by Ted Wachtel
North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens program is neither an alternative school, nor a private progressive school, nor a homeschooling resource program. As Kenneth Danford recounts in this excerpt from his book, Learning is Natural, School is Optional, until recently North Star was unique. That is, until others wanted to emulate it and he created a way to do that — he calls it “Liberated Learners.”
by Kenneth Danford
We didn’t fit into any familiar slots.
As I noted earlier in this book, North Star was not a homeschooling co-op, because we weren’t targeting existing homeschoolers. Our goal was to help school-bound families opt out of school, using the homeschooling law as the legal mechanism to do so. We welcomed existing homeschoolers who wanted to join our program, but we could see that we were more expensive and offered more services than what most of these families would want. We also believed in allowing members to come to North Star to socialize or sit quietly without attending classes, a practice considered odd to many independent homeschooling families.
North Star was not a private school, either. We had some philosophy in common with some of the most “open” schools, but those schools expected students to attend five days per week through age 18, and to earn a high school diploma for this effort. North Star had no attendance requirement, nor any diploma to offer its members. We weren’t providing the same basic services as a private school, even when we held in common some principles about self-directed learning.
Joel Hammon, Paul Scutt, and Alison Snieckus, along with their team at the Princeton Learning Cooperative, were the first people to grasp our model and choose to emulate it. (They opened in 2010)…Joel his since given his own TEDx Talk, describing his transition from discouraged public school history teacher to the co-founder of Princeton Learning Cooperative, and now a mentor for others interested in starting their own centers.
In 2013, we held our first summer conference for people interested in starting their own program modeled after North Star. We had several attendees, and the effort led to two start-up groups: Compass in Ottawa, Quebec and Beacon in New Haven, Connecticut. We continued holding a summer conference, and in the subsequent years supported the creation of Deep Root Center in Canton, New York, and Bay State Learning Center in Dedham, Massachusetts.
Also in 2013, we decided it was time to establish a separate organization for this work, rather than have the consulting be part of North Star’s organization. We established Liberated Learners, Inc., a network of the centers based on the North Star model. North Star and Princeton Learning Cooperative and the others already established were equal founding members, and Liberated Learners became the organization to disseminate information, consult with others, and perhaps attract resources that might be shared among them.
Rather than franchising the North Star model, we are using Liberated Learners as something of an “open-source” platform among the member centers, to report our experiences and compare our experiments with how to offer our services. We are all dedicated to supporting teens and families to use self-directed learning as an alternative to school, but we are each free to do so according to our visions, personalities, and local communities.
I prefer this sort of mutual support, rather than some version of franchising North Star and then supervising each center’s implementation of the model. Currently, the non-negotiable elements of a Liberated Learners program are as follows (taken from the Liberated Learners website):
- Centers adopt a mission of helping children and teens leave school, using homeschooling law to improve their lives and learning, and of helping existing homeschoolers sustain or improve their use of this approach.
- All center activities and attendance are strictly optional.
- Centers are not accredited “schools” (nor should they use school, academy or other such synonyms in their names), and therefore do not offer grades, credits, or diplomas, or require testing of their members.
- Centers maintain a physical space, open on a regular schedule, where members, staff, and volunteers participate in various group and individual endeavors, such as classes, workshops, advising, tutorials, and meetings with families.
In November, 2016, we invited Grace Llewellyn, author of the inspirational and previously mentioned Teenage Liberation Handbook (which I have given out to nearly every inquiring family over the years), to speak at North Star’s twentieth-year celebration. Grace joined us and left so inspired by our community, that she decided she should start her own program in Eugene, Oregon. She planned The Hive during 2017. We have now inspired the person who inspired us to start North Star! That counts as a lifetime accomplishment for me.
As of Fall, 2018, it appears the next center joining Liberated Learners sometime in 2018-2019 will be Abot Tala in Manila, The Philippines. This group hosted me for a visit in July, 2018, which I summarized in a blog post on our Liberated Learners site. I am encouraged that this project is proceeding carefully and optimistically.
We also receive inquiries from around the world. Just in 2017-2018 alone, I spoke with people from Vietnam, Guatemala, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, South Africa, Australia, England, Italy, The Bahamas, Belgium, India, and Canada. These conversations show me that the frustration with schooling is with the system, not one local town or state’s way of implementing school. People feel trapped, delayed, and oppressed by the long and sometimes meaningless road of schooling all around the world, and there is a quest for alternatives and innovation everywhere.
In many of these countries (including Russia, to my surprise), homeschooling is a legal option for families, and the idea of establishing a center to spread this approach for teens feeling trapped in school is completely plausible. In some countries, homeschooling is not legal, and the options for teens who do not complete school are bleak.
In my remarks at North Star’s annual Celebration of Self-Directed Learning in November, 2017, I related how these conversations make me feel somewhat patriotic about the United States. I have learned that U.S. culture is particularly open to teens who do not thrive in school. We have many ways for young adults (or older adults) to attend college, enter professions, and improve their lives even if they did poorly in, or did not graduate from, high school. I find the flexibility and openness of our culture inspiring, and I’m delighted that the North Star model brings some of this openness to teenagers.
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.