, Newburyport, MA

January 2, 2014

Shining the spotlight on education

New school to present free documentary screening next week

By Ann Reily
Features Editor

---- — How well are American high-schoolers being prepared for the future?

That’s a question posed both by a new school slated to open this fall and by the 2007 film “2 Million Minutes: A Documentary Calculating the Educational Divide.”

Learning Outpost will host a free screening of the documentary on Wednesday night at Newburyport City Hall, and school founder Pam Ameen hopes that teenagers will be encouraged to watch.

“It just really makes you think, ‘What do I want from my high school experience?’” Ameen said. “It will hopefully open a dialogue between the kids and parents.”

The film follows six students from three countries — China, India and the United States — as they navigate life inside and outside the classroom. The title refers to the approximate amount of time from the end of eighth grade to high school graduation.

The U.S. has been under a lot of scrutiny since the introduction in 2000 of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures scholastic performance in math, science and reading.

“There has been a lot of flak about how the U.S. places in the hierarchy,” Ameen said.

In 2012’s results, which were released last month, American students showed little improvement in the three years since the last test, failing to break the top 20 in math, reading or science. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a “picture of educational stagnation,” according to The Associated Press.

“The film takes a different perspective,” said Andrew Soracco, who helped conceive Learning Outpost and will serve as an instructor/guide. “It shows how (education) affects the children’s lives as a whole.”

Soracco, who currently teaches fourth, fifth and sixth grades at River Valley Charter School in Newburyport, said it’s interesting to see how the students — a boy and girl from each country — balance education with sports and extracurricular activities.

“Kids today — high school kids — their schedules are just packed,” said Soracco, who is also a swimming and triathlon coach. “It’s more of a life perspective than an educational perspective. It’s not just a school film, it’s life.”

Balancing school with outside interests is one of the main goals of Learning Outpost, which will offer personalized instruction.

“It’s another option for high school in Newburyport,” Ameen said. “The model comes from the idea of self-directed learning and having more control over your curriculum.”

Ameen decided to home-school her two daughters in 2003, when the youngest, Rachel, was in the first grade. She found that the process really changed her whole family’s lifestyle — “in a good way.” She will bring her experiences to the new school, which she will start in her Newburyport home with hopes to expand in the near future.

“There are a lot of kids who don’t fit the mold,” Ameen said. “I plan on offering more experiential learning. It’s an unusual model.”

Ameen is an advocate of the “flipped classroom” concept, where students listen to or watch lectures at their own pace at home instead of at school. Time with teachers and peers focuses on discussion and problem solving.

“I think that’s a really productive way to learn,” she said.

Curriculums will be tailored to each student’s personal goals, whether that’s attending a four-year college, starting a business or pursuing an athletic career. One student already signed up for the school is an elite gymnast, so her academic schedule will fit around that, instead of the other way around.

Ameen hopes to get the community involved, as well. For example, if one teenager likes to work on cars, he or she can take lessons from an expert car restorer.

Rachel Ameen, now in 10th grade, will attend her mother’s new school. Her sister, Paige, is a freshman in the nursing program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and has discovered a big advantage from her home-schooling.

“She’s finding she knows how to study, and a lot of kids don’t,” Pam Ameen said. “She’s really enjoying being in a position to help other kids.”

A discussion will follow Wednesday’s screening of the film, which is 54 minutes.

Ameen plans to show another documentary in March by the same filmmaker, Robert Compton. “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System” looks at the No. 1 education system in the world. Panel discussions, open houses and information sessions are also in the works leading up to Learning Outpost’s September launch.

If you go

What: Screening and discussion of “2 Million Minutes: A Documentary Calculating the Educational Divide”

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m. Snow date Jan. 15.

Where: Newburyport City Hall auditorium, 60 Pleasant St.

How much: Free

More information: