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Heartwood Learning provides alternative education with a focus on social justice

Decatur Metro ATL

Heartwood Learning provides alternative education with a focus on social justice

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Students as the Heartwood Agile Learning Center check the “big board” for topics of learning and discussion for the day. Heartwood ALC is an alternative education school with a focus on social justice in Clarkston on Church Street. Photo by Gabriel Owens


By Gabriel Owens, contributor 

It’s 9 a.m. While most of the Atlanta and Decatur-area schools have been in session for the last hour, Heartwood is just starting its day.

“Who’s sweeping the play area?” a voice calls to the dozen or so children ages 6 to 15. Two small hands come up, eager to get morning chores done. That task is checked off the list.

Teachers begin to mill about with their students, asking about ideas for what they want to accomplish today. A dry erase board adorns the center of the “main room” of Heartwood, listing the various activities the children themselves came up with, from math to science to game ideas, with a sprinkling of topics they want to discuss.

The Heartwood Agile Learning Center, from the second you enter, screams “different.”

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Those used to “regular” schooling probably would find their morning start a little confusing and possibly chaotic, but the staff has a method to the madness.

“The students have a lot of different, dynamic goals,” said Julia Cordero, a Heartwood educator. “The whiteboard here shows a lot of different topics that the students have brought to us. We are very self-directed in what the students want to learn and encourage different ideas and just what exactly is on their minds.”

The school is located at 3983 Church Street in Clarkston.

Parents appreciate the different approach to education.

“I’m not against traditional schooling,” said Shelby Hofer, a student parent and Marketing Director at Heartwood.  “I think [school districts like City Schools of Decatur] have made wonderful strides in all-encompass learning, but I really wanted to see my child be able to focus in on things he’s passionate about. Heartwood has a lot of dynamics you can’t get from regular schooling, and we fell in love with their holistic approach to learning.”

According to its website, “Heartwood Agile Learning Center is a K-12 independent school that facilitates self-directed education. We use adaptable tools and practices borrowed from the Agile Management/Software world and consent-based decision making to help students individualize their learning within the context of a collaborative and intentional community.”

Heartwood is one of dozens of “unlearning centers” across the country under the Agile Learning Center banner. They pride themselves on their special focus on “equity and social justice to ensure that self-directed education is accessible and empowering for all people, especially populations that have been historically disenfranchised.”

That means issues surrounding race are a part of the classroom discussion.

“We get into some heady topics,” Cordero said. “It’s amazing watching them discuss issues like race and inequity, and we try to facilitate it while allowing them to unearth large ideas and nuance.”

The recent nationwide and local elections were a major topic at the school in the last few months, and many of the students showed understanding and insight you might not expect.

“I think [a lot of Americans] are scared,” said one student, age 8. “They are worried about having a job, and stuff like being able to go to the doctor and things like that. I feel bad that they’re so scared, and that’s why I hope [the adults] elect smart people that want to make [everyone’s life] better.”

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Fairly intuitive for an 8-year-old, some would say. But what about traditional learning, science and English and math?

“All of the facilitators are education professionals,” Cordero said. “We are teaching non-traditionally, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t teaching the basics. We just approach it from a different point of view.

“Every day is different. We sandwich the day with small group meetings where students document their intentions and reflections for the day. Everything is between is different. Each day tends to involve both offerings and abundant play. We do have structured times — they can be classes, presentations, personal sharing, experiments, lessons, study-hall-esque…anything. There is not a ‘typical day’ because we are set up to constantly evolve and iterate based on the needs and interests of the students and community.”

The Academy says there is no accreditation issues transferring in or out of the school, with regards to college or regular K-12 schools.

Area residents Loren Norman, a freelance programmer and Adrianna Berlin, and real estate agent, were very keen on the idea of alternative education for their son.

“We were skeptical about letting kids direct their own learning pursuits, at first,” said Norman. “Who wouldn’t be? But the results are jaw-dropping: these young people are creative, passionate, collaborative, and confident… even when talking to adults they’ve just met! We’re already satisfied that our child is getting the perspective and skills he’ll need to be a well-adjusted and highly functioning adult in our rapidly changing world, and he’s only 9.”

You can check out the Heartwood Academy online at www.heartwoodalc.org.

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