Kenneth Danford has been challenging the common wisdom that adolescents need to stay in school for their own well-being for nearly 25 years.
In his new book, “Learning is Natural; School is Optional,” he explains in black and white why he established North Star, a “self-directed learning” center for teens, as an alternative to more traditional middle and high schools. The Sunderland-based program enrolls about 60 teens each year for classes, one-on-one tutorials, and self-directed activities and volunteer experiences.
Danford, who left a teaching career at Amherst Regional Junior High School after students questioned why they needed to be in class, created North Star as “a center that promotes un-schooling for teenagers.”
He explains in his self-published book, “There is a wing of the homeschooling movement that believes teenagers will grow into thoughtful and mature adults with enough trust, opportunities and gentle guidance, without replicating the curriculum of school at home. The term for this approach is ‘un-schooling,’ and to me it means choosing what to learn based on one’s interests, rather than on what students the same age are learning in schools.”
The Amherst College graduate’s own education came after teaching for several years in Maryland and then hearing his eighth-grade history students in Amherst ask, “Are we done yet?” “Can we go outside?” Then he read “Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education.”
Danford lamented at first, “What’s wrong with these kids, that they come here just to disrupt or distract? Can’t they just be quiet and play along?” The threats of detentions, bad grades and withholding bathroom passes seemed suddenly ridiculous when he considered his own peak, creative experience helping organize the Student Group on Race Relations at Shaker Heights High School.
But after thinking the problem with conventional schools 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.”
Soon after reading the book fellow teacher Joshua Hornick had recommended, in 1995, the two men quit teaching “to start asking students what they wanted to accomplish, rather than assign them tasks. We were going to encourage them to practice self-evaluation of their progress, rather than rely on our narrow grade assessments of their tangible work … We would never again be in a position to give or withhold a bathroom pass, assign a detention or hassle students about their trivial wardrobe choices.”
North Star, which launched in Amherst and then Hadley as “Pathfinder” and is now ending its fourth year in its fourth location, in Sunderland, has helped 800 students. They come from a 40-minute radius to learn about what interests them.
North Star, Danford is quick to point out, isn’t a school.
Instead, the Montague resident calls the nonprofit, unaccredited learning center “a program, or a place or a club or a headquarters” where participants, ages 12 to 19, 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 help from the equivalent of five full-time staff and another roughly 25 work-study college students and volunteer parents and alumni, North Star members pay for one to four days a week, designing their own custom program.
Here, each self-directed student has a faculty adviser, but there are almost no requirements.
Teens can choose from classes such as a writing workshop, local history, “sex is a funny word” and animal behavior. They can design tutorials on anything imaginable — like the “nature walk” that one girl had with a grandmotherly volunteer.
Their families pay $8,000 a year for the full four-day-a-week membership, or proportionately for fewer days, but students are never turned away for financial reasons, says Danford.
“About three-quarters of the kids are in school until the day they get here,” he explains. “Slightly more than half of those are doing OK. They’re passing, but they hate school with a passion and want more freedom. Less than half are crashing and burning in school.”
The remaining 25 percent have been home-schooled and are either outgrowing that experience and want to be among other teens, or struggle trying to adjust to public school after they’ve been home-schooled.
Luisa Marion-Rouleau, a 17-year-old Amherst junior, began at North Star after attending Hadley’s Chinese Immersion Charter School and Pioneer Valley Performing Arts, then spending just two months of 10th grade at Amherst Regional High School.
Anxiety about homework and how hard it was to make friends at Amherst left her feeling she had to quit.
“I’d had enough of it,” recalls Marion-Rouleau, whose mother introduced the idea of North Star to her. “I was totally done with public school. A lot of people survive just because they have the social network. I didn’t have that.”
At North Star, which she plans to attend for a third year next fall, she’s involved in theater, has a one-to-one tutorial in Mandarin and another in Korean, and enjoys a cooking activity.
“I like how welcoming it is,” she says of North Star. “It gives you an opportunity to do things outside of just school. That’s helped a lot learning how to communicate with people.”
Danford said he respects teens who remain in school if they’re satisfied there, even while encouraging others to leave if they’re not.
The book, subtitled “The North Star Approach to offering teens a head start on life,” describes how difficult it is to quantify exactly how well North Star “alumni” have done afterward. It cites a 2017 report that of 276 students “who moved on to college, work or other opportunities in the adult world,” 94 went to Greenfield Community College, with nearly 70 going to one of the Five Colleges, dozens more going on to other universities and others going on to graduate school.
Maybe more importantly, a four-page list describes their entrepreneurial, professional and “unusual” careers — including a Buddhist monk, a musical composer, a glass blower and a yacht repair worker.
Miro Sprague, the accomplished jazz pianist who attended North Star for six years beginning in seventh grade, celebrated his last day of school a few months earlier by waiting until the bus was out of view, according to his father, John, in the book: “Then he threw his book bag in the air and hooted, howled and ran around the yard like a madman, jumping in the air, throwing himself to the ground, rolling around, screaming with delight. He was free at last.”
Miro discovered his love for jazz piano at North Star and began winning awards from Downbeat Magazine and going on to Manhattan School of Music and The Thelonius Monk Institute at UCLA.
John Sprague, now one of nine paid staff at North Star, says of Miro and his brother, Tibet — who attended North Star, graduated from Brown University and is now a computer programmer — “My children did not have to wait until age 18 to start their lives. I never knew that was possible.”
Even if it’s hard to quantify North Star’s impact, Danford writes, “Perhaps North Star was little more than ‘a strange version of high school’ for our alumni, who went on to live their lives much as they would have, had they completed school. … At a minimum, North Star helped teens live more happy, interesting and meaningful lives during their teen years … We haven’t made anyone’s life worse, and that’s different from how I felt when I was teaching middle school.
“In some sense,” he adds, “North Star has provided a refuge for students who have felt trapped in an institution, with years to go before graduation. We have welcomed students with severe anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, including self-harming and suicidal ideation. We have met teens who are angry at school, their parents and even at me, in our first meetings … Others arrive with dreams that not only fall outside of their school’s curricula, but also outside of their family’s vision. North Star has embraced the struggling, the resistant, the eccentric, as well as the healthy high-achiever who just wants a head start on life.”
Most of the North Star teens leave after a year or two, often heading on to courses at local community colleges.
Meanwhile, North Star’s approach has been adopted around Dedham, New Haven, Conn., Princeton, N.J., Leesburg, Va., Dover, N.H., Canton N.Y., and Grand Rapids, Mich., with another planned for Los Angeles.
Danford was invited last summer to the Philippines to help set up a similar program in Manila. He continues to serve as a board member of Liberated Learners, the affiliation of a dozen North Star-inspired programs.
Attitudes among parents have changed since North Star was created, he says, and it’s now easier to explain it as “a clubhouse to help you home school.
“It’s still a misunderstood movement, but more people have somehow been touched in their neighborhood or extended families with the idea that someone’s being homeschooled, so it’s a little less of an uphill climb right now. And that doesn’t have to mean getting the curriculum at home. It can mean doing alternative stuff.”
If that means turning the idea of schooling on its head, so be it.
As Danford tells teens who question the need to be in school, “Yes, there is another way, and I will help you use it. You can start right now.”