Dida Academy’s mission is to support students aged 11-18 in their self-directed learning journeys toward fulfilling futures. Our program is always evolving to provide the ideal environment for each student to pursue their innate curiosity, learn through experience, and build meaningful relationships.
Dida Academy is an expression of trust in youth and love for humanity.
Dida Academy was founded by two people with a shared passion for youth liberation and auto-DIDA-ctism (education directed by the learner). As a school teacher of seven years, William Schmidt experienced firsthand how the conventional school model severely restricts young people’s freedom to pursue their curiosity, thus styming their love of learning. Knowing there must be a better way, he set out to search for alternative education models. In January 2016, Dr. Peter Gray gave a lecture about Self-Directed Education, where William sat behind Danielle Levine, who was vigorously taking notes about Gray’s “Free to Learn” philosophy.
Inspired by Self-Directed Education and its potential to unleash liberated learning, Danielle and William began to share their ideas and brainstorm solutions.
In July 2016, the duo launched a self-directed, project-based summer fellowship program with 6 Brooklyn teens. Dida Academy became a full-fledged learning center in the fall of 2017. We’ve been growing ever since, and are grateful to be supporting young people in their self-directed learning journeys.
Our Core Values
Trust and Respect - We trust our students to make their own decisions about what to learn, how to learn, and how to allocate their time at Dida. Facilitators foster a learning environment with respect at its core, with all members of our diverse community treated as equals.
Empathy and Relationships - Through daily community meetings, mentor conversations, and collaborative activities, our students develop a deep sense of empathy while building authentic relationships. When conflicts arise, we problem-solve collectively to develop and revise community norms.
Challenge and Achievement - Our community inspires and supports students to learn from mistakes, overcome obstacles, and realize their ideas. Students develop a unique skill set based on their interests to prepare for a fulfilling future.
Lifelong Learning - Free to pursue their innate curiosities, students strengthen their skills as autodidacts (self-taught individuals). Facilitators and guests with eclectic backgrounds expose students to new areas for exploration and model what it means to be a lifelong autodidact.
Fun and Play - Every day is an opportunity to play, laugh, and tinker with new ideas. We foster an environment where students feel comfortable to express themselves authentically and build self-confidence.
Co-Founder and Executive Director
I have been working with young people for over 12 years in many roles including: learning facilitator, tutor, suspension hearing advocate, camp counselor, mental health group therapy counselor, and dance instructor. I also have experience in nonprofit management, educational programming, advocacy, and startups. My work has centered on promoting the right to self-determination for vulnerable and marginalized populations, with a focus on children, teenagers, and persons with mental illness and physical disability. I currently serve on the board of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. I hold a Juris Doctor from Brooklyn Law School and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University of Rochester.
I bring a firsthand understanding of personalized education to Dida Academy from my experience with self-chosen structured classes and years of self-directed learning. My work has focused on the development of self-agency for underprivileged young artists and children on the autism spectrum through teaching artist positions and tutorial videos on my popular YouTube channel (15,000 subscribers). I have 5 years of acting training at Manhattan Edge Studio with Diaan Ainslee, and 10 years of martial arts training from Yushinkan. I lived in Naples, Italy as a child, where I became fluent in Italian language and culture. I moved to New York City at age 10 and attended middle and high school in Brooklyn, where I gained firsthand experience of the bureaucratic, impersonal system of public schooling. With discipline cultivated through martial arts and meditation practices, I am excited to share my insights of persistence and pushing through self-perceived limitations.
Founder and Learning Director
William provides a background in education instruction after teaching in middle and high school classrooms for over a decade. He ultimately strives to be the best teacher-he-never-had to the Dida Academy students. Additionally, William draws upon his theater and improv backgrounds to strengthen students’ social-emotional toolset along with staying up to date on personalized learning through the latest research and project management tools.
I believe that education is at the root of overcoming global challenges, and that students reach their full potential when they have the agency to shape their own learning journeys. Driven by this principle, I work on projects in self-directed education, social innovation, and interactive music. Outside of my work with Dida, I organize creative learning experiences in nature as a co-founder of Fresh Air Collective. I also work at Skillshare.com to help grow the creative learning ecosystem through digital channels. My past experience includes strategy consulting at Deloitte, corporate education at General Assembly Education (ga.co), and a bachelors degree in economics from Cornell University.
My specialty is helping students become innovators of tomorrow through principles of entrepreneurship and design thinking. My mentees and students created many of their own successful ventures and had a lot of fun doing it. I previously worked as a 9th grade math instructor and as a product manager in healthcare technology.