Embark Center for Self-Directed Learning Offers Reprieve from Conventional Schooling

On weekday mornings, bells buzz in classrooms across the district to convene classes, just as roughly a dozen children settle onto couches in a cozy living room in downtown Leesburg to begin a day of “unschooling” at Embark Center for Self Directed Learning. Course offerings range from “Bread” to “Crazy Crimes,” but sometimes learners opt to read, relax, or socialize instead. 

“There are no rules, nothing we do is compulsory,” said Andrea Cubelo-McKay, a mother of three and former Montessori schoolteacher. She founded Embark Learning Center in 2017 after researching self-directed learning. 

Embark Program Advisors Catina Sweedy (left) and Andrea Cubelo-McKay (right)

Her oldest child went through the Loudoun County school system with relative ease, going on to earn a bachelor’s degree and start a career. Her younger daughter, Cate, though, just didn’t jive with conventional schooling.

“She was a square peg in a round hole,” Cubelo-McKay remembers.

The family watched as Cate torturously progressed through the school system.

“Around middle school is when she started being more aware of other peoples’ opinions of her. She started experiencing anxiety and depression. We went through suicidal ideation,” said Cubelo-McKay.

Cate ultimately graduated from Loudoun County High School and opened a massage therapy business. Her mother, though, knew that children like her daughter needed an alternative to traditional learning. She founded Embark using the “unlearning” model created by North Star Center for Self-Guided Education in Massachusetts. 

Cubelo-McKay recruited learners from elementary to high school age to join the center by pitching a crazy idea: “Unschooling”.

“Unschooling” is antithetical to conventional classroom learning. Students, or “members,” as they’re known at Embark, determine how they want to spend their day-to-day. 

“Embark is for anyone who is looking for a place where they are trusted in creating their own learning path. … We like to take labels out,” said program advisor Catina Sweedy. “Our members decide what they’re going to learn about.”

Classes are created based on group interest. “Crazy Crimes” came to fruition when members bonded over their love of true crime podcasts. 

Embark isn’t an accredited school, so members have to register as homeschoolers to avoid violating truancy laws. Homeschooling in Virginia only requires families to declare intent to homeschool, and to demonstrate yearly academic progress. Embark guides members through the process.

The Embark experience is unlike other learning environments in Virginia. With no math requirements, no labs, no curriculum to follow, members learn far more essential life skills. The tight-knit community fosters interpersonal relationships and teaches conflict resolution.

“Academics are important, but they are not as important as being a human being in society. When issues arise here, that is where our true growth comes from,” said Cubelo-McKay.

Many families arrive at Embark with a sense of desperation, after homeschooling, public school, and private school prove to not suit their child. 

Nichole Lee, a Leesburg mother of a special needs student, found that public schools weren’t serving her son’s needs. She advocated for him in Individualized Education Plan meetings, trying to get him proper classroom support. Still, he loathed school. 

“The system is overwhelmed and can’t do what the kids need. The therapies are training him, not for him, but for the teachers or for the system,” Lee said. 

While at first, the “unlearning” concept seemed bizarre, Lee realized that her son could learn practical skills once he gained direction and self-awareness. 

“My child knows how to do basic math, and when he decides what he wants to do, we’ll look up a math class,” Lee said

There is no graduation date, and members decide when they’re ready to move on from the center. 

Meghan Sutter finished up at Embark last year. She is taking college courses at Northern Virginia Community College, and in her free time she volunteers with the Embark community. Sutter, who joined Embark following her sophomore year of high school after struggling with the stress of conventional schooling, said that adjusting to the lack of structure was like falling down the stairs. She and Cubelo-McKay laugh about her frustrations without structure during her early days at Embark. 

“It was more existing in a community and how to unapologetically be yourself and be comfortable with yourself even if that’s not what other people think it should look like,” Sutter said. 

She’s still close friends with fellow alumna Grace Shaffer, who also found conventional school unnatural. Shaffer despised school so much that on her birthday, her mother would gift her a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” to play hooky for the day.

“In school you don’t have time to learn how to exist in the world, it’s very stressful,” Shaffer said. 

Shaffer said that her time at Embark empowered her to be more independent and adventurous. Shaffer is also taking college courses. She emphasized that she’s pursuing education because she wants to, not because it’s expected of her.

Embark typically has about 20 members at a time. Membership is $13,100 a year for full-time enrollment, and $9,400 a year for part-time enrollment. The center also offers learners need-based assistance.

Embark Center for Self-Directed Education Alumni Meghan Sutter (left) and Grace Shaffer (right)

One thought on “Embark Center for Self-Directed Learning Offers Reprieve from Conventional Schooling

  • 2021-06-29 at 8:49 pm

    Humans are so diverse that valuing and providing multiple paths to learning growth are absolutely necessary. I’m glad Embark’s self-directed education approach is available locally. Volunteering there has been rewarding and enjoyable — and educational — for me.

    An unsurprising (and inevitable) concern that many young people and adults worry over is what a six-year- or 13-year-old will come up with to fill their days if left to their own devices — and whether it will be “productive” or educational. I was certainly curious. And ultimately overwhelmed with the range of passions and creativity Embark’s members demonstrated.

    The article references the frustrations Meghan struggled with in her transition from the highly structured routines of traditional, public school to being “without structure” at Embark. This is common for Unschooling learners (and their parents) who are suddenly “without” the extrinsically imposed regime of bells and age-norming and assignments that are central to the very design of schools — it takes time and practice to get used to exercising agency and responsibility for your own well-being and happiness after spending years in a culture where other people do that for you for most of their waking hours.

    What’s not mentioned in this article is that Meghan and her fellow Unschoolers actually do encounter structures at Embark — the ones they create. The first day I walked into Embark I encountered the large whiteboard listing the “offerings” scheduled for the week, what many of us would think of as classes but all thought up and organized by the members and their mentors. No shock that there were a number centered around video games like Minecraft and Among Us. There were also Gardening, Ukulele, and Military Tactics/Strategies. And Social Commentary, Listening Lab, Percy Jackson, and Creative Writing. I must confess, however, that it was Crazy Crimes and The Office that convinced me these people might be onto something.

    Of course, engaging with a group ranging in ages from 8 to 17 who were putting bullet points on another whiteboard that included “Just War Theory”, “proportionality”, “last resort”, and “discrimination between combatants vs. civilians” pretty much sealed the deal for me.

    That’s the “structure” that organically grows from young learners when they get to choose and manage their pursuits and it is they who measure progress toward goals that doesn’t include age-based, extrinsically imposed “grades”. When I first met Grace and Meghan, they were 16-year-olds who were already pursuing interests in college classrooms while interning at local businesses, “apprenticing” for their life career goals (at least the ones they held at that time). They couldn’t do that—or do Crazy Crimes and The Office—while enrolled in public school.

    This demonstrates what all of us can experience when we have the agency to guide our lives, even at very young ages.

    I can’t recommend strongly enough to anyone the value of exploring all options in the pursuit of learning and personal growth. We are not all the same. Our goals are not all the same. And our paths to those goals certainly cannot be all the same. I’m so happy that this path is there for those of us who don’t find the traditional the best option for us.

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