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Duke alum founds 'innovative' local school

This August, the Triangle Learning Center Middle School will open its doors. The school and its innovative teaching style was founded by Steve Goldberg, Trinity ’90.
This August, the Triangle Learning Center Middle School will open its doors. The school and its innovative teaching style was founded by Steve Goldberg, Trinity ’90.

Beginning in August, middle school students of the Triangle Area will have the opportunity to pursue a new and more personalized learning experience.

The Triangle Learning Community Middle School will offer students an opportunity to become “empathetic global citizens” rather than being taught to memorize material in order to pass exams, said TLC founder Steve Goldberg, Trinity ’90. Instead of a traditional learning environment, students will be given the opportunity to work at their own pace and assign themselves homework.

“People have a passion for the world and learning—I mean look at toddlers, they want to learn to walk and talk—but traditional school squashes their passion out of them,” Goldberg said.

This Fall, Goldberg hopes to have between 10 and 12 students enrolled at TLC, most of whom will be in sixth grade, though there could be several seventh graders. He said the school will attract home-schooled students, families looking for the right middle school and students currently unhappy with their middle schools.

Goldberg studied public policy and wrote for The Chronicle as an undergraduate, and returned to Duke to study for his Master of Arts in Teaching degree, which he received in 1995. He spent 12 years teaching middle and high school students at schools including Cary Academy and the Potomac School, which is located near Washington, D.C. Recently, he returned to Durham to start TLC in a building just blocks from East Campus.

The space includes a large open room for class activities, a kitchen and a space for physical education. Each student will be issued a laptop. Goldberg will be the primary teacher, but he plans to maintain an eight to one student-teacher ratio. A year of TLC schooling will cost $13,000, with scholarships available.

Goldberg said he draws inspiration from teaching innovator Salman Khan, founder of the free online education platform Khan Academy. Khan has critiqued education that tramples students’ confidence and curiosity. The online courses allow motivated students to pursue their own education paths.

Because many public and traditional private schools are under pressure to have their students perform well on standardized and state exams, students lack the ability to explore the topics that interest them the most, Goldberg said. The TLC curriculum, though, will culminate in a six month individual research project. Goldberg said he hopes to facilitate a “gradual release of responsibility” so that students will rely less upon teacher guidance as they progress.

“If you need a teacher to always be telling you what to do, I will be able to outsource your job really quickly to China or India,” Goldberg said. “And that is what we are learning in schools, because that is how you make good grades.”

Each day, students will read current events updates and discuss them with their peers. In the place of conventional math and science classes, students will engage in “problem solving and strategic thinking.” Physical education at TLC will vary greatly from a typical middle school, as the class will explore different exercises from around the world, such as yoga and cricket. During their lunch hour, students will be encouraged to engage in thoughtful conversation and question how their food made it to their tables. At the end of the day, students will be asked to reflect and assign themselves homework. Throughout a year at TLC, Goldberg hopes to bring visitors from different cultures in to “break bread” with the students.

Ginny Brooks, the mother of a fifth grader at E.K. Powe Elementary School, said that she was interested in TLC because she was unhappy with the way public schools teach in order to pass standardized tests.

She said that science had been overlooked in her daughter’s education, because until recently, it had not been on a state proctored exam.

“It is important to note that we are not running away from something that is not appealing, but we are seeking to find an option that is more appealing,” she said. “Science has been totally kicked to the curb in public schools.”

TLC will focus on learning that is both interdisciplinary and practical for daily use, Goldberg said. Students will apply what they learn by blogging on the subjects they study and will have instant access to previous lessons online.

“At some point, we will learn about World War I and at some point we will learn about World War II, but the time table isn’t what matters,” he noted. “Kids will learn and they will make connections between history and current events, and they will blog about it. I am not interested in covering materials, I am interested in uncovering knowledge and discussion.”

Goldberg began to question traditional school settings after a canceled trip to Africa in the summer of 2005. He was planning to take a group of students to Ethiopia, but there were political circumstances that delayed the trip one year.

During that year, Goldberg studied the political situation in Ethiopia and throughout Africa. He was surprised to find how little he knew about the world outside of the United States.

“Growing up in the United States, it is easy to forget that there are other people in the world,” Goldberg said. “Most students are shocked to hear that less than 4.5 percent of the world’s population lives within the United States.”

TLC is based on the principle that middle schoolers are capable of higher level thinking and civic awareness.

TLC board member Kristoffer Kohl, a former fifth-grade teacher, wrote in an email that these students are at a pivotal point in their educational development.

“Adolescence is when students begin making decisions for themselves, when they begin to identify their personal code of ethics and priorities,” he said. “They have been exposed to the world in challenging and rewarding ways, so giving them the skills to impact the world can completely flip the expectations they have of themselves.”

Goldberg hopes that in the next five years, TLC will expand to over 50 socioeconomically diverse and civically engaged students.

Though the TLC model will be new for many, it will not sacrifice the rigor and depth of traditional education in the process of pursuing “fun and passionate” learning, Goldberg said.

“Young people are really capable and we don’t treat them as such, but we really should,” he said. “We are going to have deep, sophisticated conversations about important topics, and it won’t be easy at first, but we will be building a community within our classroom.”


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