A More Freeing Education?

“I feel that I have control over how the day goes and how my education is run” this is how a student’s school experience has been impacted by the Walden Project. What could make this a reality within Lake Region or is this reality?


There are many variables that go into what alternative programs are available within a school; those include population, interest level, and systems already in place. Interest is something communicated through student ideas and push from students. One example of an alternative school program happening in Vermont is called The Walden Project, it is a mostly outdoor based program based off of Henry David Thoreau’s writing.

In 2000, Matt Schlein, a former Drama, English and Psychology teacher at a highschool saw the limitations of the existing school model and was inspired to create an authentic flexible pathway for students. With that in mind, he designed what is called The Walden Project, which has been running since 2000 and continues to run. Walden consists of 20 students and is available to 10-12 grade students, although most who attend are in either 11th or 12th grade. And the program in Vermont is free to those in the Addison Northwest school district and others through school choice. Students within the district also have access to the Hannaford Career Center, which is similar to the North Country Career Center.

The Walden Project focuses on three main questions that are modeled by Henry David Thoreau’s time at Walden pond: What is my relationship to myself? What is my relationship to society? And what is my relationship to nature? These questions guide the curriculum, and this results in discussion-based interdisciplinary classes that are focused on environmental studies, writing, and social sciences. It is a partnership between the Willowell Foundation and the Addison Northwest School District. The Willowell Foundation is a non-profit that was started to support The Walden Project and other programs in the arts, education, and the environment. There is also a sister program thriving in Naples, New York, that is based on the same approach to education.

According to Schlein in an interview with the Thoreau Society,We have a heterogeneous mix of students at my school. Some are on their way to elite colleges and universities while others are precipitously close to dropping out. All benefit from this approach.” He also says, when asked about how the Walden Project could potentially inspire many more schools, that “We are one example of what is possible in education, but part of a larger movement called place-based education.” Place-based education according to Antioch is using the local community and environment to teach academic concepts through hands-on real world learning experiences. I have also seen this approach to learning through outdoor education, and project based educational models.

Students spend around a fourth of their day in the local high school where they have access to math classes and foriegn language classes, and they also have access to CCV classes. After their time at the highschool, they take a roughly 20-minute bus ride to a 220 acre preserve in Monkton. There they light a fire and begin class. Currently, they have a creative writing day once a week, and also a community-focused day. Things like this at Walden are constantly shifting, including the schedule, because all of it is really subject to change based on what the students want. They also have guest speakers that come and share knowledge with the students.

The Ranger Post reached out to around five students and heard back from one who had some to share about what it means to attend The Walden Project. Jade, a current 12th grader reflects upon how it has impacted him “My school has helped me clarify my viewpoints on many aspects of life, including copiousness, society, and politics. Because of all the discussions we have I feel much more solid in my opinions and my ability to express those opinions. I also feel more knowledgeable about the world and about my place in it.” He also says, “I feel that I have control over how the day goes and how my education is run. Also the people are really nice and I’ve built really strong friendships with them, this is in part because of the design of the school” Overall he thinks that The Walden Project is “unconventional education that happens to be outside.”

A program and system similar to the concepts of The Walden Project has not really been thought about or explored at Lake Region. Principal Messier did say that the original person who ran the Foundations program did have outdoor education experience and would take the students outside and have that as a focus. That said, the academic complexity of something similar to the Walden Project has never really been explored as part of Foundations. This appears to be because of the level of interest, but also the level of knowledge of what school can look like. If something like this ever were to happen here at Lake Region, it would take student and teacher interest, and would take time to gather curriculum and students, and time to think about how it could be beneficial to the school.

The Walden Project is funded by local per pupil funding, which in Vermont averages slightly under $20,000 according to the US Census Bureau. These funds are collected from local property taxes and federal and state funding. Schlein says that the program’s approximate cost this year is around $200,000. Since 20 students attend the Walden Project, the cost per pupil is pretty affordable. That said, they do get “supplemental” funding and resources from Willowell, which includes additional staffing, visiting artists, the property and infrastructure.

At Lake Region, we fortunately have access to the North Country Career Center, and we also have the Foundations Program that is essentially the alternative program within the school. Although it is something that students can’t usually choose to go to and is still structured like traditional school. In the 2021-22 school year, the Lake Region budget for the Foundations Program was $58,814. There is also vocational funding for specific programs that Lake Region offers independent from the Career Center for students who would like an introduction to things like woodworking and welding. Currently Lake Region sends around 40-45 students to the Career Center at North Country. Lake Region pays for half of the tution, and the state remberises the school with some money for the Career Center as well. This ends up funding the transportation aspect of the program.

Overall, for anyone involved in the school system, we should be aware of what education has to offer and the limitations that come with it. We should continue striving to learn and teach in environments and in ways that we want to, because whether you are a teacher or student, it is your education and your time. In a way, you have little control over it, but you also do have some control.

I want to hear from you, the reader! What are your thoughts after reading this article? Fill out this Google Form to leave any comments you may have.

Resources I would recommend to learn further specifically about The Walden Project: