The Story of Abot Tala: A Vision of What Education Could Be

“Education has always been a passion for me because I love learning but I never imagined I would be putting up my own alternative to conventional schooling. The change came about when I became a mother and I began to think about what kind of education I wanted for my children,” Joei Villarama, founder of Abot Tala, shared.

As a university professor in Tianjin, China, Joei heard many horror stories from her students regarding their experiences with traditional education — from elementary to high school. “Their stories made me afraid for my own children,” she said. “Since we were based in China, I didn’t want my kids to go through that kind of education system. So I started researching and discovered that there were so many options around the world.”

But Joei didn’t just research by reading books and articles.  In 2017, she and her husband embarked on a three-month-long road trip in the US, from San Francisco to New York, visiting 15 progressive and non-traditional schools and centers. During the trip, she met Ken Danford, founder of North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens, and connected with Liberated Learners, a network that supports the establishment of learning centers based on the North Star Model.

North Star was established by Ken Danford in 1996. Ken was a former public school teacher disillusioned with conventional education and he wanted to provide an alternative for young people who wanted to take the lead in the way they learned. Ken himself visited Manila in July 2018 to help the local team set up Abot Tala.

Joei and Owie with their families in their natural element.

In December 2017, there was another person dreaming of and watching videos about alternative forms of education.  The idea of personalized education and a community that celebrates individuality kept Owie dela Cruz up at night.  She had been a homeschooling mom of two kids since 2011 and because her eldest was about to turn 13, she envisioned starting a center that embodied her beliefs about learning.  She contacted friends about it but had to give up the idea around February 2018 when she needed to take care of her Mom. 

It was February 2018 when Joei reached out to Ken specifically to help set up something like North Star in Manila.  Eventually, Owie and Joei’s paths would intersect when Owie saw a Facebook post looking for a full-time mentor for a self-directed learning center for teens.  It was the exact thing that destiny concocted since both needed the other to complete the puzzle, including their rhyming names.

Ken Danford in Manila with Abot Tala Founder, Joei Villarama, and Abot Tala supporters Owie dela Cruz, Phil Smithson and Rachael Barton del Mundo

On April 2019, Abot Tala held its first program on the second floor of the Commune, a popular, hip coffee shop in Poblacion, Makati, setting the tone for a unique and open space for learning. Students ages 12 to 18 requested specific topics to learn about and the mentors selected for these came from various fields and industries. These mentors shared their expertise as actual practitioners and were free to conduct classes without the rigid constraints of the typical classroom.  The cornerstone of Abot Tala is the one-on-one mentorship each young person gets weekly.  

There is no set curriculum and every two to three months the classes change depending on what students are interested in. So far there have been classes on improvisation, Filipino sign language, self-esteem, grit, financial literacy, lightsaber training, first-aid, geek culture, and even traditional subjects such as math, science and history taught in unconventional ways.  

In June 2019, Abot Tala moved to their own space Taguig. It wasn’t just a physical space for classes — it was where the community flourished. After their classes, teens would relax, talk to fellow students and mentors, play board games, jam and just hang out. Teens were encouraged to pursue their interests, share their thoughts and questions with the community, collaborate on creative output, and initiate projects on their own.  It was the home of Abot Tala teens and mentors until the lockdown happened and the program had to completely pivot online.

Joei and Owie

Sadly, we had to give up our cozy space. But we look forward to meeting face-to-face again when it is safe for our community to do so,” Owie said.   From the start, Owie made it clear that Abot Tala is not a school. Students are not formally graded or evaluated, and the center is not DepEd accredited.  It has, however, partnered with a DepEd accredited homeschool provider, Gopala Learning Haven. Abot Tala serves teens who have been searching for an alternative and feel that trad school is not working for them. There are also teens who are homeschooling or unschooling and want to join a community of like-minded learners.

“People are questioning how education could evolve in the 21st century, given the current changes and pace of society. We may need something radically different from the educational models we have gotten used to.” Joei mused. “The vision for Abot Tala is to see teens empowered to make their dreams come true. Simply put, Abot Tala is what school could be if we could redesign and redefine it.”

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