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In the coming months, the owner of a local bookstore will transform her eight-year-old venture into a self-directed learning center for teens.

A child psychiatrist in Philadelphia sent me a brochure about this venture: Project 360: Self-Directed Learning for Teens.

Who Chooses Project 360?

  • People successful in school but seeking something more

  • People with a particular interest or passion they want to pursue

  • People who don't enjoy going to school

  • People who always wanted to homeschool but felt they could not

  • People who have been homeschooling and would like to take advantage of Project 360's social and academic opportunities

  • By Caitlin Meals

    For about a year, Molly Russakoff has been working on transforming her bookstore in the Italian Market into a self-directed learning center for teens that she hopes to open in the fall.

    This fall, Molly Russakoff will set the record straight: Home-schooling does not have to take place at home. She believes it can be found in her community and all across the city. The opportunities are endless.

    She would know, as sheâs been educating daughter Carla, 15, and son Johnny, 11, for two years, hardly an easy feat for a single mother who also runs a business.

    As the owner of Mollyâs Bookstore, 1010 Ninth St., sheâs got a lot on her plate. Or at least she did.

    In recent weeks, bookworms, passersby and those just browsing may have been hard-pressed to find the store open during its usual hours â usually 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday but Monday.

    Come September, the store only will be open Fridays through Sundays and patrons will more likely be assisted by a high-schooler and not Russakoff, who opened the shop eight years ago.

    For the last year, Russakoff has been developing a self-directed learning resource for home-schooled teens where they have a say in whatâs learned and how itâs approached. Dubbed Project 360, itâs an a la carte program where participants can choose classes taught by professionals in fields like science, math and the arts. Field trips and internships will be encouraged, as will participation from community businesses and organizations.

    âThis is a program for kids who really want to learn and want to do well. They donât need to be forced, if you just give them the time and the opportunity, theyâll thrive,â Russakoff said.

    The idea was sparked from years of frustration as a parent with children who werenât performing their best in traditional learning environments.

    Her son found it hard to sit still for an entire school day and pressure from teachers to be at a certain reading level caused anxiety, pushing Johnny back further. Her daughter didnât experience any learning setbacks, but she wasnât always interested in what was being taught.

    âHer mind wandered,â her mother said, adding she seemed to be more advanced than her classmates in subjects like reading.

    âBoth my kids are bright and creative and active, but they didnât really fit in a public-school mode,â she said.

    Three years ago, Russakoff enrolled her son at Upattinas, an alternative school in Chester County, where a self-directed education got him on track, reading at the appropriate level and succeeding in school.

    But the hour-and-a-half commute each way forced Russakoff to spend the two days a week she drove her son to school â when he wasnât taken in a carpool â at a nearby library catching up on work and, ultimately, being away from her business.

    When the negatives started to outweigh the positives â including a loss of financial aid last year for her sonâs private programming â Russakoff decided to educate her daughter, then an eighth-grader at Girard Academic Music Program, 22 Ritner St., and her son at home.

    Around the same time, a friend recommended she look into North Star, a Massachusetts-based self-directed learning center that happened to be having a weekend workshop. Russakoff made the trek to New England and learned about the programming based around the students, a method she favored and is bringing to Project 360.

    At the core of the âcurriculumâ is a blend of teensâ aspirations, parentsâ needs and a solid education. A full calendar of classes is offered, along with tutoring, volunteer and internship opportunities, field trips and frequent check-ins on the teensâ progress.

    âI share the vision that someday these centers will be open everywhere, that home-schooling will become a good alternative to traditional schooling,â she said. âWhen people think of home-schooling, itâs kind of a misnomer. Itâs a legal term, but you donât necessarily have to be at home, parents donât have to be the teachers. It doesnât have to look like school â thereâs no curriculum, you choose your own learning plan, you can use any resources you want.â

    Russakoff plans to run Project 360 â whose name is a reflection of the compass North Star uses as its logo â with an enrollment cap of 50 students as a nonprofit. Currently, sheâs working on fundraising and applying for grants, and this summer sheâll hold community meetings and membership drives across the city.

    There are certain communities of teens sheâs discovered during the development who could benefit from the format, she said.

    âIâm finding out a lot of serious ballet dancers have very rigorous dance schedules, so a lot are home-schooling and could use the support outside of their dance network,â she said.

    Enrollment is open to any home-schooled teen and tuition is on a sliding scale of $4,000 to $7,000 a year, a rate she hopes to decrease by setting up scholarships and using profits from the bookstore to defer costs. Most of the tuition will go towards paying for materials and costs associated with the classes, including upkeep of the three-story building on Ninth she and her children plan to move out of to make more space for a computer lab and classrooms.

    The schedule of classes is not set in stone, yet, Russakoff said, but she does know that at least four classes will be offered each day by volunteers â including herself â who have signed up to teach. Parents still are responsible for meeting state requirements for home-schooling, which includes submitting a written plan of what the student will learn in an academic year and providing a portfolio of work upon its completion to the School District. Upon the completion of a 12th-grade level education, the home-schooled students can take a test to receive their GED. What Project 360 provides, Russakoff said, is a lot of support.

    âItâs a central place where you wouldnât have to go all over for class ⦠itâs a place where teens could come and be with each other,â she said. âWeâll meet with the child or family as they need it, check in every two weeks, see how itâs going for them, if we need to change as time goes along. [The teens] can use [Project 360] however they see fit. It will be open four days a week and on the days itâs closed, weâll offer field trips. They can come four days a week when itâs open from 10 to 5 or they can come and go as they need to. Itâs really very individual, thereâs no requirement to be here.â

    As for the bookstore, where Russakoff has sold gently used books and hosted events like poetry and literary readings for years, it will become âlike a small business lab,â she said.

    âIt will be open on the weekends, run by a collective of teens. Theyâll learn about marketing, accounting, customer relations and be working with an adult facilitator. It will be team directed and I think it will have a whole different personality than it has now.â

    — Caitlin Meals
    South Philly Review



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