read about stand-up comedy night and receive invitations to work on a dizzying array of projects. Got an idea for a business? Let’s incubate that and get you started.
All of this had been anticipated in 1978 by Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman in their book “Education by Choice,” by the way. Here is what they had to say:

To us, a more attractive idea is matching up a child and a series of individual instructors who operate independently from one another. Studying reading in the morning at Ms. Kay’s house, spending two afternoons a week learning a foreign language in Mr. Buxbaum’s electronic laboratory, and going on nature walks and playing tennis the other afternoons under the direction of Mr. Phillips could be a rich package for a ten-year-old. Aside from the educational broker or clearing house which, for a small fee (payable out of the grant to the family), would link these teachers and children, Kay, Buxbaum, and Phillips need have no organizational ties with one another. Nor would all children studying with Kay need to spend time with Buxbaum and Phillips; instead some would do math with Mr. Feller or animal care with Mr. Vetter.

The part of the Coons/Sugarman story missing in Connecticut thus far is the grant. Workspace does include financial aid for families, but this looks like the proto-ESA model described by Coons and Sugarman coming from the passion of the founders and the pocketbooks/sweat equity of parents.
If your mind is racing about now wondering just how many Workspace-like communities could arise in Florida, and how they could be purposefully inclusive of low-income and students with disabilities through use of scholarship programs, well, mine is too.

Coons and Sugarman should book a flight to Connecticut. Gentlemen, people are bringing your vision to life. Addressing the equity question will require enlightened public policy. Coons and Sugarman also called for just that in “Education by Choice”:

To the extent that schools of choice must conform to state-imposed curriculum requirements, the principle of family control is compromised. Each centrally imposed curriculum prescription or prohibition tends to shrink the proportion of families that can be satisfied. If the state demands too much the effect will go beyond simply adding or eliminating certain courses; entire schools will be excluded. For example, some preexisting private institutions would refuse to participate if sex education were required, others would refuse if it were forbidden. It seems sensible for us for the state to impose very few restrictions or mandates. In general schools should be free to please themselves and their customers.

If anyone thinks that these parents would put forth the type of effort required to deliver over 100 different classes if required to follow state standards developed by obscure people long ago, think again. These people are teaching classes because they care about their children and are passionate and often very expert about their subjects. Moreover, there is an internal quality control mechanism in Workspace — classes either attract enough students to “make” or they don’t. If you either don’t have your act together or just aren’t great at teaching, word spreads quickly in the tight knit Workspace community and you get voted off the instructor island.

Workspace is a small education community, but a very big idea. Let’s see what happens next.

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