Don’t Call It School
More like a YMCA for home-schoolers, North Star runs on its students' independence.
As I talked with a kid named Abe Jenkins in the hallway at North Star, a center for teenage homeschoolers, in Hadley, Massachusetts, I couldn’t help but admire his energy. Speaking in bursts of words that broke against the wall behind me, he seemed far happier than most high school sophomores I’d known. Though he wasn’t in high school. Perhaps that was the point.
“I’d be miserable at Northampton High, which is where I’d be if I weren’t here,” he said. “But here I can do what I want to do—that’s the whole difference.”
He’d just finished a math class called “Prime Numbers” taught by the father of a North Star alumna. Chatting with Abe, I had two thoughts: “What a good, interesting kid.” And, “Man, he definitely would have been miserable at the high school I attended.”
Hadley is a small farming town on the Connecticut River in the Pioneer Valley, one of many such towns in the broad, fertile floodplain that meanders through western Massachusetts. Small mountains flank the valley on either side. In summer, farm stands overflow with sweet corn, squash, and tomatoes, while fields of tobacco and feed corn stretch away from the shoulders of many old roads.
When I first drove to North Star last June, I noted how close Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts were. A few other campuses were also nearby, including Smith College, five miles away across the river. I attended public schools, and as an educator, I’vetaught in widely diverse learning environments—from private school classrooms to an alternative school for troubled teenage boys. But North Star, from what I’d heard and read, is something unique in American education.
Known officially as North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, it’s not as structured as a so-called “free” school. Nor does it cater to every stripe of homeschooler, of which there are many. What it’s designed to do, I discovered during several visits, is serve a specific kind of kid—the kind eager to become an independent-minded adult.
As natural and forward-thinking as that sounded, I wondered, as I pulled into the parking lot of the office complex that houses North Star, whether such an alternative form of education could actually educate teenagers. I walked through a lobby and then an open door, and what I heard first, appropriately enough, were the voices of students—known as “members” at North Star. A large room was filled with 12- to 18-year-olds, clustered in groups on couches, in chairs, and in heaps on the floor. They were locked in discussion, playing cards, or leaning over guitars, the whole emitting a hum like a large hive, sounding very alive and a little dangerous—the way bees can.
Wading past two guys on the floor leafing through a computer catalog, I knocked on an open office door. Inside was two-thirds of North Star’s staff—its executive director, Ken Danford, and its writing teacher, Susannah Sheffer.
Danford rose from his chair, greeted me, and shook my hand.
Homeschooling is legal in every state, and there are at least 1.1 million homeschoolers nationwide—perhaps as many as 2 million. With so many kids homeschooled for reasons ranging from religion to physical disability, there are numerous support groups that offer guidance. Some provide information via mail and the Internet. Other, locally based parent organizations volunteer services and meeting spaces.
Not many homeschooling groups use brick-and-mortar locations, but two that might be said to resemble North Star in some ways are The Tennessee Valley Homeschool Center and the Homeschool Resource Center in Seattle. Another institution, Open Connections, in Pennsylvania, closely resembles North Star in terms of its rigorous ethic of self-determination and freedom.
Finally, some schools are gathering places not for homeschoolers, per se, but for students (and their families) looking for modes of education that are less compulsory and standardized than the mainstream. They’re commonly known as "free" schools, for the movement that began in the 1960s, and in addition to offering more creative curricula than "regular" schools, they adhere to policies determined by teachers and students. Three examples are the Albany Free School; the Sudbury Valley School; and the Summerhill School in England.
“You must be Dan,” he said.
“I am. Thanks for letting me come visit your school.”
He smiled slightly. He was a compact, well-built man, in khaki pants and a well-pressed button-down shirt rolled up at the sleeves. His eyes were bright behind wire-rimmed glasses.
“First thing is, we’re not a school,” he said.
We all sat down then, and I asked him to expound on the difference between a school and North Star.
“Well,” he began, “I often say we’re like a YMCA, in that we have various resources here for you to choose from, and whether you attend is up to you, and what you do here is up to you.”
“So how does North Star define itself in terms of homeschooling?” I asked.
“We’re in the homeschooling world. And I certainly want us to be a community that supports homeschoolers, but almost all the people come here from a regular school, and want to begin homeschooling, rather than being homeschoolers already.
“What I say to them is, ‘I’m going to help you become self-employed. I’m going to help you become a self-directed learner.’”
