A journey through independent study

Luke Heslip, Staff Writer

In the classroom five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. One instructor per 30 students and a 35-minute lunch break. Public education is largely uniform for American students. This format may work for a large portion of Santa Rosa Junior College students, but this was not the case for Parker Dangers Oncken, 18, a first-year SRJC student.

In independent study, “No one is looking over your shoulder,” Oncken said.

He described a good independent study student as someone who has the ability to want to learn and self-motivate.

Oncken enrolled into an independent study program in third grade and continued the program until he graduated from high school as a junior.

He said that for him, there was no draw to traditional education.

“My parents didn’t want me to turn into a sheep,” Oncken said. “They wanted me to find myself for myself.”

Oncken attended Orchard View, an independent study charter school in Sebastopol.

He said when he was younger it was a lot like homeschooling. His parents were his main instructors and had a “huge involvement” in his education.

The exposure he did have in a classroom setting was in the Waldorf style, with an emphasis on artistic learning that abstained from heavy media use.

Oncken said his small group of peers went on many field trips and hikes and focused on art and nature. “We tried to stay down to earth,” he said.

When he reached seventh grade he started meeting with his Orchard View instructors with greater regularity and his parents’ involvement diminished.

Once a week he met with a resource teacher who gave him study materials.

During high school, Oncken spent three to four days a week at Orchard View, covering courses like chemistry and algebra. “A lot of the stuff is the same kind of stuff you would do at conventional schools,” he said.

He was fairly autonomous by high school and knew how to self-motivate, which he said is crucial to independent study success.

“You have to be able to do the work with nobody pushing you,” Oncken said. “For the most part, I came, I went, the teachers were the teachers, I liked them.”

He spoke to the struggles of independent study, particularly the social opportunities, which he said lagged behind public high schools.

“I didn’t get the high school experience for better or worse, whatever that entails,” Oncken said.

“For me it was alright because I am a social person,” he said. “If you are shy it would be rough.”

He also said procrastination hurts more in independent study because so much of the work is submitted in large increments.

Oncken said his transition into independent study was organic and he liked the flexibility it afforded him. Doing course work on his own time allowed him to enjoy spending weekdays outdoors while most students his age were in class. “I could spend my Fridays out by the coast hiking,” Oncken said.

Oncken credits his experience in independent study for preparing him to take classes at SRJC.

“I enjoy how college is structured. They know you’re making the decision to be there,” he said.

Independent study programs have been instituted in California since 1976, according to the California Department of Education, which also stated more than 100,000 students took 50 percent or more of their classes through independent outlets during the 2013-2014 school year.