The OC Family Interview - Published in the OC Magazine, Fall 2018
Introducing the Sleutaris Family
Please describe your family.
Our family consists of Jane, Rick, Ella (14), Locke (10), and our dog, Bear.
How long has your family been on this path of self/familydirected Open Education, and what led you in this direction?
Though we might have not always been able to articulate it, we have valued self-directed learning and freedom for most of our lives and we knew we wanted the same for our children even before we had them. Looking back, we believe that, more than anything else, our decision to take this path was determined by our adult work experiences.
I (Jane) was teaching kindergarten in the public-school system at the time that I met Rick. I believed strongly that young people should have choice about what and how to learn. Though I did my best to provide as much freedom as possible in the classroom, I was continually frustrated by the fact that I was forced to adhere to curriculum and learning outcomes/standards that seemed unimportant or developmentally inappropriate. I knew, even then, that I wanted something different from school for my unborn children.
Rick was fortunate enough to be working as an engineer at W. L. Gore & Associates, the maker of GORE-TEX. Gore is a unique company that grants its employees an exceptionally high level of freedom and ownership, has minimal hierarchy and no bosses, and expects the employees to self-direct and collaborate. On one of his first days Rick was told by his sponsor to spend three months walking around the plant, getting to know people and the projects being done and identifying ways he could help. Looking back, we can see clearly that Gore is a company that embodies self-directed learning and ownership.
A few years later Rick and I married and we were both ready for a change. Rick decided to pursue a master’s degree in Business Administration. Though he loved the culture at Gore, he wanted to move away from engineering work and find a meaningful job that would be people-oriented and have a mission that resonated with him. I had spent five years teaching and was ready to get out of the classroom. I enrolled in graduate school to pursue becoming a reading specialist. As a resource teacher, I knew that I would not have to follow a curriculum or be pressured by grades and testing standards, and I loved the idea of working with classroom teachers, small groups, and individuals. While enrolled in graduate school, I taught Adult Basic Education and GED classes for a local community college and tutored students who needed help with reading. I thoroughly enjoyed my newfound freedom and the flexibility I now had in my life.
We found the BIG change we were looking for when we finished our degrees, left our jobs, and joined the Peace Corps. Our time serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Macedonia provided us with the ultimate experience in self-directed learning, as the organization grants high levels of both freedom and responsibility. We were permitted to do whatever we wanted to do in whatever way we wanted to do it, as long as we were fulfilling the overall mission of the organization.(1) Rick and I enjoyed this freedom and grew personally with every success and failure.
After returning from Macedonia, we settled in the Washington DC area because Rick wanted a domestic job with the Peace Corps. That was never realized, but he did take a job at the American National Red Cross. While this organization as a whole provides an array of beneficial and critical human services, the quasi-governmental structure allowed him very little freedom and flexibility. Unlike Rick’s experience at Gore, number of hours worked were valued over process, creativity, selfdirection, and productivity. Rick was miserable in this setting and the years he worked there proved to be a very challenging period of his life.
I, on the other hand, was working as a reading specialist in a public elementary school in Arlington School District. Coincidentally, my new principal was a former Peace Corp volunteer and was very open-minded. She gave me the freedom to create
my own role and schedule that allowed me to work with the students and collaborate with the teachers in a way that I felt was most beneficial to the school population as a whole. I felt very empowered and valued, and was incredibly surprised and grateful to be given this level of freedom in a public elementary school.
I bother to tell this long story about our work histories because it is clear to Rick and me that these experiences gave us the opportunity to discover that we were happiest when we were working at jobs that allowed us freedom, flexibility, and ownership. In light of this realization, it became very important to us that our children have as much freedom, flexibility, and ownership of their lives as possible, and our current path provides them with all of these.
(1) The mission of the Peace Corps is to provide technical assistance, to help people outside the United States to understand American culture, and to help Americans to understand the cultures of other countries.
How did you get involved with Open Connections?
Sometimes the pieces of a puzzle fall into place in ways that you can’t imagine. I was eight and a half months pregnant with Ella, Rick was wanting to leave the Red Cross and reclaim a sense of ownership of his work-life, we both wanted to move back to Pennsylvania to be closer to our families, and I wanted to leave the work force and be a stay-at-home mother and homeschool. Rick struggled to find the type of job he was looking for: one that was people-oriented, meaningful, challenging, multi-dimensional, strategic, and fun. On a small job-posting site, Idealist.org, he came across a posting for a Sustainability Coordinator at a place called Open Connections. I still remember the moment Rick called me over to the computer excitedly saying, “You have to come read this. It sounds almost too good to be true!” Some of the key phrases in the job description included, “self-directed, workplace with a soul, and flexible thinker.” Days later, Peter and Susan (OC Co-Founders) invited Rick for an interview and suggested that I come along, recognizing that we would both need to be on board with OC’s philosophy for this to be a good match. We left campus that late summer day knowing that OC was a perfect fit for our life philosophy and the exact place we wanted to raise a family.
