by Ted Wachtel
Not every young person who has attended North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens has “waltzed off into the sunset.” But as Kenneth Danford explains in his book, Learning is Natural, School is Optional, and as this excerpt shows, they do amazingly well; especially considering that—unlike most charter and private schools—North Star will take anyone who wants to come, even if they don’t have enough money.
by Kenneth Danford
North Star coaches teens to leave school and embark on a self-directed path. It turns out that for 82% of our members, the first activity after North Star is: school. This includes young teens that return to high school and older teens that go on to community college, four-year college, or formal certificate or training programs. In the long-term, at least 69% of North Star alumni enroll in a college or formal training program.
How about that? For all of our philosophy and hard work teaching youth that school is optional, what do the vast majority of our members do, immediately upon leaving North Star? They go to school…North Star members return to our mainstream culture’s pursuit of education.
I hope this number allays the fears of those who imagine North Star to be some sort of anarchist cult, deterring children from ever participating in common civic culture in the future. North Star is clearly one place, one approach that some families use in figuring out how to support their children in growing up as happy and capable young people. When things go well, they stay for several years. When they do not, they return to school. In either case, the goal for most North Star members is to attend college or formal training of some kind.
For the eighteen percent of members whose first post-North Star activity is not school, we know that most enter the workforce. Some of these workers are self-employed. Some are craftspeople or artists. Many of them eventually enroll in college after some time working.
Indeed, a small handful of North Star alumni have not ever returned to school and have not found sustained employment. Even in these cases, many teens report that their years at North Star were the best years of their adolescence.
Intake Data for 267 Alumni Who Moved On to Young Adult Activities
Activity Prior to North Star:
Enrolled in school: 76%
Independently Homeschooling: 24%
Managing Well: 58%
Refusing or Resisting School: 22%
Mental Health Issues: 16%
Major Learning Differences or Health Issues: 4%
I find this a wonderful numerical summary of my career. More than three-quarters of this group left school with North Star’s support. A solid majority of these teens were Managing Well, meaning that without North Star, they most likely would have continued through high school and graduated in the regular way.
From midwives to morticians, farmers to chefs, first responders to doctors, early childhood teachers to superintendents, carpenters to realtors, ordinary workers to entrepreneurs, North Star alumni can tend to all of our needs. They are professional musicians, artists, and athletes—including a bike racer and a circus performer. Many speak other languages, and have traveled the world.
As I step back and look at the outcomes, especially at older alumni over age 30, I have to wonder: How much did North Star matter? Would these people have become who they are anyway, with more of their interests and identities developing after high school?
For most adults, high school is a distant memory, mostly socially oriented, and we credit our adult outcomes to other young-adult experiences. 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.
I have two responses to my own question, one modest and one fierce.
The modest response is this: At a minimum, North Star helped teens live more happy, interesting, and meaningful lives during their teen years. Even if North Star wasn’t pivotal in their life trajectories, our members opted out of traditional school for a reason. North Star supported them to try something unique, contrary to popular culture, and sent them on their way at least as well off as if they had stayed in school. We haven’t made anyone’s life worse, and that’s different from how I felt when I was teaching middle school.
This “Do No Harm” argument is something deeply satisfying to me, but others associated with North Star find it appallingly modest. There is a much stronger response to my question.
North Star has welcomed every interested family that has wanted to join our program. We have no admissions policy, no waiting list, no lotteries. We are not selecting members to improve our odds of positive outcomes. We are not excluding people who appear to be difficult cases. We embrace families, regardless of their ability to pay or contribute to North Star.
After the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I felt compelled to hang a poster of the Statue of Liberty in our front entry way, with the famous stanza of Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse from your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
In some sense, North Star has provided a refuge for students who have felt trapped in an institution, with years to go before graduation.
We have welcomed teens 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. Our relationships often begin with their wary fear or resistance.
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. Our alumni outcomes reflect our serious commitment to welcoming teens where they are in their lives when they arrive, and discovering what support they wish to receive from us.
Learning is Natural, School is Optional, from which this post is excerpted, is now available at Amazon.com. You may also order an autographed copy direct from author Kenneth Danford at his website. These direct purchases mean that Ken gets to keep far more of the proceeds from his sales. This money ultimately helps fund further development of the unschooling movement through North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens.