North Star Annual Brunch Speech 2011
by Ken Danford
My helpful staff has told me in strict terms that my job today is to explain a bit about North Star, and to be brief.
North Star is a simple idea, really. We are making an unconventional approach to learning available to ordinary families.
Most of us agree that in education, one model doesn’t suit everyone. I know North Star does not: my children both attend school. The vast majority of us are glad that there are many versions of public and private schools. However, when parents first call North Star, they are seeking more of an alternative than a private school or a charter school, and in fact many have already used these options. Though most can’t say it this way, they are seeking an alternative to school. When I tell them that there is such an option, and explain that it is called homeschooling, I am frequently met with dead silence. I press on, and as I explain our model, I can hear parents choke up. This is what they are looking for. They didn’t even know it existed, and now they have more hope from these few minutes than from anything they have heard in the last few years. It is this simple? It’s right here? We won’t turn them away? Can they come over right now?
I first learned about homeschooling when I was a teacher at Amherst Regional Jr. High School, from my friend and colleague Joshua Hornick. In fact, I was enrolled in a doctoral program on my way to becoming an administrator and reformer when Joshua gave me the Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn, and at first I resisted accepting it or reading it. (Homeschooling! another one of Joshua’s strange ideas!) When I read it, in a night, I understood immediately what Grace was describing: homeschooling is not limited to replicating school at home and having parents teach their children. It is a wide open model to identify and pursue one’s interests. Who knew? My first questions to Joshua were, “how can we make this option available to the regular people we teach in school? Would that be legal? Do you want to do it?”
The North Star model is a rather direct answer to these questions. We would need to explain the approach, host a center, offer some classes and tutoring, and build a community if we expected mainstream families to be interested in using homeschooling as a way to improve their lives. The community would have to be safe, welcoming, and interesting. The punch line, of course, is that to provide an alternative to school for ourselves and for students interested in this choice, the thing we would create would have to “not be a school!” To meet our standards, it would also have to be widely affordable and turn no one away for lack of funds or prior issues related to schooling.
Fifteen years later, we know this model works, and I’m still having the time of my life. Who else gets to say to a teen, “I’m sorry to hear that you are not enjoying school. I have an option for you, if it appeals to you and your family. Stop going to school. Seriously. Embrace the freedom, the responsibility, the lifestyle of life without school. We can start with your strengths and what you love to do, and we can acknowledge your weaknesses and things you want to improve. Let’s develop a weekly routine that you do enjoy, and see what happens. We can start right now, if you like.”
After fifteen years, what do we have to show our success? We have our program. You are invited to walk in our building anytime. You will see teens engaged with each other and with adults. You will see teens minding their own business. You will see happiness. Which is amazing because most people don’t come to us happy. Please, visit.
We have hundreds of alumni who have gone on to college. Their paths most often start with Greenfield Community College and Holyoke Community College, both superbly welcoming and exciting places for teens who can earn credit and even degrees at their own pace instead of attending high school. We have had members go on to Brown, Columbia, MIT, Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire, UMass, Carnegie-Mellon, Guilford, Whitman, RISD, Manhattan School of Music, and many, many more. Others have joined Americorps, the Peace Corps, or the military, and some have started businesses. North Star alumni and the lives they lead show that we have a highly functional model.
We have people from all over interested in our model. We have several of them with us today, including groups from Foxboro, Montreal, and Long Island. Last weekend, we made a presentation in Princeton, New Jersey, on behalf of Joel Hammon’s Princeton Learning Cooperative, a pilot project modeled after North Star that is actually up and running. Later this month, we will be visiting the teens in Great Barrington’s Independent Project, a surprising and inspiring ray of hope from inside the public school system that you may have read about in the New York Times. In July, with the hard work of trusty North Star intern Jonah Meyer, we’ll be hosting a day-long workshop about our model.
And we have this room! We have a devoted board, an extraordinary staff, awesome current members, and loyal alumni. We have friends. Today, we have three North Star stories for you. First, Ramon Elinevsky, who was in my “A” period class at Amherst Regional Jr. High School in 1995-96. We liked each other well enough, but truly, he is one of the reasons I left. Ramon’s acceptance of a mediocre life for his teen years, and my role in that life, made me cringe. He can tell you the rest. Second, parent of a current member, Marie McCourt. Marie knows all of the alternative educational options in the Valley, as she works for Hampshire Educational Collaborative. She’ll tell you that she felt stuck in searching for the right place for her son Gregory, and that the changes we’ve seen in Gregory in the past 18 months are beyond what she might have imagined possible. Third, current member Hannah Laird will share her story. She is a powerful writer, and her story is both intensely personal and generally representative of what we have been doing here for fifteen years.
As staff, we struggle daily with how to describe our jobs to interested friends and family. We recently asked our teens how they try to describe North Star, a place that defies categorization. Jackson Williams told us that it shouldn’t be so hard to explain that North Star offers so much without compelling or guaranteeing any outcomes: “North Star is a chance…don’t they get that?” he shouted. He meant it all: a chance to learn what you love, a chance to discover what that may be, a chance to see what you will actually do, a chance, with unexpected suddenness, to live fully, right now.
I am grateful that you are here today to learn about our work, and to contribute to our commitment to make this option available to any interested teen.