Fast forward fourteen years and we find ourselves blessed with two children. Ella attends Group Tutorial IV on Tuesday and Thursday and Choice III on Wednesday. Locke attends Group Tutorial II on Tuesday and Thursday and Choice II on Wednesday.
How do your young people spend their time when they’re not at Open Connections?
When not at Open Connections, Ella and Locke spend time on academics, contribute to the household, and pursue their interests. We also spend a lot of time together as a family.
The largest portion of Ella and Locke’s free time is, by far, spent engaged in sports-related activities. Ella swims year-round, runs track, and takes martial arts classes while Locke plays travel soccer, flag football, and also takes martial arts classes. I confess that there was a time when I struggled with the fact that our children are drawn more to sports than other extracurricular activities. I had trouble getting excited about sitting through 4-hour swim meets and driving long distances for soccer games on Saturday afternoons, when I would have rather been home together as a family, sitting around the kitchen table playing games or making a meal together. Then, one day, in a desperate attempt to start thinking more positively about sports, I decided to look up positive traits common to athletes. According to my Google search, athletes possess qualities such as drive, discipline, ability to perform under pressure, persistence, teamwork, willpower, self-confidence, focus, commitment, time management, determination, grit, adaptability, teamwork, and tolerance for physical discomfort, to name a few. This list, though incomplete, helped me recognize the value of sports in my children’s development and has forever changed my attitude about them. I now understand that the traits they are developing will serve them well in life, and I celebrate the fact that Ella and Locke are talented athletes who passionately love to play sports.
What is your approach regarding academics? Real Work? Play? Self-direction/self-motivation?
Our approach to academics works well for our family. Keeping in line with OC’s partnership model, we expect our children to develop academic skills at home, knowing and appreciating that they have the opportunity to apply these academic skills in their OC programs and in life.
At home we use a variety of resources, including, but not limited to, library programs, family endeavors (trip planning, household/yard projects), day workshops/classes (Techgirlz, Newlin Grist Mill, Ridley Creek State Park, Germantown, Historic Rittenhouse Town, Tyler Arboretum, etc.), mentors, day trips (Maker Faire, museums, Renaissance Faire, parks, etc.), internet resources (Khan Academy, Youtube, etc.), curriculum, and monthly publications (Scholastic News, Muse, Ranger Rick, etc.).
Regarding real work, our children are expected to contribute to the household as well as volunteer in the community and do odd jobs for neighbors and friends.
What resources—people, books, curricula, places or organizations (museums, art centers, scouting, 4-H, businesses, etc.)—have you found helpful? How have they contributed to your youth’s development?
The outside resource that has contributed most to Ella and Locke’s development, other than OC, is, without a doubt, Bodyworks Karate in Media. Ella is a valued member of the Bodyworks staff and has taken on a significant role in coaching the youth classes at the school. She coaches 2-3 classes per week in addition to taking classes herself. I cannot say enough about the value of this experience for Ella. It has done wonders for her self-confidence and has given her the opportunity to act as a leader in a real life setting in our local community.
Bodyworks Karate has contributed significantly to Locke’s development as well. It is evident that Ella’s coaching of Locke’s classes has had a positive impact on him. When Ella is coaching his classes, he treats her with the same respect that he gives to the advanced adult black belts. The emphasis on respect, kindness, and community, as well as the positive, can-do culture at Bodyworks is very much in alignment with our family values, and the instructors provide wonderful positive role models for our youth. Locke has taken on responsibilities at the school as well. Rick and I appreciate that our children are treated as contributing members of the community and given responsibilities that foster a sense of belonging and ownership. Since Ella and Locke spend between 3 and 8 hours a week at Bodyworks, it is of critical importance to us that the environment is a match with our values and family culture.
Looking back to when your family was new to OC, what events (Open Campus Days, Parents’ Meetings, Open Mic Night, etc.) helped your family become more connected to the OC community?
Rather than any particular events, I believe it was our willingness to open up, show our true colors, and be genuine and authentic in the presence of other parents that made us ultimately feel connected to this community. Talking openly about our lives and topics that are meaningful to us has allowed us to share and connect with others in an intimate way.
We are incredibly appreciative of the OC community of staff, parents, and young people and we want to thank you all for the roles, big and small, that each of you play. Our lives are immeasurably better because of you.