North Star Annual Brunch Speech 2005
by Ken Danford
It’s quite a sight to have people from the full nine years of North Star assembled in one room. I hope you have all had a chance to meet and talk with at least one of our current members or alumni who are here today.
I’d like to say exactly what North Star is. North Star is a community center that supports teenagers to use homeschooling as a means to design and pursue their ideal lives. We guide people through writing a homeschooling curriculum plan which they submit to the local school system, and then they are not required to be in school. We help people imagine all of the possibilities this approach opens up for them. Further, North Star hosts a physical space where we offer classes, tutoring, and social opportunities. We also encourage our members to explore their interests in the wider community through internships, mentoring, and work opportunities. Perhaps most significantly, we provide ongoing consultations and check-ins with each member and his or her family. In short, North Star helps teens and families who are dissatisfied with traditional schooling step out of the system and create their own educational plans.
Joshua Hornick and I were teaching in the Amherst Jr. High School when we felt a need to change how we were teaching and working with teens. We wanted to be able to ask them what they wanted to learn and to do. We wanted to offer them our knowledge and help, but allow them to decline our invitations with dignity if our ideas did not mesh with theirs. We wanted to get to know the teens with whom we worked, and their families, in a more complete way than we did as schoolteachers. We wanted to be allies more than authorities or adversaries.
Inspired by Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook and other homeschooling literature, we understood that homeschooling was the means to our ends. We asked what it would take to make this approach more appealing and more viable for those who most needed it – our 8th grade students who felt trapped in school with a long road ahead of them. We knew that homeschooling does not have to mean “schooling at home” or parents teaching their children. We knew that we would need to reach out and educate people about this option, and that we would need to offer the basic services necessary to make homeschooling workable for people who think this choice is impossible for their families. So, we developed a community center with classes, tutoring, socializing, and connections to others in the community. North Star would be a place where people could come and go as they wish, explore the activities they found interesting, meet a range of people with similar attitudes about learning, and generally have the time and space to discover their own passions and visions for how to live their lives. And, we would have to do this in an affordable way. Leaving school to create an alternative only carried moral weight for Joshua and me if we could do it in such a way that any interested student of ours could leave with us.
From the first week, and the first year, we knew we were on the right track. We saw major transformations in the lives of those with whom we worked – changes that we could not have influenced working within the system as teachers. We saw, and continue to see, shy or socially awkward teenagers discover acceptance, respect, and friendship. We’ve seen teens who have wished for the time to play an instrument or write a novel or experiment with their art both relax and push themselves simultaneously. We’ve seen young people who thought they had to wait until 18 to start their lives begin to enjoy waking up every morning. We’ve had parents say that they feel their child, their family life, their sense of normalcy has been magically returned to them. North Star routinely hands out a sense of hope, renewal, and a fresh start to those who believe that such opportunities were long lost,
By the third year, we saw some of our members moving on to Brown, Columbia, and M.I.T. Others had opened their own computer businesses, travelled internationally, and joined Americorps. We saw that helping people reach age 16 or 17 with a sense of purpose and a sense of themselves opened doors to the world in a completely different way from traditional schooling. We’ve witnessed many of our members use the local community colleges and universities to make a gradual transition to college, generating self-awareness, maturity, and a transcript that allows them to move on well ahead of their age peers. We know that our culture welcomes thoughtful, interested, happy seventeen and eighteen year olds without regard to high school or middle school transcripts.
Now in our ninth year, we are achieving the organizational success we need to be a replicable model. Our Board of Directors is a strong, cohesive group with real vision and a commitment to do the work necessary. Our Advisory Board lends us their names, shares their insights, provides some outside enthusiasm.
Our staff, consisting of Catherine Gobron and I, supported by a number of long-term teachers, volunteers, and college work-study students, matches the size and needs of our program
Meanwhile, even with our moderate fee, keeping North Star functioning and accessible to all interested families in our community is a major challenge. We feel that because of North Star (and your support), any teenager in the Pioneer Valley can use our program to dramatically change his or her life. This year our members required, and North Star provided, over $10,000 in fee reductions and scholarships.
In an era when schooling is a major source of stress on families, when the college admissions process brings out our culture’s competitive worst, and when teens are treated as largely immature, selfish, and untrustworthy, North Star provides a remarkably simple and healthy alternative. I look forward to hearing Kathy, Chris, and Jen share their stories, and I urge you to follow up with the other North Star members and alumni here today. I am proud to be connected with all of you who understand the importance of our mission and wish to see it thrive. Thank you.