World-Renowned Clonlara School Sees Surge in Interest Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Executive Director Chandra Montgomery Nicol discusses Clonlara’s history, current offerings, and inquiries increase.

As early innovators of the Homeschooling Movement and Online Learning, Michigan-based Clonara has a strong local, national, and international reputation as a model of progressive educational pedagogies and philosophies.

Now, many of their services are in more demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clonlara’s Current Offerings

According to Clonlara Executive Director Chandra Montgomery Nicol, Clonlara has three distinct programs. First and foremost is the Campus Program, the original school, founded in Ann Arbor in 1967. 

Second is the Off-Campus Program, in operation since 1979, which serves distance learners and homeschoolers. The Off-Campus Program is particularly important  “…so they (students) can pursue a personalized learning program at home — or without the trappings of a single, physical location, because many do their learning in creative and amazing places,” Nicol added.

And third, the online program, “which offers more traditionally-structured courses for full-time students, or as à la carte courses for the other programs,” Nicol explained. Some students who are not happy with their regular school’s reopening plan have been choosing Clonlara’s Online Program as an alternative.

“We are unique in these (offerings) because we have a 53-year history of success with them, because we have students enrolled from all over the world, seven offices to deliver our programs in Europe and South America—including services in six native languages,” Nicol described.

Some particular educational issues concerning homeschooling and online learning have become even more pressing to Clonlara due to how COVID is impacting education.

Chandra with her mother and Clonlara School Founder Pat Montgomery. Image courtesy of Clonlara File Photos
Chandra with her mother and Clonlara School Founder Pat Montgomery. Image courtesy of Clonlara File Photos

Demand In Homeschooling Increases

“Our phone is ringing off its proverbial hook these days with interest in homeschooling!” Nicol exclaimed. “We have been preparing for an increase in enrollments, so we are ready to help as many students as possible.”

Clonlara has a distinguished and pivotal history in the homeschool movement. Nicol’s mother, Pat Montgomery, in many respects, pioneered the entire Homeschool Movement.

“My mother, Pat Montgomery, Ph.D., was the first school director in the nation to welcome and approve of homeschooling,” Nicol explained. “Not correspondence courses, but parent- or even student self-designed curriculum.”

According to Nicol, families could decide for themselves what approach they would take to learning: “structured, unstructured, unschooling, co-op learning, anything,” stated Nicol. 

“They could use whatever resources they deemed useful, such as news magazines, biographies, and documentaries instead of textbooks,” she revealed. “They could study when it suited their schedules, in the early morning before a serious athletic pursuit, or in the evenings, when a working parent or other mentor was home from work and available to teach.”

Distinguished Homeschooling History

Nicol explained that at the time when Clonlara was founded, other educators considered their approach to be heretical, even an insult to their profession. The establishment wanted to primarily keep things as they were.

“But Clonlara worked with these families and students to ensure that their educations were balanced and complete, and, at the minimum, on par with their peers in traditional schools,” she detailed. “Not only did we serve these families for education, Clonlara advocated for them legally, too.”

In 1985, Clonlara filed its lawsuit against the State of Michigan Department of Education. With other families, it sought to stop school officials from violating the law by regulating homeschoolers, over whom they had no legal authority. This lawsuit was decided in Clonlara’s favor in the first court, then upon appeal, and finally, at the State Supreme Court in 1993. The final decision was extended, at Pat Montgomery’s request, to protect all homeschoolers in the state, not just students enrolled in Clonlara School.

Chandra Montgomery Nicol, Executive Director, Clonlara School. Image courtesy of Clonlara File Photos
Chandra Montgomery Nicol, Executive Director, Clonlara School. Image courtesy of Clonlara File Photos

School Building Moving to A Virtual Start

Like many public schools, Clonlara’s regular in-class learning, the Campus Program, will start virtually this year.

“Clonlara will not open its campus in September, due to COVID,” Nicol revealed. “It was a very difficult decision to remain closed. We will hold virtual school online, and our teachers have been designing some very creative projects and sessions. But this is not ideal for us. Our campus is, very intentionally, the place where we can live out our philosophy with our students and families. All of us want the in-person aspect of school, for learning, collaborating, and building community. It will make finances tight, too, as we have promised a reduction in tuition if we are not back in person after four weeks. However, we will not reduce our teachers’ salaries, and of course the mortgage isn’t going away.”

