Article about North Star published in Education Revolution, the magazine of the Alternative Education Resource Organization
by Ken Danford

In an era when hybrid cars may be the solution to our energy concerns, North Star serves as a hybrid learning model that may be a solution to many of our concerns about traditional schooling. Now in our thirteenth year, North Star combines principles from both the homeschooling movement and the free school movement. Founded by two disillusioned public school teachers seeking to have the maximum impact for their students and the community, North Star makes homeschooling a viable and inspiring option for any interested teen in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. North Star has grown to a relatively stable program with 40-50 members and a budget of approximately $200,000, and, in February 2009, has hired a full-time Outreach Director to double those numbers.  

While interest in our model from people in the AERO network has been high, attempts to replicate the North Star model have been few and short-lived. At this year’s AERO conference, I will offer workshops about our model, including one for people interested in generating their own versions of North Star. Our ongoing question is whether North Star, like hybrid cars, offers a visionary model on the cusp of social acceptance, or simply an intriguing alternative with limited appeal, unlikely to spread beyond its original experiment.

Joshua Hornick and I met in the Amherst Regional Junior High School in 1994, where we taught together for two years. We discussed our dissatisfaction with the traditional schooling system daily. I felt discouraged that many of my students treated my history assignments as temporary chores to be thrown in the trash as soon as the unit was over, and I chafed at the school’s authoritarian culture. Joshua expressed his dismay that so many teens stated that they hated learning, particularly that they hated science. He felt that he was contributing to a negative spiral regarding curiosity and wonder about the world.  

Fortunately, prior to coming to Amherst, Joshua had earned Master’s degree writing about how homeschoolers learn science. He carried around a case filled with copies of Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook for those he thought might be ready to read it. Despite my ignorance and resistance to the topic of homeschooling, I finally accepted his gift of this book. I was overwhelmed: homeschooling doesn’t have to mean school at home with teens being taught by their parents! If homeschooling means learning what you want, where you want, with whom you want, for as long as you want (with parental involvement and agreement), then why wouldn’t everyone want to homeschool? Clearly, this lifestyle could transform the lives of our public school students who were simply going through the motions at school day after day, year after year, until age 18. I realized that homeschooling is a giant “Get out of school free” ticket for anyone with the gumption to attempt it. The only problem was that most of the teens we knew in school who needed this approach didn’t know about homeschooling, and, if they did, felt they didn’t have the confidence or family structure to embrace it.  

How could two teachers most effectively encourage students who feel constrained, trapped, or bored by conventional schooling to leave school and use homeschooling to improve their lives? What structure would be necessary for teens and families to make the leap into the unknown of life without school?  

Joshua and I imagined a simple model: an inexpensive, centrally located gathering space where we could meet with teens, coach them and their parents about homeschooling, and offer classes and tutoring. Further, we would be a clearinghouse for internships, volunteer work, and jobs. Finally, we would provide long-term support to our members as they moved beyond North Star to college and the work world.  

We chose to operate as a non-profit so that we could seek funding and contributions as we are committed to making this approach available to all interested teens regardless of their family’s financial situation. We consider our annual fee, $4,000, to be modest given our range of services, but we work with many families that struggle to pay, raise, or otherwise contribute that sum. This fee is one more way in which North Star is a hybrid in between homeschooling and alternative schools: it feels like a large amount of money to long-term homeschoolers, while it is far below the tuition of most private schools.

The model has changed very little in our thirteen years of operation. One significant change is that Joshua left the staff in 2002; he now serves as the President of North Star’s Board of Directors. Our Associate Director, Catherine Gobron, is a veteran homeschooling parent now in her sixth year with North Star. Catherine’s professionalism, initiative, and cheerfulness are largely responsible for the full calendar and warm atmosphere inside North Star.  

We see now that the core service we provide, above all, is individual attention. Whether it’s a private writing tutorial with a teen who has never seen herself as a writer, or the facilitation of a family meeting to resolve a conflict in priorities between a teen and his parents, North Star staff spend a good deal of time working one-on-one with each member. (A full description of how we work with teens and families would be an entirely different article.)

Inspired as we are by the idea of homeschooling, North Star is not a homeschooling co-op. It’s more of a community center, where teens have the opportunity to be away from their parents and siblings and make some independent choices. Parents are welcome to volunteer at North Star, but many rarely visit. Further, unlike at most co-ops, teens are welcome to be at North Star even when they are not participating in a scheduled activity or tutorial. Most homeschooling co-ops are supportive to new homeschoolers, but none have it as their mission to coach students attending school unhappily to become homeschoolers. (Please note that we have always welcomed existing homeschoolers and have had important roles in the lives of many such teens.)

Similarly, although we have found much that inspires us among the various free schools and democratic schools that make up AERO, from the start we knew we did not want or need to start a school. We did not want to have compulsory attendance, curriculum requirements, or the authority to evaluate and measure our members. We did not want to confer or deny credits or diplomas. We did not want the legal complications involved in being a school.

This mixed heritage of homeschooling and free schools has some drawbacks. First, it creates confusion. Many people see us in our building, with classes and books, and assume that we are a school. Others assume we are a program only for existing homeschoolers, and don’t understand our larger mission. Second, as a community center, there is never a moment that all of our members are present. The frequent coming and going of members creates an unpredictability that is both lively and challenging. Third, the average member stays at North Star only for about two years. We are sometimes too successful at coaching 16- and 17-year-olds to develop an independent life, and their need for North Star diminishes.  

Our vision is concisely summarized in our slogan, “Learning is natural. School is optional.” When we say, “school is optional,” we mean a few interesting things. First, we mean school is optional for learning; that one hardly needs to go to school to learn. Second, we mean that school is optional for success, that one does not need to go to school in order to go to college, start a business, or otherwise successfully enter our mainstream adult culture. Third, we do in fact mean that school is an option! Many of our teens have siblings who are still in school, and many of our members choose to return to school after a year or two of homeschooling. We embrace the idea that schools can be good places for those who affirmatively choose to be there! We do not categorically believe that all teens and families should homeschool, though we do wish that every teen would consider it at some point.

North Star has seen its members thrive in the long term. Our alumni attend or have graduated from schools including Brown, Columbia, M.I.T., Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Reed, Worcester Polytechnic, UMass, and many more. I frequently tell inquiring families that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that they can do with a traditional high school diploma that they will not be able to do if they choose homeschooling.

However, it’s not the long-term success of our members that has kept North Star going all these years. It’s the immediate shift in the psyche of a teen who has felt trapped in school, dead-ended, dreading the next several years of their lives, when we tell them that yesterday can be the last day of their schooling. The relief shifts their posture mid-meeting, and parents call me up to describe how their teens started chatting on the way home about ideas and topics that had been submerged for years. Parents say, “I feel like I have my child back, the way they were before they ever started school.” After thirteen years and hundreds of experiences, this moment still brings tears to my eyes.  

In 2007, North Star moved into its present home, a beautiful brick school building built in 1894, quadrupling our space. We continue to celebrate the freedom of homeschooling and the inherent power within each of us to learn effectively under our own direction. We have created an open model to support as many teens as possible to feel that they can use homeschooling as a means to improve their lives.  

Meanwhile, we continue to believe that what we have generated is a useful model for alternative education. We see that financing is the major impediment to replication, but we are doubtful that money is the only issue. I look forward to sharing our stories and our model with you in June, and I anticipate considering these questions together. Perhaps a handful of AERO readers are ready to seize what we have learned to further challenge the myths, structures, and limits of traditional education..