Danford, who’s 41, and his North Star cofounder, Joshua Hornick, 47, met as teachers in the Amherst, Massachusetts, public school system in the mid-1990s. Both were disillusioned with mainstream education. “When I was teaching in the middle school with Ken,” Hornick told me on the phone, “I saw all of these brilliant 13- and 14-year-olds who were in training for mediocrity. They were learning how to respond to a system, rather than learning how to make themselves brilliant. Students were constantly asking themselves, ‘What’s the least I can do?’ as opposed to, ‘What’s the thing that makes me most fully alive?’”
Hornick didn’t blame his fellow teachers. “I loved my colleagues in the Amherst schools,” he said. “I have the highest regard for them. But I had to go.”
So, in 1996, he and Danford left the Amherst school system and established what would become North Star. Ten years later, it’s still going strong, with Hornick serving as chairman of the board.
Within the first hour of my initial visit, a clear picture of North Star’s unique MO began to emerge. During my talk with Danford, a kid would occasionally poke his head in the door and ask how to network the computers, or where the big dictionary was. But for the most part, the center hummed along without direct guidance.
“The kids in the next room have extremely varied reasons for coming here,” Danford told me. “This is not an alternative for troubled or challenged kids. It’s a mix, and that’s one of its strengths. What they do have in common is a streak of nonconformity.”
It soon became evident that something was about to happen. Kids were milling around in the main room, and a ponytailed man was gesticulating, trying to gather a group together. He was, it turned out, Lou Conover, a software engineer and teacher of the “Prime Numbers” class. I waded into the crowd, introduced myself, and asked if I could attend. “Of course!” Conover said, and six students and I made our way to the rear classroom. We listened to his discourse on algebraic Abelian numbers, and then on an algorithmic encryption method called RSA, with references to the Enigma code used by the Germans in World War II.
Charts of number sequences soon filled the inkboard on the wall, as Conover led us through the lesson. A spirited discussion followed about how banks and credit card companies keep data secure using relatively simple math. Abe, the precocious kid I mentioned earlier, kept up a constant banter with Conover. Later, I asked Abe why he enjoyed the class so much.
“Because I get to be here by choice,” he said. “There’s no grades, no tests, none of that crap, and I can talk to that guy, Lou, like he’s a real person, ’cause he is, who’s talking to us about real stuff, that actually gets used out in the world.”
The most fundamental key to North Star, he added—the one that made him want to study there and only there—is “freedom.”
Being free costs money, however. North Star charges first-year students between $3,000 and $6,000, depending on what a family can afford, and $500 less for every subsequent year. But according to Danford, the cost doesn’t keep anyone from enrolling at the 40-student facility. “Money is not an issue,” he said. “If they want to come, we make that possible. The limiting factor is the parents—they need to be on board. Without their support, it doesn’t work.”
Why homeschool pioneer John Holt left the classroom
John Holt is considered by many to be the godfather of homeschooling in the United States, and the founders of North Star say he was a major influence as they considered how to structure their center.
Born in New York City in 1923, Holt attended private schools and college, although he refused to say where, believing that academic credentials, along with religion and politics, should remain private. During World War II, he was a naval officer on the submarine USS Barbero. He said it was the greatest learning community he was ever part of because the captain believed that the best way to teach young officers was to put them to work doing what they were supposed to learn.
Holt then worked for the World Federalists, an organization that advocates the creation of international democratic institutions. After six years, he took his first teaching job and taught in private school classrooms until the late 1960s. His first book, How Children Fail (published in 1964), recounted working in good schools with 5th graders he knew to be smart but who failed anyway. These experiences drove Holt to question every assumption about school that he’d grown up with—especially the idea that kids are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Eventually, he concluded that schools are more destructive than they are good and should be abandoned for other methods of providing children with opportunities to learn.
Holt went on to write an additional 10 books and to start the magazine Growing Without Schooling, which was published from 1977 until 2001. He died in 1985, at age 62, after helping create a movement that’s still gaining momentum. His influence can be seen in the works of contemporary educational writers such as John Taylor Gatto, Grace Llewellyn, and the late Ivan Illich.
Here are a few of his words, from the book Escape From Childhood:
Young people should have the right to control and direct their own learning, that is, to decide what they want to learn, and when, where, how, how much, how fast, and with what help they want to learn it. To be still more specific, I want them to have the right to decide if, when, how much, and by whom they want to be taught and the right to decide whether they want to learn in a school and if so which one and for how much of the time.
No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.
For more information on homeschooling pioneer John Holt and his work, visit: www.holtgws.com.