Nicol said COVID has brought about an increased interest in their regular Online Program as well.

More Online Program Learning

“Yes, we have had more interest there (with the Online Program), too,” Nicol disclosed. “Online classes are very well suited to many students’ learning style or needs, so we are very glad to make them available. Our foundation is built on personalized learning, so we see them as a fantastic tool for achieving this end. Our online program adds the requirement of a self-designed, Full Circle Learning project, too, so all of our students will get a taste of what it means to participate fully and eagerly in their own education. That is our hallmark.”

What makes all of the school offerings of Clonlara so unique according to Nicol is “an uncommon amount of trust.”

“At Clonlara, we trust the students, and the parents, as well,” described Nicol. “But above that, we trust the learning process. We do our utmost to protect the young child’s natural ability to learn. When we begin our work with older students, we provide guidance for them to return to an approach of curiosity and exploration, which can so easily be forgotten when trying to memorize too much, or when thinking of learning as a competition or race. Clonlara teachers and advisors know that pursuing relevant information, projects, and experiences will lead to authentic and lasting learning. We have honed and mastered our ability to deliver programs that offer such an approach, which we call Full Circle Learning.”

Clonlara’s “first” student (at center) is now the school’s leader. Image courtesy of Clonlara File Photos.
Clonlara’s “first” student (at center) is now the school’s leader. Image courtesy of Clonlara File Photos.

Personal Connection

Nicol has lived her entire life connected to Clonlara.

“I claim the status of Clonlara’s first student, in 1967,” Nicol stated. “My brother, Chai Montgomery, was there, too, but I’m the eldest, so I claim it. I attended Clonlara until 1975, when I left on a path that took me to public school: Burns Park for 6th grade and Tappan for 8th & 9th; public alternative school — MYA, Middle Years Alternative, for 7th; Catholic high school: Gabriel Richard; a small college, Michigan Tech for freshman year; and then a huge university, the U of M (University of Michigan).” 

Clonlara only had grade school when Nicol left, but later added high school.

“I worked in the office during high school and college, then took a full-time position as the account manager in 1988-1991,” Nicol recalled. “I moved away from Ann Arbor for 10 years, but was brought back to work at Clonlara through the new Internet. I monitored homeschooling bulletin boards from my home in Colorado.”

Upon moving back to Ann Arbor, Nicol involved her own family with Clonlara. “When I returned to A2 in 2001, I enrolled my own son, Felix, at Clonlara for his first year of school; he graduated in 2013,” she chronicled. “I struggled to keep my younger son, Simon, 3, from running into the classroom with him, and he enrolled at 4 years old, eventually transferring for his senior year to Pioneer, and he graduated high school at 16.”

Both of Nicol’s sons have now earned bachelor’s degrees, from Washington & Jefferson College and Quest University, respectively. 

“I acted as the volunteer fundraising chairperson for many years, until assuming the ED (Executive Director) role in 2005,” she added.

Future is Bright

Nicol is positive and ambitious about Clonlara’s future.

“I have a very clear idea of what Clonlara will be in the future, and I work hard every day to make it so,” Nicol declared. “We are seeking to establish ‘brick and mortar’ Clonlaras in other locations, and we are increasing our geographic footprint through establishing off-campus offices and affiliates in additional countries. We want to bring our flexible, authentic learning experience to as many students as possible.” 

Full Disclosure: In addition to being a part-time writer/journalist, Donna Iadipaolo works for Clonlara as an Online Teacher, and has for almost three years now. She has developed many open-ended, creative math projects for her online students, such as connecting mathematics with art, poetry, dance, and other disciplines. She graduated with Honors from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor’s degree as well as three teaching certificates and began formally teaching in 1993. Additionally, Iadipaolo earned a Master of Science degree in Mathematics Teaching and Learning from Drexel University, a Master of Arts degree from Eastern Michigan University, and an Education Specialist degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

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