A mother and her teenage daughter are sitting in a small classroom in Dedham. The room is a hodgepodge of donated supplies and furniture.  

“She wants to learn, but a regular school environment just isn’t conducive to learning … for her,” she says about her daughter.  

A therapist recommended they come here.

The mother agrees to allow her daughter to skip public school the rest of the week to check out classes at the Bay State Learning Center, an unorthodox school started three years ago by former public school teacher, George Popham. The center – which holds classes, but gives no grades or diplomas – is part of a growing movement against what parents see as the increasing size, inflexibility and testing in public schools.

Popham started the school after more than a decade teaching in public and charter schools. He grew tired of what he came to see as an overwhelming focus on law and order.

“You're not a teacher, you're a cop first,” he says. “You're a jailer. You've got them captive.”

The stress from school is causing some kids real harm, according to Popham. “I think that’s the reason they’re showing severe symptoms of various kinds of mental illnesses, anxiety and depression.”

He set up his center as an antidote to school. Kids here have the freedom to study what they want, freedom to get up and move around if they feel fidgety and the freedom to go to the bathroom without asking permission.

The program works, according to Popham. Thirty percent of his students have a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

“Almost all of them experience an exceptional reduction in their symptoms within a couple of weeks,” Popham says. “Just take them out of the toxic environment. They get better. Kids come off their medications when they’re here.”

The students who come here are technically home-schooled, but come to the center to take any classes they want – from math to creative writing to Photoshop to life skills. They get adult guidance and hang out with other home-schoolers. There aren’t many tests or much homework. Students get help from adults to set goals or study for the SAT.

Tuition for four days a week is $10,000, although Popham says some students have received financial aid. The center expects 35 students age ten to 18 in the fall, up from 22 students last fall.

Letting kids direct their own education is part of a movement growing from frustration with increased testing and inflexibility in schools. The same frustration has led to growth in homeschooling.

“A lot of parents have been unhappy with what they perceive as the over testing of their students,” says Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He says schools like the Bay State Learning Center are a reaction to increased bureaucracy in schools.

“Bells and whistles. Age-graded classes. Kids inside all day. Teachers marching students through content. A lot of people — that’s not what their vision of childhood in particular should be,” Mehta says.

Mehta says this movement is still relatively small, since most parents worry how their kids will go to college without a traditional school foundation.

Production assistant  Tristan Cimini contributed to this report.

WGBH’s coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the  Nellie Mae Education Foundation.