One of those parents—Susan Theberge, an associate professor of education at Keene State College in New Hampshire—is now on North Star’s advisory board. Her son, Stephan, attended North Star for two years, then went on to Columbia University. She described the process of moving him out of public school and into North Star as great, “once [we got] over the fear that [he wasn’t] going to be able to survive or go to college without a high school degree.” Like many of his classmates, Stephan also apprenticed with a local employer—a potter, in his case. “It really seemed,” Theberge recalled, “like [North Star] worked best for kids who were internally motivated.”
Ron Miller, a professor of education at Goddard College in Vermont, where he runs a distance-learning program for teenage homeshoolers, echoed her thoughts. What these kids share, he said, “is an unusual sense of self-purpose and self-direction.”
I began to see that what North Star does is not easily described. “Homeschooling,” “deschooling,” and “unschooling” are commonly used terms in the alternative-education world, but each lacks specificity. The first part of North Star’s name evokes the right image—a student navigating his or her own path by the glow of a friendly star—but it’s short on nuts-and-bolts explanation. It’s the latter, more ponderous part, “Self-Directed Learning for Teens,” that’s actually the best label for what Danford and company provide. There’s no attendance taken. Nor are there bells, grade levels, or evaluations. Students are absolutely in charge of their own educational fates. And North Star is perhaps the only center of its kind in the country operated not by parents, but as a nonprofit coordinated by independent adults.
“North Star is sui generis; it is one-of-a-kind,” said Patrick Farenga, an author and homeschooling expert who began his career assisting the homeschooling movement’s founder, John Holt. He, too, advises North Star, and listed four reasons for its singularity: The center’s outreach goes beyond homeschoolers; it doesn’t compete with mainstream schools; it does not employ certified teachers, by and large; and it embraces—mostly through internships and apprenticeships—the local community.
Miller sees North Star as being true to Holt’s eventual vision of an ideal learning environment. (See sidebar on page 27 for more background.) In the mid-1960s, he said, Holt was still trying to reform the conventional kinds of classes he was then teaching. Later that decade, he advocated for “free schools,” which, although democratic in their approach to student participation, are nonetheless structured environments. By the ’70s, influenced by Ivan Illich and other “deschoolers,” he favored dropping “the whole idea of schooling,” Miller said.
This same notion is perhaps part of what has stoked the explosion of homeschooling in recent years. “[T]here is an emerging awareness,” Miller explained, “that our institutions are not serving us well.”
The alternative North Star offers is essentially raw opportunity. Members come and go as they please during the center’s hours of operation—9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday except Wednesday, when it’s closed. They go for a walk, a smoke, or a cup of coffee whenever the notion strikes them. Among North Star’s few requirements is that you can’t smoke on the premises or bring in controlled substances. Beyond that, there’s no code of conduct, apart from the expectation that everyone respect one another.
The classes offered are eclectic, and often reflect teenage tastes. They include: Greek Mythology, Perspectives on History, Shakespeare, Prime Numbers, Martial Arts, Culture and Belief, Electronic Music, Dance, Historical Fiction, Gaming, Ninja Science, History of American Popular Music, Drawing, Makeup Technique, Music Improv, Star Trek, Social Issues, Theater, and Writing.
The courses are sometimes run by student teachers from nearby colleges, or by volunteers, including parents. But even those taught by staffers—Danford, Sheffer, and Catherine Gobron, the assistant director—feel more collegial than anything else. In fact, North Star educators might be more accurately described as facilitators: They help students, as they become clear about their curiosities and ambitions, guide their own self-discovery. When the time comes, they also help members find mentors, internships, jobs, and colleges.
All of this sounded good to me, but having been a longtime classroom teacher, I had some basic concerns. And I wasn’t alone.
Christopher Lubienski, an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has written about homeschooling in his research on the effects that various forms of education—from public to private—have on achievement. “Experience shows that there’s really no reason to think that [North Star] can’t ‘work,’” he wrote in an e-mail. “It is probably a wonderful experience for many kids. The question is whether or not it can be successful and sustained over time for different types of students. Quite often, these types of efforts are sustained primarily by the passions and energies of their founders. But when those people leave, the capacity to sustain those efforts also often declines.”
He also challenges the notion that North Star is the only kind of place that can help such kids deal with and enter the real world. “Many schools,” he wrote, “have demonstrated success working with many different types of kids.”
Even among the center’s committed coterie of teachers, not everyone is sure North Star’s amorphous approach to education is the absolute ideal. Following Craig Surette’s “Culture and Belief” class, in which he talked about early civilization, I asked the University of Massachusetts at Amherst studentwhat he thought of North Star’s relaxed approach to learning. He hemmed and hawed a bit, then allowed, “There is a line of thought which holds that placing a stick inside a tomato plant’s pot is not oppressive to a tomato plant.”
