North Star celebrates 20 years of self-directed learning for teens at new home in Sunderland

Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2015

SUNDERLAND — Grace Llewellyn’s “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education,” came along as Ken Danford was questioning his own role as an eighth-grade history teacher at Amherst Middle School.

After trying day after day to interest his students in what he was trying to teach and confronting questions like, “Are we done yet?” “Can we go outside?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” Danford realized, “They didn’t want to be there, even when they liked my class and were learning some of this. … It was a disaster.”

And after thinking it was about having smaller class sizes and a more open-ended curriculum, it dawned on him, “No, it’s about asking kids if they want to be there.”

And so, together with fellow teacher Joshua Hornick, who loaned him a copy of Llewellyn’s book, he created a resource for home-schooling parents and students, called North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, which recently moved to 45 Amherst Road from its former home at the Russell Street School.

Danford is quick to point out that North Star, which is now turning 20, is not a school. It isn’t even a learning center. Instead, the Montague resident calls the nonprofit facility “a program, or a place or a club or a headquarters” where students, ages 12 to 18, can take classes, create one-on-one tutorials, get inspired for their own self-directed life journeys through volunteering, reading and independent research, and simply hang out to read and meet peers who have opted out of the traditional school system.

With 65 enrollees this year from a 40-mile radius, North Star is like the YMCA, a library or a community center, where families pay to have their children come one to four days a week. They are free to drop in at will, some of them signing up for weekly classes that include “Applied Concepts in Science,” “Social Issues” and “Solutions for a Sustainable Future” as well as “Mindfulness,” and “The Beauty of Numbers” and “Ethics and Moral Thinking.”

There’s also a programming lab, a band class, a poetry class, a Shakespeare class and a jazz dance class.

Gaelan Schildbach, a 16-year-old Leverett member who teaches a class in classic movies — “Movies that are really well done, that you have to see,” such as “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane” — is a lifelong home-schooler who comes to the Sunderland center once a week “to get social” and take classes in acting and “creative role-playing.”

Schildbach, whose dyslexia has in the past been teased and who has a phobia about writing in front of people, likes that North Star is “very accepting of who you are. They don’t judge you by the way you act. It’s a very diverse group, just kind of welcoming. I feel like in a school setting, I’d get shuttled into the special kids class, which is not right because I’m very talented in other fields, math, psychology, and I’m very good with animals.”

Danford acknowledges that there are plenty of youngsters who like and do well in school, just as he did before graduating from Amherst College, and as his own children have done. But after confronting plenty of public school students who he said were miserable at being coerced to attend, he and Hornick — who now teaches math at Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, said, “Let’s tell all these kids they don’t have to be here and make this real for everybody who wants to try it. And for 20 years, I’ve been coaching kids: ‘If you don’t want to go to school, don’t go. I’ll give you the book, we have this center to make (dropping out) viable and inspiring for any kid who wants to do it. If you don’t want to do it, fine. Go to school.’ ”

Danford said between 15 and 20 percent of North Star’s students had been in schools before they arrived, and many return to school after a year or two, having decided that it’s easier to have their programs structured and transportation provided, along with the athletic programs and everything else public schools have to offer.

Although Danford says it would be impossible, after visiting the program, to know who’s who, he estimates that a little more than half of North Star’s participants come because they were feeling stuck or bored in school, even though they may have been managing well and may have even been on the honor roll. Or they may simply be home-schoolers who want to be part of a larger community.

The remainder of those at North Star are split between those with issues of depression, anxiety or severe stress, who have may be not eating or harming themselves in one way or another, or who are taking out their mental health issues by bullying, and those “resisters” who simply refuse to go to school anymore.

With seven faculty members, as well as 25 to 30 volunteers and about a dozen work-study volunteers from area colleges, North Star offers about 80 classes without credits or grades, and no diplomas.

Danford said, “We’re taking the whole premise of kids who do not enjoy school, but graduate and say, ‘I have this diploma,’ and I say, ... ‘What would you do if you were graduating today and have that diploma, what are you going to do?’ By going through that process when you’re 15 or 16, you end up lot more mature by the time you’re 18. And it turns out the world is wide open; no one cares whether you have a traditional high school diploma or not. There’s nothing you can do with a high school diploma that you can’t do without one. These lifelong learning home-schoolers, these self-directed kids are everywhere. They’re going to fancy colleges, competitive colleges, to UMass; they start businesses, they have jobs, they travel.”

In fact, he said, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and some programs do require a diploma or its equivalent, while other colleges, like Smith, do not. Each year, North Star raises $20,000 to $30,000 with a Celebration of Self-Directed Learning that honors a successful person who did not attend a traditional high school. This year’s celebration on Nov. 15 will honor dancer-choreographer-mime Joshua Gold, who helped found Multi-Arts, which offers children’s workshops in the arts.

North Star has seen its former participants go on to attend Amherst College, Brown University, Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Mount Holyoke College. And through a spin-off organization, Liberated Learners, it has inspired a network of nearly a dozen similar affiliate programs around the United States and Canada, with other alternative education programs looking at the model around the world.

Danford said no one is turned away from North Star because they cannot afford its fees or because they’re a “hard case.” Advisers at the program help young people deal with the social stigma that is still attached to quitting school, even though getting young people to explore their own interests and learning how to learn can be a much better preparation for today’s entrepreneurial economy than going to school and getting good grades.

As three or four teens gathered in North Star’s homey kitchen one recent morning to make kombucha — using a recipe for the cultured beverage and the culture starter one girl had found on a website — 14-year-old Emma Worth of Northfield told a visitor she is happier and busier learning there than she would be in a school.

“I don’t think that kind of thing would really work for my learning type,” said Worth, who had recently became too old for the Center School in Greenfield. “I like to be creative. I don’t like to be confined.”

Worth, who said she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has chosen to take classes in chemistry, physics, poetry, writing, band and marketing at North Star as well as a Greenfield Community College course in Middle Eastern Dance. She also cares for goats and chickens on a Montague farm, and she is planning to take a tutorial in graphic design.

“In public school, I hadn’t had much of a good experience and wasn’t getting the attention I needed. Here, I make my own decisions about what I need to do. It’s freedom in creating your own schedule that you’re interested in and will do good work on because you’re interested.”

“The best part is that you find something you really love to do,” said 11-year-old Everett Moore, of Sunderland, who like Worth is at North Star for his first year.

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