On paper, Ian Wittler was acing high school. It was his ninth grade year at Newton South High School and he made the honor roll. He was studying so much, he didn’t have time to make friends.
“I was getting good grades, but it was kind of at the expense of my mental health,” he said. “I was going crazy.”
One night, about half way through the school year, he was up at 2 a.m. writing a paper on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. He started crying.
"I'm just churning out, like, essays and, like, homework sheets, just, like, page after page,” he said. “I don't feel like I'm actually learning something.”
Ian and his parents found the Bay State Learning Center. It’s a small, private school started three years ago by a former public school teacher. They meet at the back of the Unitarian Church in Dedham.
On this day, Ian – now 15 – attends creative writing class. As he looks at the week’s schedule posted on the wall he contemplates his next move.
“I don’t know if I’ll go to fine art,” he said. “History, I might go to. Science, I’m definitely going to.” There’s no one making him do anything here, and that freedom has helped Ian relax.
What’s his favorite class?
“Dungeons and Dragons. We actually meet twice a week,” he said. “That’s a lot of fun." He added, "Psychology! I can’t believe I forgot about psychology. That’s a really good class.”
Ian also takes a math class, where he’s learning trigonometry. He studies Mandarin in Chinatown and learns to code using online videos.
This approach to schooling took a while for Ian’s mom – Linda Goetz — to get used to. Ian doesn’t get grades and won’t get a high school diploma, which worries her friends and family.
“Their reaction is, 'he'll never get into college,'” Goetz said. "'And, what's he going to do? Is he going to just live in the basement and make baskets? And how's he going to learn that things are hard?'”
"At first it was very difficult to deal with it,” she said, “because I was kind of defensive about it. But now, I just say, 'look, this works for my kid.'”
Of course, all parents wonder about college. How do you apply to college without grades or a diploma or if you never had to study math? George Popham – the founder of the Bay State Learning Center – said he loves this question.
“All you have to do for a college admissions person is show you have the skills to succeed,” Popham said. “If the student wants to go to a given college, you go and you contact them. I encourage the students to do this.”
Students usually meet admissions requirements by taking classes online or at a community college. They also put together a portfolio of work. The center’s staff will help students prepare for the SAT.
“So far, none of our kids here have failed to be accepted to any of the programs they’ve applied to,” Popham said.
Four students have finished their studies at the center and have been accepted to Mount Ida College in Newton, Clark University in Worcester, Hampshire College in Amherst, and UMass Boston.
For her part, Goetz is not worried about her son. She said he proved to her he can succeed when he went to public high school and made the honor roll. She believes he'll go to college, even if he’s not going to a traditional public school.
Tristan Cimini contributed to this reporting. This story was edited by Ken Cooper and Aaron Schachter. WGBH’s coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.