“You mean that some more structure would benefit these guys?” I asked.
“Well, certain things that aren’t necessarily enjoyable are good for you. A certain amount of structure is important. But don’t get me wrong—they’re doing a great job here.”
“So how would you adapt this place to your own ideal scenario?”
“My dream would be to set it up like an independent study, with the teacher as a model of educational facilitator.”
“So you don’t like teaching here?”
“Actually, teaching here is great, and in a sense I have more control here because our relationship is based on basic humanity. If they are being impolite, I can just tell them that, and it’s no longer a problem.”
Could such a thing be true? I put the question to Danford: “What do you do to solve conflicts among the students?”
“Anyone,” Danford said, “can call an ‘annoyance meeting’ at any time, which brings everyone together to address the issue as a community. But that doesn’t happen very often—it’s really not much of an issue.”
Another key to North Star, I found, was the subtlety of its process. When I asked how a new student responds to the setup, Danford’s answer was, at first, baffling to me.
“Homeschooling is new for most of the kids here,” he began. “Often a kid will come and just sit on the couch for a few months. But you can see them taking the scene in, trying to figure out how they fit. And then one day they take off.” Not as in leaving, Danford made clear, but as in what a throttled-up jet does when it finally releases its brakes and starts to hurtle down the runway.
“[U]nstructured time here is invaluable—is more important than our classes, in a way—because ultimately it’s more important that kids have time and space to figure out who they want to be,” Danford explained. “Once they have that, things come together for them, and they start to move. They see the older or more mature kids doing neat things with their lives, and they naturally want to do the same.
“Really, the primary function of the calendar of classes we do have is to reassure those—particularly the parents—who are uneasy about all the unstructured time we have. The classes are important, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that it’s the self-directed learning that we’re trying to get to: the internships and classes outside of North Star, the kid really taking charge of his education. The classes here at North Star are a bridge to that.”
One kid who seemed to me an exemplar of the North Star method was Dan Bouquillon, a neatly dressed, 19-year-old former student who’d returned to help out with teaching and mentoring. We talked at length one day in the office room as the hubbub of members’ conversation persisted outside, and I asked him what had first brought him to North Star.
“Well, I was an honors student at a Catholic high school, and then I did something I shouldn’t have, and probably rightly, they kicked me out, and I wound up at Holyoke High, where they put me in remedial classes.”
“How did that affect you?” I inquired.
“I was really depressed. For me, Holyoke High—it was pointless. I wasn’t getting an education. I skipped 30 days in three months, and nobody noticed! It was just a joke! I was on antidepressants. Then … I decided the pharmaceutical companies were making way too much money off me, so I stopped taking [the antidepressants].
“Then, when I made the decision to come to North Star, my depression really lifted. I felt like I had control over my own life. … My major problem with school was always the power struggle between the teacher and student.”
“So you weren’t necessarily cut out for regular school to begin with?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he responded. “I was always motivated to do well. Maybe I was a little rambunctious, but basically I was a good student.”
“So what changed when you came to North Star?”
He thought about this for a moment, and then listed several things, counting them off on his fingers as he went:
“Nobody told me what to do. I was finally given the responsibility—that I always wanted—to learn. I got to design my education.”He added that he eventually realized something: “that you don’t have to go to high school.” In fact, after finishing up at North Star, Dan had gone on to Holyoke Community College, from which he graduated with an associate’s degree on the day his erstwhile high school class graduated. He said he planned to take some time off before enrolling in a four-year institution, perhaps Cornell, which some family members had attended. It now seemed to be a realistic option for him.
Despite the fact that they leave North Star without a diploma or standardized-test scores, the path to highly regarded universities is well trod by the center’s alumni. Former members have attended the University of Chicago, Brown, Amherst, Sarah Lawrence, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to name a few. According to a survey of its alumni conducted by North Star in 2003, “49 percent [had]…attended or been accepted at college; 49 percent had been working full or part time.”
Beyond these metrics, however, perhaps the most persuasive measurement of North Star’s success came from another former student’s comment. In a way, it also answered the big question I’d originally brought with me: whether this utopia of independent minds thinking together actually worked. Vlad Blanton, a tall fellow with long blond hair, was visiting and talking with one-time classmate Dan Bouquillon about what their time at North Star had meant to them. When I asked Vlad how he would describe the center, he took a few moments, then answered: “It’s a place to begin remembering how to learn again.”
Vol. 18, Issue 03, Pages 24-31Published in Print: December 1, 2006, as Don’t Call It School