Living and Learning Outside School

Artist Leah Cosman and her mom Nancy.

Artist Leah Cosman and her mom, Nancy Cosman.


In the YouTube video, a young Ottawa artist and her mother are celebrating a milestone. After all, how often does a teen get the honour of having an art exhibition at a well-known public art gallery?

Leah Cosman is certainly talented. And in June Of Reverie, her duo art exhibition with Maia Weintrager, was featured at the Fritzi Gallery on Wellington Street. “I am very proud [of her],” says mom Nancy Cosman in the four-minute clip. “Leah has worked so hard all year long—working on her collection of art, her collection of beautiful watercolours. What an opportunity this is for her.”

As Nancy talks, her daughter is smiling and poised. Momentarily, Leah will be presenting her art to an online audience, articulately describing the colourful works and the creative influences that inspired them. “It’s such an honour to be able to do this,” she notes. “It’s huge.”

It is huge, for a lot of reasons. This successful vernissage and month-long art show are a couple of high points on an educational path that will serve Leah for a lifetime. To earn these honours, she has had to write a proposal, pitch her art, work with the gallery owner, and learn the whole step-by-step process involved in the professional life of an artist. Perhaps the first step, for this teen, was when she opted out of the traditional school system.


If one of your kids has been fortunate enough to have Nancy Cosman as a teacher, you know what a lovely lady and engaging educator she is. As a parent, though, she found herself in the awkward position of recognizing the regular classroom just wasn’t cutting it for her daughter. Searching for other options, Nancy discovered Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning. Established in Ottawa since January of 2013, Compass helps teenagers live and learn without school, as its website,, attests.

The standard institutional rules don’t apply at Compass. Classes, tutorials and other activities are voluntary. The kids, aged 13 to 18, are called members, not students. And not only are they not required to follow a curriculum, they don’t have to worry about tests or grades. At the same time, they and their parents don’t need to worry about limiting their future options.

“We have a lot of really happy kids,” says Abby Karos, who co-founded and co-directs Compass with André Morson. Both are seasoned educators: Abby has a master’s in educational philosophy from McGill University, and teaching certifications from the University of Ottawa and the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools; André has a B.Sc. in medical biophysics from Western and a B.Ed. from Queen’s.

From left to right, André Morson, Leah Cosman, Maia Weintrager and Abby Karos at Fritzi Gallery for the Of Reverie art show.

From left to right, André Morson, Leah Cosman, Maia Weintrager and Abby Karos at Fritzi Gallery for the Of Reverie art show.


For Abby, Compass represents the realization of a long-held dream to expand the notion of what education can be. In her words, “Living and learning are synonymous; learning can happen anywhere, and with the Internet, the community and the world can be the classrooms.”

Abby’s also excited about providing ways forward for adolescents who want out of school. They might be bored, frustrated, depressed or fed up with the status quo for any number of reasons. She gets it; she can remember her own time in high school. “I knew it was a complete waste of taxpayers’ money for me to take Grade 12 physics.” Not only does Compass offer an alternative to the conventional system, it challenges the conventional thinking that teens have to earn good grades and meet graduation requirements in order to succeed in life. In fact, “You don’t need a high school diploma to get into university or college,” she points out. “At the end of the day, that piece of paper is not going to matter.”

It Really is OK to Leave School is one of the centre’s seven guiding principles. Legally, members take on the status of homeschoolers. Then, instead of taking compulsory subjects, cramming for tests and wondering about marks, they are able to pursue their passions and direct their own learning based on their individual aptitudes and needs. “We’re really tapping into their interests and their goals,” Abby notes. “Self directed learning is about putting teens in the driver’s seat of their own education.”

At Compass, it’s also about connecting them to a mother lode of community resources and mentors. The co-director talks about partnerships with Ottawa Riverkeeper, Ottawa Public Library and Branch Out Theatre, as well as options associated with coding, computer programming and costume creation. “There are so many incredible opportunities.”

Certainly, those opportunities are making a difference for members such as Leah Cosman. “Compass has been an amazing fit for Leah,” Abby remarks. Nancy Cosman seconds that opinion. “We’re so pleased.”



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