It’s a Tuesday in May in Sunderland, Mass. Young people sit conversing on couches and around tables in a brightly painted common room. One holds an organic chemistry review book in her lap. Others might go upstairs later, to attend a voice lesson, movie-making class or tutoring session. But only if they want to—there are no grades, tests or attendance requirements. This is North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, a nonprofit co-founded by Ken Danford ’88, and the entire point is that it isn’t school.
Danford taught public school in Maryland and then in Amherst early in his career but grew disillusioned. “Even in this relatively organized, well-funded, calm, professional community,” he says, “kids didn’t like school.” Many struggled with depression and anxiety, or chafed against rules. Even those who earned good grades, he concluded, did so without much passion.
Danford was in a UMass doctoral program to become a school administrator but dropped out to launch North Star (originally called Pathfinder) with Joshua Hornick in 1996, as a resource for teens who want to pursue their own interests without school.
Nowadays, between 60 and 70 teens are enrolled at any given time. Families pay a membership fee (but Danford says they turn no one away for inability to pay). North Star has a small staff of paid teachers, including John Sprague ’78, and numerous interns. In addition to optional classes and one-on-one tutoring, the center offers parent conferences, special trips, help in designing personalized academic projects, job-search support and a place to socialize.
“And, believe it or not, this works,” Danford says. “[These kids] are succeeding in brilliant ways, just the same as the kids who go to the most elite private and public schools.”
Most eventually pass high school equivalency tests and enroll in two- or four-year colleges (two North Star alumnae have graduated from Amherst). Some go directly into the workforce, start businesses or travel the world. Many, after a year or two at North Star, choose to return to high school—and that’s OK.
“We’re not saying that nobody should go to school,” Danford says. “We say that everybody should be able to try life without school.”
He knows this is a subversive idea, and a complicated one to implement in a financially stable and accessible way on a large scale. But he wants it to catch on. He’s founded Liberated Learners, an umbrella organization for programs across the United States and Canada based on North Star’s model.
Powerful testimonials come from the kids in the common room. They recall their previous schools as sites of bullying or boredom, contrasted with the friendships and freedom they find here. Tristan, a longtime homeschooler, calls Danford his “North Star dad” and keeps apologizing for gushing about the program. “At North Star, everybody’s a lot nicer,” says a girl named Levi—whether students or staff, she can tell they’re there because they want to be.
About the author: Katherine Duke ’05 is the magazine’s assistant editor.