North Star self-directed learning center will move from Hadley to Sunderland after Russell Street School lease terminated

Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2015

SUNDERLAND — North Star, a self-directed learning center for teens, will move to Sunderland after it was forced to leave the Russell Street School in Hadley.

The learning center signed a five-year lease for the building at 45 Amherst Road and will begin setting up there in June, according to Ken Danford, executive director of North Star. He made the announcement Tuesday.

“We’re sorry to leave Hadley and at the same time we feel really good about landing in Sunderland and in this building in particular, so we’re ready for what comes next,” Danford said Wednesday.

On the advice of Hadley Fire Chief Michael Spanknebel and other town officials, the Select Board in December did not renew North Star’s lease for the Russell Street School, at 135 Russell St. The building needs repairs and it would be dangerous to continue to lease it, Spanknebel told board members.

Danford said he was on the phone with real estate agents the next day seeking an adequate facility to lease. The organization, which began in Amherst in 1996, has been searching for a building to buy for the past three years, but has not found anything, he said.

“In the long term, it would be wiser to buy than to rent, but we need to find the right space that would be affordable,” Danford said.

For the next five years, and possibly longer if the space works out well, Danford said, the learning center will remain at the Sunderland facility.

The Russell Street School, the school’s home for the last eight years, cost $30,000 to rent annually, with utility bills of about $15,000, Danford said in December. He declined to say how much rent and utilities would be for the building in Sunderland, but said rent would be more and the utility bills less.

The 4,800-square-foot building is comparable in size to the Russell Street School, Danford said. While the location is not quite as good as the Russell Street School, Danford said he doubts many people would have trouble getting to it.

“The main thing is we preserve being centrally located from all areas — that is really important to us,” Danford said. “Sunderland is like Hadley in that way.”

Other advantages of the new space are that it contains a kitchen and is handicapped-accessible on the first floor, neither of which was true about the Russell Street School. Danford also said the layout of rooms at the Sunderland building is superior to Russell Street.

There will be a large common room area and a large classroom area, but there will be several more small and medium-sized spaces, Danford said. Those will be well-suited to the 75 to 100 one-on-one tutorials North Star has weekly, he added.

North Star is an alternative to school for teens, running self-directed workshops, writing groups, theater programs, music groups, math classes, history and science workshops and yoga classes. Teens meet with personal advisers to set academic goals and track students’ progress toward those goals.

The center serves about 65 to 70 teens, whose families pay a fee for them to attend, Danford said. The nonprofit also does fundraising.

Being in the new space will allow the center to provide food and cooking tutorials in the kitchen, and allow it to continue its rock band, Danford said, adding that the building has no immediate neighbors.

“We are free to make as much racket as we want,” he said. “We’re going to go to town.”

The learning center will not be as active during the summer while it moves into the new building, but North Star will host Circus Smirkus on July 28 and 29 at the Sunderland building, Danford said.

Members of the learning center’s Facebook community responded well to the announcement of the move on Tuesday. “This is actually perfect for us and probably even easier than where it is now,” wrote Mary Beth Denn Weidler. “So super happy you all have found a new ‘home’ for our children,” wrote Kimberly Lucas.

Hadley Town Administrator David Nixon said Wednesday that he had budgeted $8,800 for the upkeep of the Russell Street School for the fiscal year beginning July 1 now that the town will be covering those costs. That will be paid out of a fund that had originally been created to upgrade the building. There is $92,000 in that account, Nixon said.

Danford said in December that the building had problems with its foundation along with issues related to electrical and plumbing systems and its windows.

Nixon said the best way forward for the building would be to upgrade it, but the Select Board and Finance Committee have not made a decision yet on how the building will be used. That decision will be made over the course of budget discussions by April 1, Nixon said.

In the meantime, he wished North Star well.

“I’m glad that North Star has found a place to be in the Valley,” Nixon said. “They provide a great service to the larger community.”

Danford said North Star has appreciated its time in Hadley, and will have to look to make new connections with its new neighbors.

“We’ll miss Primo’s Pizza,” he added.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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